Store Front II—A History Preserved: The Disappearing Face of New York is unfortunately living up to its name. The photo book was just released, and 20% of the mom and pop shops photographers James and Karla Murray shot for it in the last few years are already out of business.
“We didn’t want any of them to close. We’re extremely sad about it,” Karla Murray says.
As indicated by the number in the title, Store Front II isn’t the first time Karla and her husband James have published a book documenting New York City’s small businesses. Their first book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, came out in 2008, and two-thirds of the 325 businesses they profiled in that book are now gone, according to Karla.
The Murrays, who live in the East Village, have interviewed hundreds of small business proprietors in all five boroughs of New York City for both books, and they hear it’s a combination of factors that are leading to the demise of independently-owned coffee shops, bakeries, clothing stores and other establishments, but the main issue is the skyrocketing rent, only affordable to the chain stores that are moving into the city. “People like to say, ‘Well, maybe their style of business has gone out of date. Maybe they need to upgrade or update.’ But that’s usually not the case. If they pay rent of say, $10,000, and it goes up to $30,000, they’re finished. That’s it,” James says.
“That’s pretty much the trend. There’s other reasons, too,” Karla says. “When we interview them, they say there’s a lot of things that make it very difficult to run a business in the city as far as rules and regulations and even lack of parking. You’d be surprised, especially in the outer boroughs—it’s crucial that they have parking near or in front of their store.”
The loss of so many of the small businesses that make New York City unique is distressing. If you have lived here for at least a few years, you have likely bemoaned the loss of your local barber, bike store or shoe repair shop. The stretch of 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan once known as Music Row has been decimated (Rudy’s Music Stop, depicted in Store Front II, shut down this summer), and the charming small businesses that once lined Bleecker Street have been replaced by luxury goods chains.
There are New York City residents trying to do something about the loss of mom and pop shops. Jeremiah Moss, who writes the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (Jeremiah Moss is a pseudonym, by the way), has rallied residents to take action via #SaveNYC, a grassroots organization created to save small business, and photographer and writer Stacie Joy, a contributor to EV Grieve, routinely chronicles the small businesses that remain in the East Village.
Despite the many losses, the Murrays remain hopeful that operating a small business in New York City will remain a potentially viable venture, and they point out that there are small businesses featured in their book that are thriving. “The pork store owners are telling us that when they first started their businesses, the nose-to-tail idea of eating was just for poor people back in Italy. Now, that idea is very hip again,” James says, adding, “And when we interviewed record store owners, they were saying that teenagers are discovering the joy and better sound of vinyl.”
Citing a more specific example, James says Caputo’s Bake Shop, which opened in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens in 1904, is doing well by catering to the desires of a new generation of locals, who can’t get enough lard bread. “The fancy lard bread we sell today has salami as the main ingredient… We originally sold it only during the holidays, but it is now a popular item, and we bake it every day,” James Caputo, the fourth generation older, tells the Murrays in Store Front II.
More success stories from the book: Ray’s Candy Shop, opened in the East Village in 1974, is still selling egg creams, and friends and neighbors of proprietor Ray Alvarez have pitched in cash and even time behind the counter to help him keep his business going. Up in the Bronx, Liebman’s Delicatessen, founded in 1953 and one of the last remaining Jewish delis in the borough, is doing brisk business. The Cameo Pet Shop, a family-owned establishment in the Richmond Hill section of Queens since 1947 and famous as the home of a South American black pacu fish named Buttkiss who lived in the store for 44 years until he died in 2011, is up and running. Opened in 1999, the CD Skateshop in Staten Island’s Castleton Corners is the kind of neighborhood place where the local kids love shopping and hanging out with owner Carolyn Zuzworksky because she is an adult who actually gets skate culture.
“So it’s not always a sad story,” Karla says. “We like to think of the book as a celebration of these businesses.”