If you want to remember a New York City block, take a picture. In a town where the only constant is change, it’s possible to visit a street of long-running storefronts one day only to see them disappear the next, replaced by the ever-present creep of Blank Street Coffee or a dreaded “for lease” sign.
But despite the sometimes ephemeral nature of New York’s streetscapes, there are beloved mom-and-pop shops that hold on — often with the help of two of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, photographers Karla and James Murray. The dedicated archivists are also the authors of a newly published book entitled STORE FRONT NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present, the latest volume in the pair’s ongoing series that chronicles over 200 of the city’s most iconic businesses — including many right here in Hell’s Kitchen.
“Hell’s Kitchen has undergone a tremendous, tremendous change,” said Karla. “When we first began documenting Hell’s Kitchen in the 1990s, it was really not gentrified — there were fewer chain stores and a preponderance of mom-and-pop shops, bars and restaurants, many of them family owned,” she added. “But as the neighborhood gentrified and the price of living changed a lot — specifically, with the cost of rent — a lot of these small businesses sadly closed.”
One of Karla and James’s far-gone favorites is the late, great Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, a veritable staple in the once-vibrant Italian community of lower 9th Avenue. “It was like a visual feast from the outside,” said Karla of the shop’s signature tiled storefront. “First of all, you could see [from the signage] that they had been in business since 1893. When we saw that, we were like, ‘Oh my goodness.’” She recalled their first visit in 2004. “That’s when we took a picture and went inside and we met ‘the sisters’ — that’s all I call ’em, the sisters. They were so sweet, but to others, they could be brusque,” she laughed. “There was a reputation in the neighborhood that you’d better be on their good side if you wanted to get something from them!” Going to Manganaro’s was like “walking into your Italian grandma’s kitchen,” Karla added. “Inside was like a museum, with beautiful wooden shelves lined with Italian groceries. You could also get their homemade sausages and pasta — they had amazing food.”
Another lost gem documented is the Film Center Cafe (9th Avenue between W44/45th St), located across from the historic Film Center Building building and now home to Bocca di Bacco. “We photographed the entire block from end to end — at one point it was all of these mom-and-pop shops,” said Karla of the central Hell’s Kitchen thoroughfare that also hosts Rudy’s Bar & Grill, Poseidon Bakery, La Pulperia and Piccinini Bros Butchers. “We loved [the Film Center Cafe’s] old neon sign —it had this kind of art deco feel which put this stamp on its style, and we were very sad to see it close,” added James. The cafe took its final bow in 2011.
But among the many long-lost Hell’s Kitchen storefronts, there are plenty of still-standing survivors that Karla and James are more than happy to highlight. “One of the holdouts that we are so thankful is still in business today is Kaufman’s Army & Navy on W42nd Street (between 8/9th Ave),” said Karla. The colorful, hand-painted surplus clothing store has been owned by Jim Korn and his family for generations. “When we visited he told us about the whole history of the shop and how his family got started in the surplus business — it was amazing,” she added. “He said that the reason they’re still there today is because his relatives purchased that building many moons ago,” Owning the building was the key to many long-term independent businesses surviving the slings and arrows of the city’s volatile commercial real estate landscape, Karla explained.
Other Hell’s Kitchen businesses like the ever-popular Amy’s Bread prove that some concepts stand the test of time. “We really love Amy’s Bread,” said Karla. “We love the symmetry of the storefront, the fact that they show some of their items in the window, the gold leaf in the lettering and the little stalks of wheat in the signage — it’s just fabulous,” she added. “It shows that they care,” said James. “When you take the time to have this beautiful sign on your storefront, it just stamps, ‘Hey, we’re here and we plan to stay.’”
The pair know a thing or two about staying in town. Karla is a lifelong New Yorker born at Harlem’s Mount Sinai Hospital, who grew up in the Bronx. James, originally from — as he put it — the “industrial wasteland” of Bridgeport, Connecticut, had been “escaping to New York” since he was a teenager. When the two met on the Lower East Side in the 1980s, “We were friends for a long time before we dated or got married,” said Karla, “but we always shared a love of photography — we weren’t doing it professionally, but it was always a hobby of ours and we were always documenting the streets.”
Another shared hobby during their early days on the Lower East Side was window shopping. “We both came from working-class backgrounds and didn’t have a lot of money, so we would go window shopping — there are a lot of mom-and-pop stores on the Lower East Side,” said Karla. “We couldn’t always buy anything, but we’d take it in or save up to buy something — so we always appreciated these lovely store window displays.”
It was the combination of these two hobbies that would lead to their long-running documentation of the city’s storefronts. “James and I were documenting street art for an entirely different project,” said Karla. “We were going to outlying neighborhoods in the five boroughs searching for these large walls that they would paint. And because graffiti is a letter-based art form, it’s all about manipulating your tag, your name, and an interesting style of lettering,” she noted. “We always would be looking at these mom-and-pop stores, with their neon or hand-painted signs, and it was very interesting to us to see how the sign’s lettering was manipulated.”
“We would take a few photos just because we liked the signage — but really what got the project into full swing is when we began to notice that a lot of the stores were changing,” Karla told W42ST. “A store would close, and somehow the neighborhood didn’t look the same anymore. The closure of that one little store on the block seemed to take all the air out of the whole neighborhood,” she added. “It changed the appearance of the whole neighborhood, and we said, ‘Oh my goodness, we really should start documenting these lovely places because maybe they’re kind of like graffiti — here today, gone tomorrow.’”
Throughout their decades of documenting New York’s streetscape, they’ve met scores of business owners and seen hundreds of stores that fit that description. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Hell’s Kitchen — once strongholds for mom-and-pop shops — have become more and more commercial, Karla added. But despite the wave of high-rise development washing over the city, there are mom-and-pop shops that evolve their concepts — and storefronts — to changing times. One such example is Esposito’s Meat Market on 9th Avenue between W37/38th Street, the family-owned butcher shop that originally existed as Giovanni Esposito & Son’s Pork Shop.
“We loved that old signage,” said Karla, recalling the store’s original tiled walls and porcine mascot painted on the front. “We interviewed the store owners when they modernized their storefront and asked them, ‘Why would you change it?’ They told us that the outside was a little worn but that they paid homage to their roots with some of the same script lettering in the new sign.” The shop has also updated its offerings to include new cuts of meat for the neighborhood’s newer residents, said James. “A lot of the old Italians don’t live in that neighborhood anymore — they’ve always been a butcher shop, but now it’s more fancy. They’ve added fancy script lettering of ‘meat market’ to appeal to foodies who might be interested in getting a pricier cut of meat,” he added. “In a smart move, they’ve changed their ways to focus more on the high-end prime cuts to meet the changing needs of the neighborhood, and I think that’s why it was important for them to change the façade and call it a ‘meat market’ instead of a ‘pork shop’.”
They also understand that new businesses will always move into historic spaces — but hope that more and more new shops will pay homage to their architectural history with a bit of referential design. “We’re not trying to say New York should never change,” said Karla. “Of course we don’t mind when something goes in, but we would appreciate it when [a new business] would retain some of the history of the façade if at all possible. It’s sad when it gets stripped away because to us, again, that goes back to how the whole neighborhood looks and feels different.”
More hell’s Kitchen nostalgia
For now, the duo hope to keep highlighting all of the many unique mom-and-pop offerings still kicking in Storefront. “A lot of [mom-and-pop stores] act as ad-hoc community centers,” said Karla. “You want to find out the neighborhood dirt, get some gossip? Go get your hair cut — you could learn a lot from the neighborhood,” she laughed. In addition to their books, they’ve also expanded to updating an active Instagram account with new storefronts to raise awareness. “We were initially hesitant about starting an Instagram — we weren’t sure about putting up a photo that someone could use,” said Karla. “But we realized that by sharing photos we could showcase these businesses as works of art in their own right — and maybe help save some of them.”
The campaign has hit its mark. “Many owners have reached out to us — the power of social media is great,” said Karla. One of the owners who has benefitted from Karla and James’ spotlight is none other than Lili Fable, the longtime owner of legendary Poseidon Bakery. They’ve kept in touch with Lili and highlighted her store over the years, most recently stopping in to buy their special holiday bread in time for Orthodox Easter. “Even though she was super busy, she took the time to talk about the significance of the Easter bread and was so appreciative of us — and we are of her!” said Karla.
She and James have also included key identifying details in their books and social media posts, in the hopes that their followers will feel compelled to take their admiration for local shops off the page. “We feel like the key to the survival of these mom-and-pop stores is for people to actually go there and shop,” said Karla. “Shopping online is wonderful, but going inside and making a friend like we have with Lilian and her family is everything to saving a business. Even if you’re just one person, you can make a difference by going inside and being a customer. And that’s really the whole key of why we started this project in the first place.”
She added, “Yes, some of the stores in our book are sadly closed, but that’s also the call to action — that the book will act as an artistic intervention, and maybe a light bulb will go off in your head that says, ‘Wow, I remember that place. I miss it so much, but look at this place that I can support now’ — so that hopefully the same fate doesn’t happen to whatever store they’re visiting today.”
You can purchase STORE FRONT NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present at wherever books are sold. Karla and James will also be appearing for a book signing at Village Works Gallery (12 St Marks Place between 2nd/3rd Ave) on Saturday, October 7th from 5-7 PM.