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The only constant in New York City is change — and while there’s no guarantee that the shops and restaurants of today’s Big Apple will live to see tomorrow, New York illustrator Joel Holland is commemorating hundreds of our most-loved landmarks in his new book, NYC Storefronts.
Already a documenter of beloved Hell’s Kitchen businesses like Longo Bros, Holland Bar, Capizzi Pizza, Esposito Meat Market, Tavola, Stiles Farmers Market, Sea Breeze Fish Market and International Grocery (as well as W42ST’s illustrator for our annual Best of Awards this year!), Holland has turned his pandemic project archiving New York storefronts into a wide-ranging celebration of over 200 local favorites across the five boroughs.
For Holland, the labor of love spun out of a distinctly strange and stressful transition — moving into a new apartment on March 13, 2020. “Everything was crazy then,” he said of the near-apocalyptic feel of the city. Right. “It was that period where we were told to wash our Dorito bags from the grocery store and when going outside seemed so confusingly dangerous and weird.”
Holland began drawing recently-shuttered businesses that he’d hoped to try in his new neighborhood, explaining in the introduction of NYC Storefronts that “it was my method of grabbing tight to New York and squeezing. Hard.” He added: “It was for my kids initially, and at the same time it was for me too. I was trying to keep busy. It started purely as an in-house thing, but as I started to share the illustrations on my Instagram, it also became, ‘What can I do to bring attention to my favorite noodle shop?’” Acknowledging the “dire and weird” volatility of the early days of COVID, especially for businesses, “any kind of positivity I could share was one of my objectives.”
Some of Holland’s highlights made it through the initial years of COVID-19, while others did not — but he felt it important to memorialize each business, and the singular period in New York’s history regardless. “It commemorates a certain chunk of time,” said Holland. “Since we’ve gone to press, some places have closed and moved.” Some illustrations were a reaction to the unrest of 2020, where he released illustrations of Asian and Black-owned businesses as a show of support, or would his share own topical commentary, like an illustration of a West Village Post Office after the Trump- Louis DeJoy campaign finance scandal.
After compiling over 200 illustrations, the idea to curate a collection began brewing. “It’s a dream to have a book, and it’s always been in the back of my head,” said Holland. As an illustrator already working in the industry, contacts gave him tips on creating a book proposal, but he soon hit the hard wall of rejections familiar to many first-time authors. “I sent it to publishers around the country and to literary agents, and they were all rejected,” he said. Holland was considering self-publishing when he received an Instagram reach-out from Ali Gitlow of Prestel Publishing.
“She said, ‘Have you ever thought of making a book?’ And I said, ‘Boom, here’s a proposal in a pdf ready to go.” The proposal was greenlit, with Holland and the team at Prestel soon compiling collaborators to write about each business.
David Dodge, a freelance writer covering travel, health and LGBTQIA+ culture for outlets like Travel and Leisure, the New York Times and CNN was hired to write informative summaries on each storefront. “David had worked with Ali on a previous book, and I saw one sample where he was able to really concisely and wittily sum up everything you’d want to know about a place for a travel piece in the Times,” said Holland. “For me, reading his work has been refreshing because I didn’t know everything he found about each storefront. It’s been fun for me to learn.”
Looking for someone to write the book’s foreword, Holland took a chance and reached out to Nicolas Heller, aka New York Nico, “the unofficial talent scout of New York City” with a following of over a million fans.
“I, like everyone else, followed him on Instagram,” said Holland. “For a while there was some synchronicity where he would highlight a place and I would say, ‘Oh, I just drew that place,’” he added. “Eventually I reached out to him to ask if he’d be interested in being involved — I was nervous as hell and he was very smooth and easy about it. He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’”
Grateful to make the connection with another New York enthusiast, Holland describes working with Heller as “really easy”. “He didn’t owe me anything, but I think he gets the value of what we’re trying to do – help out these shops that he knows and cares about too. It was a win-win.”
For his next project, Holland has set his sights on another city — London — to document its hidden gems and longtime favorites. The upcoming collection of illustrations, called London Shopfronts, will be released next fall, and the team is also considering working on other city retrospectives.
As New York’s storefronts continue to evolve, Holland hasn’t ruled out a second volume documenting additional Big Apple businesses. “If we did another book for New York, it would be similar but different as well – the first book was in such a time of strife, and now, it would be from a different angle,” he added. “Maybe a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Illustrations courtesy of artist Joel Holland.