We moved to New York City for a training program right after college, and one of the things that both amazed and infatuated me was the discovery that this urban colossus, with the highest retail rents in the land, was chock-full of one-of-a-kind mom-and-pop shops, many of which were generations old. As much as anything, this is what made New York the New York that I loved.
When we were moving back to Chicago, we visited the then-nascent neighborhood of Printers Row. In the building we’ve lived in nearly ever since, we found a periodicals store that sold newspapers and magazines from around the world. Reminiscent of the only-in-New York shops we’d fallen for, it was one of the reasons we decided we could live in this still-mostly-boarded-up former industrial district, though the store would be out of business by the time we moved in.
Decades later, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how we might bring some of that big-city-only mom-and-pop magic retail to this otherwise magical neighborhood in which I’ve spent my life, which is why I was fascinated by the arrival of James and Karla Murray’s book of photos of these kinds of shops in New York. Though these are just straight-ahead images of storefronts throughout the boroughs, I found myself lost in a world reminiscent of Ben Katchor’s comic strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” with its obsession with made-up storefronts that seem like they almost might have been real, once upon a time.
I also found myself making lists of which places I’d been to, like Lenox Lounge, Live Bait and Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery, just three of the fifteen or so I can remember. Iconic now-closed places, like CBGB and Carnegie Delicatessen, are here, too, along with many grubby little spots that are likely unheard-of outside of their block.
It turns out that this husband-and-wife duo of professional architectural and interior photographers have now published three different books on the subject of the mom-and-pop. I corresponded with them via email about our mutual obsession.
How long have you been taking these storefront photos?
Our journey began while photographing the city’s streets during the mid-1990s. We combed the many distant neighborhoods of the city in all five boroughs searching out and documenting its street culture. Despite the short time frame between visits, however, we noticed that some blocks looked drastically different. Many neighborhood stores that we had noticed on our initial visit had closed, or we would come across “old” stores, still in business, but somehow different. They were refaced, remodeled or original signage had been substituted with new, bright and shiny plastic awnings. The whole look and feel of the neighborhood had changed and much of its individuality and charm had gone. By the early 2000s, we made it our mission to thoroughly document the small unique mom-and-pop shops of the city because we began to notice the alarming rate at which these storefronts were disappearing.
I was surprised to read in the introduction that this was your third book of storefront photos. I’m guessing that means there’s been real interest in this work?
We have heard from people all over the world who not only admire our storefront photography but who, also like us, see these humble neighborhood stores as lifelines to their communities and vital to the residents who depend on them for a multitude of needs. Shops are not only a place of business but often act as ad hoc community centers. Many of them always have a cast of characters inside, telling jokes, gossiping, and using the shop as a gathering place. Owners also care so much for the community they are located in, and will even sign for packages for neighbors and watch for any trouble on the street.
How do you select shops to photograph?
We were first attracted to the storefront’s original signage, including both hand-painted signs and neon signs, architectural adornment and handmade window displays. But even though the project was initially primarily driven by visual aesthetics, after speaking with only a handful of the store owners, the scope of the project became larger as we discovered that many of the shop owners had fascinating stories to share about the joys and struggles of surviving as a family business in New York City. We not only would take a photograph using our 35mm camera but we would also record our interview with the shop owner with a small microcassette recorder. We also made a conscious decision early on in our project to take the photograph of only the store’s facade and in most cases not include the store owner in our photo so that the storefront is the hero, not the person in the photo.
You don’t identify defunct versus extant stores. Why?
When we take a storefront photograph, the store is always open and our hope is that the business will be thriving for many more years to come. Our project was never about taking a photograph when a business was closing but more a celebration of the ones still in business.
Do you think about this as more of a documentary project or an art project?
We hope that our project acts as an artistic intervention, to help raise awareness of the importance of mom-and-pop stores. We want to inspire people who see our photos to shop local and make a friend by going inside a store and speaking with the owner, which ultimately will help these small stores carry on for many more generations to come.
Do you think there’s hope for a renaissance of the mom-and-pop shop thanks to Amazon crushing the chain retailers and driving rents back down?
We are definitely hopeful as we have witnessed firsthand many new mom-and-pop shops opening in all five boroughs, despite rent increases, especially in neighborhoods like the East Village and the Lower East Side of Manhattan where there are many small tenement buildings which have retail spaces available which are deemed too small or undesirable by a chain-type store.
“Store Front NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present”
By James T. and Karla L. Murray
Prestel Verlag, 240 pages