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Related exhibit on view at Click through August 30.
is a visually compelling tome filled with photographs of stores that have maintained the I've-been-on-this-corner-since-your-ancestors-came-over-from-the-old-country look. Photographers Karla and James Murray intentionally selected places that "look like they've been around forever" — though, ironically, the stores may only exist
forever in photographic form, since they're becoming ephemera so quickly. Organized by borough and further subdivided by neighborhood, the book encyclopedically chronicles the shops that have (or had) outlasted the onslaught of aesthetic and commercial homogeneity.
The project, while evoking all kinds of politicized issues about commerce, is ultimately about art. Always interested in fonts, it was in scavenging the city for graffiti that led the Murrays to Storefront
. Returning multiple times to a particular neighborhood, the couple noticed how sharp the local turnover was between one trip and the next. Without photography, these marginalized subjects would have faded into the ether, unremembered. It became their quest to counter the vanishing of old-world New York.
Their archival project, carried out with near-exhaustive zeal, is in the vein of Bernd and Hilla Becher (a German couple who photographed neglected industrial architecture from a firmly objective point of view), with an August Sander-level scope. The Murrays shot with a traditional 35mm manual camera, and the old-school apparatus serves as an apt mirror of the time-honored authenticity of the subjects. The un-manipulated approach wholly preserves the vintage aesthetic of the stores.
The extinction list for small businesses is swiftly growing as the contemporary city shifts. A certain manic pursuit was necessary to archeologically capture these venues before they were lost in the constant palimpsest that is New York. The Murrays note in their introduction that a third (a third!) of the businesses photographed no longer exist, which imbues the photos with a mournful feeling.
Small-scale business survival is rooted in endurance, with signs often making proud declarations of longevity (Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery, original since 1910; Russo's Fresh Mozzarella & Pasta, since 1908). Embedded in these dates is a confirmation of successfully maintained tradition that is tried and true and unflappable in the face of passing trends. These long-standing guys are the real New Yorkers, with street cred as caked into their reputation as the stains into their decades-old signs. It is they who have witnessed gentrification firsthand — not just of populace, but of branding, of visual grammar. They have refused to wither in the face of trademark. The signs' missing letters, the rusted corners — they are a badge of individuality. Their ramshackle aesthetic dates them as much as their actual histories, and proudly so.
Like modern forensics, you can actually size up an older store by the visual cues of its exterior. The Murrays list some singular visual hallmarks indicative of the stores' storied pasts, including overhanging signs (which are no longer permitted and must be grandfathered); huge turn-of-the-19th and -20th century wooden display cases; rolling wooden ladders that hook onto a metal railing for easy access to upper display shelves (found at hardware stores and liquor stores, dating back before Prohibition). Something as seemingly mundane as a ladder is actually a historical marker.
Of all of storefronts photographed, it was a single letter on the sign for Ralph's Discount City in Tribeca that provided the most surprising example of original typography. "We were fascinated by the "S" when we first saw it," the Murrays recount. "We had never seen anything quite like it before. One person even commented that "it looks like an Elsa Peretti heart. We specifically chose Ralph's as the cover image because we liked the font so much." The fate of the store that used such innovation? Out of business.
The few modern enterprises trying to recapture a vintage approach to signage have nowhere to turn. The Murrays were contacted by an East Village bar owner who wanted to produce a sign resembling the ones they had photographed. "He has not been able to locate anybody capable of doing this because most sign-makers now have plastic printed signs that are computer-designed, not hand-painted or original."
In losing intricate flourishes of signage — and the kinds of stores that interested in having them — the city is losing unique neighborhood localization. In the four pull-out pages, the few stubborn huddles of consecutive mom-and-pop shops represent an old world microcosm. It's startling to realize how foreign
they look when compared to the streetscape we are used to strolling past.
In the face of this downward economic spiral, business is bleak for megacompanies and little guys both. But the authors maintain a hopeful attitude, emphasizing that where you shop is as much of a choice as what you buy. These places instill a sense of nostalgia, they honor tradition, and they contribute to the aesthetic of New York's commercial and architectural legacy. Though their pictures are worth a thousand words, being devoted to small businesses while they're still standing is worth all the more.