Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York

07/20/2009 4:00 AM |

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.