Manhattan-based photographers James and Karla Murray have been documenting independent stores and their owners in New York City for more than 20 years. Their work has resulted in three books and several photo exhibitions. They shared their commitment to this work with participants in a two-part workshop that has culminated in the show Capturing the Faces & Voices of Manhattan’s Neighborhood Storefronts, on view through October 1 at the Little Underground Gallery in the Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Avenue.
In the workshop, held this past spring in partnership with the Neighborhood Preservation Center, the Murrays taught participants how photography and oral history can be tools to raise public awareness of local businesses, build community, and encourage advocacy. Participants learned how to capture images and record the corresponding stories through interviews with shop proprietors. In this second year of the workshop, the Murrays expanded their geographic range to cover all of Manhattan, from Harlem south to Chinatown. In 2017, the workshop focused on Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood.
“Mom and Pop stores are a really important part of the community,” said Karla Murray. “They bring people together for daily interactions — it’s you and the store owner. It’s not [mediated by] a computer. They’re places where you can hang out, get neighborhood gossip, and sign for packages.” Murray noted that of the 300 businesses featured in the couple’s 2008 book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, more than 80-percent are gone, shuttered mostly due to exorbitant rent hikes, as well as family members who no longer want to run the businesses. “We never meant [the book] to be a lament,” she noted. “It’s more of a celebration of the businesses that are still around because we want people to shop at them.”
Sharing their passion for documenting independent stores and their owners is a cornerstone of the Murrays’ work. In that spirit, here are photographs and the stories behind them from six participants of the nearly thirty who submitted their work for curation in the workshop.
At least one workshop participant noted that incorporating oral history into her work represented a new challenge and one that she would use going forward. Jane Cytryn said, “I had never done this before. As a photographer, I feel that this is an important component of my work, which I hope to incorporate in future projects.”
The stories have been lightly edited and condensed.
Milano’s Bar, 51 East Houston Strett
Photo by Steve Baird
“Milano’s Bar has been open since 1880, making it one of the oldest bars in New York City. Spending just a few moments inside, you can see Milano’s wears its history proudly on its walls. It has survived Prohibition, the capital B Bowery years, the mall-ification of Soho (and the rest of Manhattan). It has been, and continues to be, a place that welcomes all. There’s a lot of history there. It’s lived through a lot of different ‘kinds’ of New Yorks.”
“I first moved to NYC in 1997 and my first apartment was a few blocks east. I would pop into Milano’s every so often. I was a little nervous to go in the first time, but soon found out it was my favorite kind of bar — welcoming, cheap, full of characters, free of pretentiousness. It’s a comfort knowing it’s still here.”
CW Pencil Enterprise, 15 Orchard Street
Photo by Jessica Hibbard
“CW Pencil Enterprise is a specialty shop on the Lower East Side. I’m interested in how places change over time, and this business challenges assumptions about ‘old’ and ‘new’ in an interesting way. CW Pencil Enterprise opened its doors in 2015, and even though it’s only been around for a few years, it feels like something that could have existed decades ago.”
“The owner, Caroline Weaver, has loved pencils since she was a kid. As an adult, she found she also has a passion for all the details that go into operating a store and designing an experience. She started CW Pencil Enterprise as an online business in 2014 and then opened a small shop in 2015. Last year, the business moved into a larger location on Orchard Street. In a world that seems obsessed with speed, growth, and scale, I found it so refreshing to speak with Caroline about how she runs her company and why she loves owning a small business. Instead of chasing scale and growing too quickly, she’s been very intentional about keeping it small, connecting with the community, and creating an experience that customers love.”
“I loved hearing James and Karla [Murray] tell the stories behind their photos. I grew up on a family farm in a rural area, and Manhattan is a wildly different environment, but these stories are a reminder that small business owners share common desires, even if their locations and concepts are unique.”
Franchia Vegan Café, 12 Park Avenue
Photo by Rachel Alban
“I chose to focus on vegan businesses because of their positive impact on animal welfare, our health, and the environment. I also wanted to demystify plant-based food with beautiful photos. I was intrigued by Franchia because of its gorgeous, unique space, and delicious food. They are very creative with their plant-based recipes, including this bibimbap, which is served in hot stone bowls.”
“It was fascinating to learn about Korean tea culture and Franchia’s vision for introducing this practice to Americans. Franchia Vegan Cafe first opened as a tea house and later evolved into a vegan cafe serving a larger selection of vegan cuisine while keeping the tea selections. The owners of Franchia wanted to introduce Korean as well as other Asian teas to the American consumers who are so driven by coffee culture. The idea behind Asian tea culture is to make tea time an experience to reflect on yourself to achieve peace of mind.”
“There is a real urgency to document and support mom and pop businesses as the city is changing so rapidly and rents skyrocket. This urgency was probably my biggest takeaway from participating in this project. James and Karla’s work offers a glimpse into the ways that mom and pop stores contribute to and reflect the unique character of each neighborhood. By studying their photos and oral histories, I learned about culture and histories of people throughout the city through the stores, restaurants, and other businesses, which provided what they needed. For example, the foods sold at corner store bodegas, daily breakfast rituals at diners, music venues, and record stores all tell the stories of life in those neighborhoods that, in many cases, no longer exists.”
Lena Wine Bar, 137 Eldridge Street
Photo by Jane Cytryn
“Lena Wine Bar is the second business owned by Pierre Gaona and his wife Jenny, who also own Lena Café on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. Lena Café is my local café. The businesses are named for the couples’ daughter. While interviewing Pierre, I was surprised and fascinated to learn that his culinary skills are self-taught. I admire his agility and ability to consistently adapt his businesses to change.”
“As a former professional rugby player, Pierre had endured many injuries, which forced him to retire from his sport and begin a new career. He came to New York with his family from the Basque region of Southwestern France, arriving in December 2013. Walking around Greenwich Village, the neighborhood felt right to him and within five days, he signed the lease for 1 East Eighth St. In 2017, he found an additional location on the Lower East Side at 137 Eldridge St. which focuses on fine French wine and food pairings.”
Scarr’s Pizza, 22 Orchard Street
Photo by Dee Guerreros
“I’ve been going to Scarr’s since it opened and it has become my local spot, even though I live in Brooklyn. It’s a central meeting place for my husband and me. We have become friends with owner [and] his employees, and they have become extended family. It’s not pretentious and it’s one of those places where you can start or finish your night.”
“I really wanted to highlight the shop because of their commitment to high-quality food, organic flour that they mill themselves. They use organic tomatoes, all natural toppings, nothing canned. On top of it, Scarr’s is a minority-owned pizza shop, owned by a born and bred New Yorker which, shockingly, is rare in the New York City pizza industry.”
“What surprised me is how committed Scarr [Pimentel] (the owner) is to making good, high-quality food accessible to everyone. He really is trying to change not only pizza in the city, but make you question what you’re eating. He encourages his patrons to ask where their food is coming from, what sources restaurants use. And he lets you know that just because you’re paying a lot of money for something, it doesn’t mean it’s good. During our interview, he said, ‘there’s no reason why good quality food should just be for the people who can afford the most expensive meals. Everyone deserves to eat well.’”
“I learned that tracking down a restaurant owner isn’t as easy as it seems and even when you do, they’re multi-tasking at a mile a minute. They’re thinking about 10 things at once. It takes a lot of dedication, foresight, and risk to own a mom and pop/small business/restaurant in New York City against all the competition of large corporate restaurant groups. The city is lucky that small business owners are out here still chasing the dream for us and really preventing the city from turning into a middle America mall food court.”
E. Rossi & Company, 193 Grand Street
Photo by Yanis Carreto
“I happened to be standing in front of the shop and taking a photo of a neighboring business that’s famously known for selling dessert since the late 1800s, when I suddenly noticed the E. Rossi & Company sign which indicated it had been in business since 1910. It was a small wooden sign with vintage gold type. I didn’t notice the kitchen and giftware shop at first because its sign was very different from the signs of other stores in the area that claimed to be in business for over 100 years. I walked inside and was instantly struck by the quantity of items in the shop stacked all the way to the ceiling. I was greeted by Ernest ‘Ernie’ Rossi, owner and grandson of the original owner, who was eager to share the shop’s story.”
“The first thing Ernie mentioned was that the shop was originally at another location, operating for over 70 years on the corner of Mulberry and Grand. He said the shop was forced to move and that’s when I knew I had hit the ‘Faces & Voices’ jackpot. I realized this business had experienced the same thing so many other mom and pop shops in Manhattan had experienced, yet here it was — surviving. Ernie had stories about other neighbors who ‘didn’t make it.’ The items in the shop told a story about the Italian people, Little Italy, and community.”
“The interview felt like a time travel experience. I was transported to Little Italy in the 1800s. The first thing Ernie does is hand you a postcard of Mulberry Street in the 1800s and says ‘This is there same neighborhood where you’re standing now.’ Ernesto Rossi, the shop’s founder, sold books, gift items, and housewares, but business really kicked in when he began publishing Neapolitan music. There were many musicians and songwriters in the area who hailed from Naples, Italy, and during the Great Depression, they had no money, but would write songs. If Ernesto Rossi liked their music, he would buy it from them and publish it. He later opened up a music studio above the shop. On the day I stopped at the store, Ernie showed me a music roll he found in the basement that reflected his grandfather’s name as the publisher. To this day, you can walk by the shop at any time and hear music pouring out of it. Sometimes, you can even catch Ernie playing his guitar and singing some of his own Neapolitan songs.”
“Ernie plans to keep the shop going to honor his family legacy and to keep the memory of Little Italy and its former residents alive, even if it means he has to tackle technology and battle rent hikes.”
“I learned from this project that long after you leave a place or let go of things, it is the people and their stories that linger. It is the feeling of ‘home.’ That’s what E. Rossi & Company and all other mom and pop shops represent. Independent or small businesses help foster a sense of community, family, and home for long-time residents, as well as newcomers.”
In addition to the workshop and related exhibition, the Murrays are exhibiting work from their Store Front books at Storefront Project, 70 Orchard St., through August 19, while their mixed-media installation, Mom-and-Pops of the L.E.S., which opened in Seward Park on the Lower East Side in July, will remain up through July 2019.
The installation features near-life-sized photographs of mom-and-pops, including a bodega, a coffee shop/luncheonette, a vintage store, a newsstand, and a deli. All but one of these storefronts (Katz’s Delicatessen) have now closed. The installation was made possible by a $10,000 grant from the NYC Parks Department and an Art in the Parks UNIQLO Park Expressions Grant. The Murrays raised more than $6,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to help them purchase materials.
In between these projects, the Murrays have spent the past couple of years working on a kind of “before” and “after” project of storefronts they’ve photographed, revisiting the storefronts 10 years later. “The reason we chose to do this is to try to help spread the word and get other people as passionate as we are — so we can have a group of people who are out there trying to document and share on social media. The power of social media can’t be understated. We get emails from all over the world,” said Karla Murray.
Capturing The Faces & Voices of Manhattan’s Neighborhood Storefronts is on view through October 1 at the Little Underground Gallery in the Jefferson Market Library (425 Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan)
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.