These photographers scramble to capture endangered mom-and-pop boutiques in New York City
Less than two years ago, a stroll through Manhattan’s Flatiron District would bring you to Eisenberg’s Sandwich, a vintage lunch that has fed hungry city dwellers since Carl Eisenberg founded it in 1929. As you walk into the restaurant, you would be struck. with delicious aromas of tuna fondants, omelets, egg custards and matzah dumpling soups that have defined the menu for over a century.
Featuring an iconic lunch counter with swivel stools, the institution functioned as an old-fashioned New York City restaurant and cultural flagship. But, to the dismay of its loyal customers, Eisenberg closed indefinitely in March 2020, as the pandemic first hit here in the United States, in a tragic turn of events that brought beloved restaurants around the world to their knees. whole.
Mom-and-pop stores – owned by the family and seen as touchstones of the community – were indeed among the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. These restaurants in particular represent the American dream in so many ways, and seeing them close was truly a complicated loss for all of us. Even those who have remained open (Katz’s Deli and Russ & Daughters, for example) have faced unprecedented challenges as social distancing warrants took effect last year.
According to a recent study According to Federal Reserve economists, the pandemic has led to the permanent closure of around 200,000 US establishments. In February of this year, CBS News reported that “3 in 10 small businesses in the US say they are unlikely to survive 2021 without additional government help.” Considering the 30 million small business operations in the United States, that number would rise to around 9 million mom-and-pop stores closing permanently before the end of this year.
All of this leads to a series of questions: What do we lose when mom-and-pop stores close? What do these small businesses say about the cities where they set up shop? What makes the local bodega and neighborhood dry cleaners so special and so essential to our definition of city life?
“A lot of [these shops] act like little community centers and the people who genuinely care about everything they sell or do – be it a service or a product – take pride in it, ”says Karla Murray, a professional photographer who, alongside her husband James, has been chronicling New York City’s ever-changing storefronts since the 1990s. “These are places you hang out and gather, and we missed them during the pandemic because we were all inside. And it was devastating for store owners. “
Considering the number of stores that have been forced to close both in New York City and beyond, it’s no surprise that keeping records of various closings has become something of a social media sport. Small business owners and their dedicated fans have taken to Instagram and other platforms to mourn the death of the mom-and-pop store while asking the public for help keeping various operations afloat.
James and Karla Murray, who post their photos on the now popular Instagram account @jamesandkarla, have become central figures in the discussion about struggling mom-and-pop stores all around New York City. Followed by nearly 70,000 users – including celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, influencers like Leandra Medine Cohen and restaurateurs like Frank Prisinzano – the account has been active since the early 2000s. But it gained new fame for a year. defined by the disappearance of the very subjects of the Murray photos.
Telling New York’s history through its changing facades, the Instagram account is like walking a memory trail dotted with destinations that make (or, perhaps, have made) the city the cultural center that it is. In a way, the images also point to a change: if these stores close, or will close soon, what can we expect for the future of the city?
“The mom-and-pop stores that we document are really the backbone of the community,” says Karla. “The very reason we moved to the East Village [in the 1990s] it was the unusual little shops, the galleries, the cool places, the diversity. And that reason seemed to be gone, and that’s why we started documenting them.
The couple’s dedication to small business echoes New Yorkers’ deep connection to the types of stores that make a person feel seen and even nurtured. These showcases remind us that we are not spectators in this city, we are individual threads in a vibrant fabric. Where else can community members meet to find rare cookbooks that talk about our penchant for flavor? Or the candy shops and record stores that fill us with unparalleled and somehow familiar comfort?
Initially focusing on the striking typography of the signs of the various stores – from neon to hand painted – the couple eventually began interviewing the store owners of the destinations, offering a behind-the-scenes look that goes to the heart of what compels people. to open stores like Casey Rubber Stamps in New York (a small shop selling only rubber stamps), James Smith & Sons in London (a Victorian-looking shop selling umbrellas, canes and parasols) and the Maison biscuit factory Dandoy in Brussels.
Lest you see their account as a repository for now-defunct businesses, think again: the Murray’s goal is to raise awareness of the importance of the neighborhood store as a concept and help it survive. and thrive.
Of course, that goal has become even more fundamental given the COVID-19 pandemic – which is actually not photographers’ first contact with the tragedy. The span of the couple’s careers brought them face to face with a host of other historical moments that had a direct impact on their work, from 9/11 to the 2008 real estate crash.
James quotes the mood of store owners when they reflect on the difference between the crisis and the pandemic. “At the time, it was about mistrust,” he explains. “Today, when we talk to traders, it is rather despair.
His wife Karla echoed his sentiment. “When September 11 happened and the stores closed, people told us it wasn’t going to let them down,” she says. “But now, between having to shut down if they weren’t essential businesses and always having to pay rent and employees not feeling safe, there were a lot of different things to which they had to face it. “
This sense of hopelessness seems to stem as much from the inability to do business in a world dominated by fear of the outside world as it is from the government’s response to the pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, the huge downside that immediately became apparent was that the big companies grabbed the whole paycheck protection program (PPP) lend money in the first two weeks and it was gone, ”says Lyocent Gordon, owner of Neir’s Tavern, New York’s oldest bar still in operation at its original address in Woodhaven, Queens. “When the little mom-and-pop stores tried to apply, there was nothing left. This disparity was so obvious right away, and we didn’t have the cash reserves, equity funds, and investments we could borrow from.
Add to that mix an almost endless rush for everything online, with shoppers choosing the convenience of the internet over the experiences in physical stores, and you have a collection of issues that clearly cannot be easily resolved.
The Murrays have heard tons of issues specific to New York City that have contributed to the closure of a seemingly endless number of local stores. But what makes a city like New York ripe for these kinds of issues is also what makes it a haven for moms and pops in normal times. “New York is unique in that it’s a very accessible city on foot,” says Karla. “Just walking the streets will lead you to discover things that you wouldn’t know were there if you didn’t walk in the first place. At first James was riding a bike and I was rollerblading but we were missing things because we were going too fast.
It remains to be seen whether a city’s pedestrian potential will help businesses stay afloat. Perhaps, given New York’s astronomical rental prices, small towns will become ideal breeding grounds for mom-and-pop stores. Or, perhaps, the pandemic will have helped stores in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan regain popularity, as people crave human relationships as much as a return to some semblance of normalcy. After all, having a cappuccino at Starbucks isn’t as special as ordering one at a neighborhood cafe, whose owner knows exactly which pastry you want with it.