The Daily Heller: New York Storefronts Were Pillars of the Community

Posted inThe Daily Heller

So-called Mom & Pop shops are fewer and fewer. Once the soul of New York City’s neighborhood retail establishment, rent hikes and gentrification have endangered them. In Store Front NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present (Prestel), to be published in September, with photos by husband-and-wife team James and Karla L. Murray, there are places I remember—some are gone and some remain. The book is a reminder that signs before the age of chain-store corporate branding were beautiful in their functionality.

These stores joyously boast distinctive façades, their names proudly rendered in dazzling custom letters. For me, being a native sign lover, Manhattan’s are most enduring. Even if the likes of the neon Clover Delicatessen sign—formerly located on 34th Street and Second Avenue and removed right before the pandemic—are gone, these head-on color photographs are important reminders of the city’s luminosity.

As with their previous documentary books, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York; Store Front II: A History Preserved; New York Nights (for which I wrote an introduction); and Broken Windows: Graffiti NYC, the Murrays assiduously covered the main and side street to preserve the memory of these painted and illuminated treasures.

Taking inspiration from masters of architectural doc photography Eugène Atget, Berenice Abbott, and factory and water tower imagery of Bernd and Hilla Becher, the Murrays have faithfully chronicled the face of my disappearing city. In the new book they bring together a choice selection of iconic and never-before-published works celebrating the institutions that form the bedrock of New York’s mundane yet legendary streetscapes. An introduction by Blondie co-founder and urban photographer Chris Stein (an SVA grad) serves as a capstone for this future New York artifact.