A few months ago, I had the great joy of interviewing miniatures artist Danielle McGurran of City Folk Studio about her bite-sized recreations of iconic New York City storefronts. When I asked what compelled her to recreate storefronts, she told me she had been inspired by the book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray. “They’re husband and wife photographers and New Yorkers who have taken these beautiful photographs of New York storefronts for years, and now many of them are gone,” she told me. As a sign obsessive myself, I immediately looked them up and became smitten.
The Murrays are architectural and interior photographers and videographers based in New York City who have focused their lens on the streetscape through portraits of storefronts and shop owners since 1997. Their photography aims to capture the spirit, energy, and cultural diversity of individual New York neighborhoods. Their original edition of Store Front, published in 2008, was followed up in 2015 with Store Front II: A History Preserved. Over 80 percent of the stores featured in the first book are now gone, and nearly half of those photographed in the second have also vanished. To say that a third volume was in order is an understatement.
Thankfully, the Murrays have heeded that call, having just published Store Front NYC: Photographs of the City’s Independent Shops, Past and Present. My colleague Steven Heller teased the release of Store Front NYC a few months back, and as of late September, it’s officially in stores. The compendium’s five sections correspond to New York’s five boroughs (Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island). Throughout is a lovingly curated collection of thoughtful portraits of old-school storefronts, each infused with that inimitable retro charm, personality, and authenticity that is missing from modern-day signage.
I connected with the Murrays to learn more about their journey, their new book, and how their love of old, dilapidated storefronts has endured for 25 years and counting.
What are each of your relationships with New York City? Are you native New Yorkers?
I [Karla] was born in Mount Sinai Hospital and raised in the Bronx. James grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was, at the time, an industrial wasteland. I started coming to the city in my early teens, and I was enchanted by it.
We met on the Lower East Side in the late 1980s at a basketball court and quickly became friends because of all our shared interests. We both were into photography even before we met. Once we got together as a couple, it became a major part of our lives.
Was there an original storefront (or storefronts) in the city that jump-started this project for you two?
We started photographing storefronts when James and I were documenting the city for a different project. We were putting together a book on graffiti art, including large-scale murals with very stylized lettering, characters, and often meanings behind the walls. We’ve lived in the East Village together for almost 30 years, but we began to go to far-flung neighborhoods in the five boroughs to shoot graffiti.
One place we photographed that inspired us to continue our documentation of storefronts is Katy’s Candy Store, located on Tompkins Avenue in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. We fell in love with its hand-painted signage and the overall time-worn look of the shop. When we went inside and spoke with the owner, Katy Keyzer, we asked her how long the shop had been in business, and she told us that she was “the dinosaur of Tompkins” because she had been there so long. She was an elderly white woman in a neighborhood that had changed its ethnic makeup, and she told us the reason why she had survived was that she “spoke three languages: English, Spanish, and motherfucker.”
We will always remember her words, but sadly, the shop closed due to a rent increase.
In your expert opinions, what makes a storefront worth snapping a photo of to preserve and share with the masses?
Our project was initially all about visual aesthetics. We were attracted to hand-painted signage, neon signs, window displays, and architectural adornments of the facade.
We absolutely love the historic Russ & Daughters Appetizers on East Houston Street in the Lower East Side. We love the facade with its glowing green and pink neon sign flanked by a pair of fish and that it retains much of its original interior. We also love the history behind the shop as it was founded in 1914 and that it’s one of the first—if not the first—small businesses to have “& Daughters” legally added to its name. The shop was passed down from a father to his daughters, unlike many family-owned shops which pass down ownership from father to son. There’s so much history wrapped up in that storefront.
What do the storefronts in a city say about the community in which they’re located? What sets New York City storefronts apart from others?
These independently owned shops are lifelines to their communities and often act as ad hoc community centers. Many of them always have a cast of characters inside, telling jokes, gossiping, and using the shop as a gathering place. Owners also care so much for their communities and will even sign for packages for neighbors and watch for any trouble on the street. New York is unique in that it is not only divided into five boroughs but further into individual neighborhoods, each with their own distinct flavor.
What qualities have you identified that are typically lost in new storefronts as compared to their predecessors that you document?
We’ve noticed that there are fewer new shops with interesting and creative window displays. To us, a great window display is an invitation to come inside and shop at the store. We’ve also seen many new shops using only a vinyl banner with stock lettering for their signage. Instead, we would rather see more custom-designed signage that is visually more attractive and contributes to the overall streetscape.
What has been each of your favorite parts of this 25-year long project? What keeps you going?
We have made many new friends from this project, including store owners, employees, and customers. We also hope that our project acts as an artistic intervention to help raise awareness of the importance of “mom-and-pop” stores. We want to inspire people who see our photos to shop local and make a friend by going inside a store and speaking with the owner, which ultimately will help these small stores carry on for many more generations to come.