James and Karla Murray photograph and interview shopkeepers who’ve served their communities for more than century.

If you’ve ever traveled to New York City, chances are you’ve purchased something from a street vendor like a pretzel, hotdog, perhaps a pair of knock-off Ray Bans at a negotiated price. That experience is comparable to the way folks shopped in the early 1800s.

Everything from shoes to smoked fish were sold out of pushcarts rented by immigrant business owners for 10 cents a day. Lined up on neighborhood streets New Yorkers of every nationality were out in the thick crowds conversing, tasting, and bargaining with each other until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia outlawed cart sales mandating that all business go indoors in 1939.

LEFT: 2nd-generation owner Mike D’Auria outside his family’s D. D’Auria Pork Store. RIGHT: Pushcart vendor selling Roast cornIN 1938. Photo by Berenice Abbott

By forcing these businesses into brick and mortar, they’ve been preserved city treasures, made part of family traditions, and remained family owned and operated – many for more than 100 years.

Today, the stories behind those shops are being told thanks to the curiosity of James and Karla Murray – two New York natives whose search for unique city graffiti launched them into a preservation project of historical proportion. With their lenses aimed at small storefronts of century-old businesses, James and Karla have been capturing what remains of old New York for the past 20 years.

James and Karla Murray outside their display in a public park in New York City

Some of these places are thriving more than ever, some are struggling, while others have fallen victim to the challenges of rising costs and corporate competition having to close after decades serving their communities. The personal touch customers get at a family owned business can’t compare to the sterility of a chain store. James and Karla want us to celebrate their history and uniqueness and support their presence even amongst all the new and shiny competition. 

What we enjoy the most about these two modern-day preservation activists is that each post on their Instagram account not only includes a captivating photograph full of texture, but also the store’s history in the caption. One of our favorites is McSorley’s bar.

McSorley’s street view

“McSorley’s is one of the oldest bars in the city established in 1854,” says James. “They offer just two types of ale (light or dark). Famous patrons like John Lennon and Abe Lincoln have passed through McSorley’s swinging doors and walked across the sawdust on the floor.”

Up until 1970, it was exclusively serving men. Today, McSorley’s is still selling the same ale and is owned and operated by Teresa Maher, whose father purchased the bar in 1977. A fact that shows progression and evolution with the times while maintaining the core of your business can equate with success!

Teresa Maher, bartender/owner of McSorley’s Old Ale House.

As if being a small business in a competitive city of commerce isn’t hard enough, enter the sky-high prices of real-estate and taxes in New York City. 

“In the early days of  Big Apple business, if you could pay the taxes on the building it was yours,” says Karla. “Now business owners can be charged upwards of $30K per month in rent for a tiny 300 square foot storefront. If the owners of these long-standing shops do not own their building, their business can be in jeopardy. They are at the mercy of their landlords and the ever-increasing rents while still trying to sell a product at a fair price.” 

One example of how these changes impacted a particular family and their business is Katy’s Candy Store.

“It was one of the first storefronts we photographed. We really loved its hand-painted signage and the storefront’s overall feel,” says Karla. “In 2007 Katy’s landlord tripled her rent. She was forced to close the business which was her passion, her livelihood and had served the community for more than 40 years. The space that once held her shop is still vacant today.”

An empty Katy’s Candy Store

Other businesses have successfully established themselves as a staple in the community and even managed to get a role in a major film! (Like Katz Deli did in When Harry Met Sally!)

Katz’s is the oldest and only Jewish delicatessen still in business in the Lower East Side. It was founded in 1888.

Jake Dell, third-generation owner of Katz’s Delicatessen has thankfully been able to evolve with the times and keep his family’s business thriving. Founded in 1888 it’s the oldest business in the Lower East Side. He’ll serve you a mile high pastrami with a side of matzo ball soup inside his family’s Jewish deli, but he will also ship you certain house-made specialties anywhere in the world!  This is an example of how the people of New York have valued what Katz’s has to offer over any cookie cutter competition for generations.

Jake Dell, third-generation owner of Katz’s Delicatessen.

With so many places like Katz and McSorley’s to eat in at New York City, how can you help support these historic family-owned businesses? Refrain from chains.

“You can throw a nickel and hit five pizza shops better than anything Dominos can make,” says James. “Why eat from a corporate food franchise when you can have authentic pizza prepared by an Italian using Nonna’s secret sauce recipe? Come to New York with the intention of seeing something new just as so many immigrants did all those years ago.”

Beyond the restaurant and bar scene in the Big Apple, James and Karla want to remind people that when it comes to shopping small in your own neighborhood, it’s easy to forget why it’s so important.  It means knowing where the products we buy comes from, having a relationship with the people behind them, and keeping a family’s legacy alive. It’s maintaining the unique character and colorful personality of our streets, not letting them be lost to modernization and conformity.

Before/after photo of Mars Bar taken in 2005 and now how it looks in 2015 after the original low tenement building was torn down to make way for an expensive hi-rise luxury apartment rental tower with a TD Bank now on its ground floor.

“Many store owners felt honored that we would take the time to photograph their business and ask them about its history,” says Karla. “We often sat down with them for hours, talking and reminiscing. We felt welcomed into their ‘homes’ and many refused to let us leave without taking ‘tokens’ of their appreciation such as loaves of bread, pastries, sausages, or pizza. It’s impossible not to walk out of the shop door unchanged.”

James and Karla are doing their part to help spread the word about the small shops of New York City with their three award-winning books all devoted to shining a light on these places. Inside each one, you’ll find the addresses and details necessary to reach out and purchase goods. Or better yet, visit in person!

See more photos in their book OR follow them on Instagram

Follow @ontwolanes for Mike Wolfe’s personal back road travel guide across America.

 

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10 Comments

10 thoughts on “Documenting the Historic Mom-and-Pop Shops of New York City”

  1. Starla Briggs

    I loved this story!! We need to start caring about real people instead of just cheap plastic stuff. It is about being more human more connected and allowing for a kinder community. People interacting and actually sharing their stories and their lives.

  2. Steve Hoosack

    Remembrances are all I have of all the small businesses I recall from growing up in Clinton Iowa. In one two block stretch I can recall approximately a dozen “mom & pop” businesses that have simply disappeared. The sadness, at least for me, is that it’s as if a piece of the fabric of my being has simply been ripped away to never be seen again.

    While New York City was the chosen location this is a disturbing testament to “progress” in this world we live in. I thoroughly enjoyed the photos and accompanying descriptions. Have these been published in book form?

    1. James and Karla Murray

      Hi Steve,
      We are so glad our work documenting the disappearing storefronts of NYC has resonated with you. We hope that our work acts as an artistic intervention to help preserve these special places and to raise awareness of their importance to the community.
      And yes, we have published three books on the subject including “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York” “Store Front II- A History Preserved” and “New York Nights”.(link to them is in the article) .

      Thank you so much for your interest,
      James and Karla

  3. caesar j warrick

    Stop you’re breaking my heart. I grew up in Port Chester New York. It was an old seaport town. We had one of the first A and P trading depot’s in the nation. The building is still there but now it is a Mexican Restaurant. ,,,,Port Chester was a total mom and pop run town. Every business was family run. My grandfather owned Vitti’s Live Poultry Market at 109 Purdy Ave. I can still recall people lined up on a Saturday afternoon to get their chickens for Sunday dinner. A Rooster for the Macaroni sauce, a fresh hen for the soup. These woman were already laden down with all the packages they had bought for The Sunday feast. They had cakes,bread and rolls from Conzenza’s Bakery. Fresh fish from Lofaro’s fish market. You name it they had it and all from local shops. Sometimes if they weren’t worn out from all that shopping they would stop at Lattella’s Store for a home made lemon ice,10 cents for a big cup. We had it all. Four good bakery’s,six hardware stores,local pharmacy’s three movie theaters, The Capitol,the Strand and the Embassy open at 11:AM 7 days a week. All Grand theaters with Grand names. All gone now.,,,,,From 1945 until 1965 this country had the greatest twenty years we ever had. I was there. I saw the greatness that small guy could put out in a small store. It was all magic. And I was happy to have been a part of it. CJW, Milford CT.

  4. MaryLisa Noyes

    I grew up on Long Island visiting family every weekend in NYC. Today I live on a small island in Wa. State. The local businesses are whee I buy my groceries, plants and gifts. Small personal care I wouldn’t receive off island. Love the story and photos. Thank you

    1. James and Karla Murray

      Marylisa,
      We are glad our photos and stories behind them bring back good memories of visiting NYC while growing up on Long Island. We are also happy to hear that small local businesses are thriving in areas (tiny island) on the west coast!

  5. Gary M. Aplin

    There is a cafe owner in Ogden, Utah. The couple that owns the shop serve great food. They also help the community, feeding the homeless for free and when the local government workers were on furlough, they received free meals also. Ogden Utah has an old fashion street called 25th Street, lined with old shops and businesses, plus the area is loaded with history going all the way back to when the area was first settled. This information is being passed on to Mike and Frank, in the event that they make it back to Utah in the future. You can see my email address if you might have any further questions.

  6. Dolores Amato

    My grandmother had a candy store in Brooklyn on Willlouby St. in the 1930’s And my father owned Sunset Superette in Huntington Long Island in the 50s If only he had saved some of the artifacts which are collectibles today it would have been amazing..working in the store putting away stock at the age of eight and then working behind the counter until my second year of college . Gave me an experience of a lifetime

  7. Karin Irene

    These historical places need to be saved. There are developers out there who think nothing of tearing a community apart and spreading its occupants. If you read the book “Vanishing New York” written by Jonathon Moss, you can find out more. There is too much greed out there, especially from the people who already have so much.

    Increasing the rent 3 x should be illegal. Everything is done in the favor of the super rich. Maybe because they are the ones who actually go to vote? Why is voting on a Tuesday when most people have to go to work?

    Karin

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