Longtime East Village photographers James and Karla Murray installed a structure in Seward Park recreating the Lower East Side’s Cup and Saucer, which closed after more than 70 years in business. Now, they’ve set up a gallery show featuring photographs from their “Store Front” books just a few blocks away at The Storefront Project (70 Orchard Street). The exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” pays homage to the mom-and-pop shops of the Lower East Side and will remain open through August 12. Bedford + Bowery chatted with Karla Murray about her hopes and thoughts on the changing neighborhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I hope the opening reception went well.
We got a lot of love and support from our friends and store owners as well. The granddaughter of Moe Albanese [of] Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth [Street]. Really the last butcher in Nolita. A neon sign fabricator who created the sign for Trash & Vaudeville and refurbished the Russ & Daughter’s sign was in attendance as well.
Tell me about your hopes for the Orchard Street exhibit.
The majority of the photos relate to the Lower East Side. You know, to relate back to the neighborhood that the gallery is in. We also have a smattering from our so-called other “favorite” ones, mostly departed stores like Zig Zag Records and the Ralph’s that you saw in the window. We included some others but concentrated on the Lower East Side because we wanted to continue our story. ‘Cuz certainly the Lower East Side has changed a lot with gentrification and different people moving in. Unfortunately, a lot of mom-and-pop stores have closed. Buildings have been knocked down—it’s not only the stores. They’ve destroyed a lot of old tenement buildings [that] have been replaced with newer developments. When that happens, what replaces them on the ground floor as far as retail [goes] is a massive space that usually doesn’t lend to a mom-and-pop store leasing it because it’s just too expensive.
Are you mainly trying to preserve the legacy of these buildings or do you think there is some hope for activists to see your work and get inspired?
Oh, of course. The way we’ve always thought of it is a celebration of the businesses that are still around. We always photograph vibrant, lively businesses. That’s why we always put the address with the cross street because we want people to be able to go to the stores and shop at them. That’s really the key to their survival, [which] is that they need customers.
And how many businesses did you end up photographing as part of this project?
It’s countless. Thousands of photos. There’s over 325 stores just in our first book. And we have three books on the subject. Too many to count and interviews with the store owners as well. It’s over twenty years now [that] we’ve been documenting these mom-and-pop stores.
You [and James] have been East Village residents for how many years now?
We’ve lived in the same apartment for 22 years now. So it’s been a long time. It’s changed a lot in the time that we’ve been there. To be honest: we wish we had photographed more. There’s many, many small businesses that we remember fondly, but frankly we didn’t ever take a photo of [them] because we didn’t think they would ever close. And then it was too late. It’s always been a race against time to document them because they seem to be closing almost on a daily basis. For the most part, if they don’t own the building they’re located in, with the cost of new real estate going up, the landlord will triple, quadruple [the rent]. One business, they increased the rent 15 times. I mean, no small business can absorb that kind of rent increase, so then they’re forced to close.
So how do you feel about new developments like the Target in the East Village? Do you feel that kind of bodes ill for the mom-and-pop businesses?
We live on that street.That was all mom-and-pop stores. We documented them on film in the ‘90s. There was a pizzeria. There was a Permacut [Beauty Salon]. There was an old dive bar. Blarney Cove. There was a little bodega. There was a 99 cent [store]. There was a whole strip of store after store after store. Mom-and-pop places. They knocked all that down and built that development. I mean, you can go anywhere and shop in Target. You don’t have to be in New York City. That doesn’t make a neighborhood. To us, it’s the mom-and-pop stores that define a community. The very reason we moved to the East Village years ago [was] that we thought it was fun and funky and had a lot of cool and interesting shops. When those types of stores close, the fabric of the neighborhood suffers.
James and Karla Murray will lead a walking tour from their Seward Park installation to the Orchard Street exhibit on Saturday, August 4th from 1-3 p.m. Check their Instagram and Facebook for further details coming soon.