Legendary East Village corner store, Gem Spa, closes its doors

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/05/08/legendary-east-village-corner.html

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Ak! Where will I buy my $10 fake russian fake fur hats when I’m in NYC now? And more importantly, who’s going to get the fortune teller vending machine? Hopefully this doesn’t spread to B&H Dairy a couple of doors down.

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What would John Wilcox say?

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I look forward to the new Citibank / Duane Reed / Starbucks that will go into the space.

I’m also glad I moved away from my old neighborhood (a short walk from here) when I did.

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NYC is always in a constant state of flux and change. The Meatpacking District where I lived during the late 1990s is completely transformed. However, some NYC neighbourhood institutions like this manage to hang on for decades, and this pandemic is going to do to them what greedy landlords and gentrification never could.

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I dunno that I’d call this place legendary, or even all that notable. Notice all it’s significant things happened during a relatively brief period, and practically everything in that area has those sorts of connections.

It’s pretty much a souvenir booth, most significant because it’s less over priced than the rest of St Marks. The exterior is a bit of a landmark, but it’s not gonna end up on many New Yorkers lists of things to even notice. I’m most familiar with it because when I was in highschool it was the place that wouldn’t ID you for a bong.

So it’s sad they’re going under, and I’m sure the recognizable exterior will be gone. But it’s basically any other corner shop save for the St Marks tourist trade.

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Just being on the back cover of the great New York Dolls album makes the Gem Spa legendary in my book. And being a fan of NYC punk venues and landmarks, I made a point of visiting it the last time I was in the city a few months ago, and I was glad it was still around. It seems like every other relic from that age is sadly now gone: Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, Club 57, Mercer. I’ve been to all of those places but there’s nothing interesting to see there now. (That pretty much goes for most of the East Village as well tbh)

But, hey, maybe this is a good thing. The loss of these places makes us aware of the ephemerality of existence and reminds us not to get too attached to anything. Think I’ll go create a Tibetan mandala now.

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I feel like everything about that block St. Mark’s had been on life support for years, and once Grassroots closed it had officially died.
On the bright side, there are some standbys in the area that are still around. Veselka isn’t going anywhere, and hopefully Big Bar will maintain it’s tiny presence.

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The best egg creams were in a hole-in-the-wall near the Indian food store on Avenue A when I lived in the neighborhood, not at Gem Spa.

The East Village today is not at all the East Village of a few decades ago - so the Gem Spa of today is not at all the Gem Spa of a few decades ago, either.

It’s sad but inevitable that the old neighborhood iterations come and go - they’re fun for a few years, then the people change and, if the new incomers are lucky, the neighborhood in its new version is also fun for a few years again.

The last period when I was in the East Village often enough to be familiar with how it was functioning, too many snotty suburbanites had moved in and too many greedy landlords had raised their rents for it to hang on to much of its previous charm - but that too will change again, and it may become seedy and interesting in new ways in the future.

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Sounds like in this case greedy landlords played a significant role as well…

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It’s New York. Of course greedy landlords played a significant role.

Around 1900 New York State passed a law mandating at least one shared toilet per floor in apartment buildings, as well as other sanitary measures. Until then, most tenements just had privies in their back yard.

The landlords of New York sued to stop this, claiming that the cost of installing and maintaining toilets would bankrupt them - they took it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against them and said yes, it is constitutional for states to pass health and safety laws governing building codes and sanitary codes.

As we all know, the landlords then went bankrupt because they had to install toilets, and that’s why there are no apartment buildings (or greedy landlords) in New York anymore.

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More about its closure:

And fascinating history:

Which notes this was likely the only newsstand with its own Wikipedia page:

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Greedy landlords in NY are a kind of bottom feeder that are perfectly happy to let a once-thriving neighborhood blight by driving out every small or essential business just to chance getting a whale tenant. Because NYC doesn’t have enough banks, Starbucks, or Duane Reades already.

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Will have to check out those places next time I’m in the city! Veselka of course is next door to the Ukranian National Home, which may not be a landmark punk venue exactly, but it did serve as the location for one of New Order’s earliest concerts in the US that is immortalized here:

Such a shame that we never had such high-quality footage of a Joy Division concert. What I would give to see that…

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