Store Front: Atget & Brassai in NY: Visuals – Signs and Portents – Books – Review – Review –

Manhattan vernacular: A restaurant facade from “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.”\Article Tools Sponsored By
  • Just received the Store Front Book. Being quite impressed I insert this post from the NYT
Published: April 2, 2009

I own a fairly large vintage sign that sits imposingly on my living room floor. It once hung outside a place called Velulich’s Bakery, somewhere in New Jersey, and is typical of the painted metal displays of the 1930s, with Art Deco contours and neon illumination. It’s as beautiful as the hand-painted shoe-repair sign I keep in my bedroom. Both are artifacts of consumer culture before commercial branding and environmental signage (as signs are now called) became so self-conscious — when sign painters plied their craft without pretense. A store sign had to be bold, eye-catching and immediately recognizable, so that customers would understand the purpose of the establishment. Clever names designed to tickle the imagination would not do. What you saw was what you got: Bakery, Drugstore, Smoke Shop, Meat Market, Liquors, Dry Cleaners. Examples of these signs are, of course, still found on old buildings all over New York City, but are gradually beingreplaced by more contemporary designs and L.E.D. screens.

For those who think modernization is always a virtue, the demise of these relics may be a good thing. For me, it marks the end of an era of sign painting and storefront innocence. Which is why my eyes widened when I saw James T. Murray and Karla L. Murray’s oversize (11 3/4 by 13 1/4 inches) coffee-table book, STORE FRONT: The Disappearing Face of New York (Gingko, $65). The Murrays, authors of two books on graffiti art, “Broken Windows” and “Burning New York,” have been photographing storefronts for more than eight years, and in this book they employ large-scale horizontal pages (and a few gatefolds) as they track their odyssey from the Lower East Side to Harlem to the Bronx, from Brooklyn to Queens to Staten Island. If you’re at all interested in the passing cityscape, this book is a documentary mother lode; if you’re happy to see these joints disappear, it might at least kindle appreciation for them.

The Murrays’ photographs, however, do not romanticize these not very picturesque locales. The images are bright and crisp, though most of what the authors photographed was dingy and covered with graffiti; quite a few fronts and signs were falling apart or grungy to begin with. Yet it is in this state of decay that the stores hold a curious fascination — indeed, a raw beauty — for anyone concerned with vernacular design. I was particularly taken with the Lower East Side remnants that are slowly being squeezed out by hip restaurants and shops. Zelig Blumenthal’s religious articles store, on Essex Street, appears not to have changed since my grandparents lived nearby. The Hebrew lettering on the window is as clean as it was back then. Meanwhile, at Rabbi M. Eisenbach’s shop, the painted signs seem to be fading. Beny’s Authorized Sales and Service, which sells “fine jewelry, electric shavers, lighters, pens,” is not just a throwback; it also exhibits a totally alien aesthetic compared with that of most stores today.

“Store Front” is not mired in nostalgia. Take the photograph of the (now closed ) Jade Mountain Restaurant, on Second Avenue near 12th Street, where I ate cheap Chinese food as a teenager. It is not a storefront I get misty-eyed seeing again; even the so-called chop-suey-style sign lettering does not make me long for what’s lost. But it’s part of a larger mosaic that was (and is) New York’s retail consumer culture.

The book is also a study of urban migration, featuring Jewish delis and Italian “latticini freschi” stores downtown, Hispanic bodegas and Irish bars uptown, and a white-bread Howard Johnson’s in Midtown (now gone). There are also photos of single blocks, with various contrasting storefronts tightly packed next to one another, that resemble a third-world market. Downtown is much more alluring than uptown — but maybe that’s because I was raised downtown.

Nonetheless, as I was examining all the images in sequence, somewhere around the middle of the book, actually in Midtown, my interest began to wane and picked up again only toward the end, when I reached the pages devoted to Coney Island. Funny, that was the exact experience I had as a kid in the ’60s when my dad would drive us across the Manhattan Bridge and then through Brooklyn, past all those old neighborhood shops, to the famous amusement park, with its great storefronts and signs.