Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wednesday Evening at the Brooklyn Historical Society: Opening Reception for "Counter/Culture: The Disappearing Face of Brooklyn's Storefronts"

This evening we went to Brooklyn Heights to the opening reception for the great new exhibit of photographs by James and Karla Murray, "Counter/Culture: The Disappearing Face of Brooklyn's Storefronts" at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

A trip to the Historical Society is always a treat, and last evening when we arrived around 6 p.m. there were literal treats: several tables of finger food and drinks. Since this is the 19th anniversary of us losing nearly 50 pounds (though we are prouder of having kept all but 10 pounds off in the ensuing years; for our obsessive secrets, see The Silicon Valley Diet), we limited ourselves to a plain little breadstick.

Kate Fermoile, the BHS vice president for exhibits and education, came to the microphone as most of us got into seats. She explained that "Counter/Culture" is the first in the 2008-09 series of exhibits in the Public Perspectives series in the Independence Community Gallery downstairs.

Every April there's an open call for proposals for exhibits, and three proposals are selected by a panel of cultural and community representatives. The winners receive an honorarium and technical assistance from the BHS in developing and mounting the exhibit.

(Future exhibits in this year's round are "From Hand to Eye: Drawn Views of Brooklyn," starting next January, and "Brooklyn and the History of Chinese Immigration," which will open next May.)

Then James and Karla Murray came up and discussed their exhibit and how they started their photographic exploration of Brooklyn's old mom-and-pop storefronts began in the late 1990s and how the project evolved to include the interviews in the current exhibit. (You can actually hear this in the Murrays' own words in their podcast on the BHS website.)

Jim and Karla were documenting graffiti art in far-flung New York City neighborhoods. Since graffiti is somewhat ephemeral as it's written over, they made repeated visits to places and started noticing that the old mom-and-pop stores were disappearing, in some cases, surprisingly fast.

Like many of us, the Murrays loved the old store signs and the way they were made, and after they began photographing the storefronts, they were interested in finding about the stores. So instead of just asking for permission, they did interviews asking about when the stores were founded and how they involved.

Most of the stores are now run by second- or third-generation family members from the original people who started the businesses, including many college-educated professionals like teachers or police officers, who left their positions to carry on their family tradition when their parents died or retired.

These mom-and-pop stores, as we all know, are often endangered by gentrification, redevelopment, skyrocketing rents (the luckier storeowners also own their buildings and thus are not at the mercy of landlords) and the lack of a younger family who will take over when people get too old or too sick to keep up the long hours.

Often storeowners spend as much as 80 hours at work. Jim mentioned the exhibit's title, "Counter/Culture," is based on the waist-high counters at the family-owned stores, which act as homelike kitchen tables in contrast to the shoulder-high counters at modern chains like Duane Reade, which are more impersonal. People hang out at mom-and-pop stores and they serve as de facto neighborhood community centers.

This great exhibit made us wish that we'd taken a photo of our great-great-grandparents' candy store on Stone Avenue (now Mother Cabrini Boulevard) in Brownsville, which Sam and Sylvia Shapiro started in the 1920s. As a kid, when we'd drive by with our grandfather, Herb Sarrett, he'd point out that his grandparents-in-law's storefront still looked exactly the same although a new family took over in the late 1930s. The store suddenly disappeared in the 1960s when the block was razed for the Tilden projects.

We do have pics of two Brooklyn family stores where we toiled in our retail youth. Starting when we were 14, we worked with Grandpa Herb and Carlos and Joe and Marty downtown at The Slack Bar on Fulton Street long before it became a pedestrian mall.

The store was owned by our Uncle Matt, Grandpa Herb's son, (we wrote a little about our experiences in "The Boy Who Could Draw Dr. King"), who also owned with our father and three other men - Syd Siegel of the Sid's Pants chain (the yellow-signed Sid's Pants were ubiquitous in the 1960s and 1970s) and his two brothers-in-law, Jack Lubel of Jack's Slacks on 86th Street in Bensonhurst and Jimmy Saracino of Jay's Slacks in Flushing - a bunch of stores called The Pants Set.

The Pants Set began around 1964, when women started wearing slacks more and more (when we were kids, girls were not allowed to wear anything but skirts to public high schools unless the temperature was below 20 degrees), and they had a store in Bensonhurst on 86th Street between Bay Parkway and 21st Avenue, where we worked occasionally. (We can recall saying "Huh?" to our psychologist Dr. Bob Wolk when he asked us if we ever wanted to try on the women's clothes - not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Anyway, we're glad to say we have pics of that Pants Set store and also the one on Fordham Road in the Bronx and the second Slack Bar store on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, though we worked at them only when they opened. Both family-owned stores closed decades ago; the 22-store Pants Set chain, mostly in malls like Kings Plaza, was sold to the national chain G&G, and we don't think G&G exists anymore either. Our mom worked in Kings Plaza, our stepcousin Merryl worked in Green Acres in Valley Stream, and various other relatives of the families that owned the stores worked elsewhere.

There were other old-time stores owned by friends or relatives that we loved, like the candy store/luncheonette on the corner of Church Avenue and East 43rd Street owned by our great-great-uncle's sister, Mrs. Mogg, where we hung out for hours - stores whose facades we wish were preserved in images as skillful as those of James and Karla Murray (whose Burning New York Burning is also one amazing book of groundbreaking photography and interviews).

The Murrays' photographs of storefronts were done "old school," like the stores themselves, not with digital photography. The ones in the exhibit (as opposed to some pictured here) have no cars or people in the foreground: just pure storefront, giving viewers the perspective as if they were standing right in front of the stores.

Their most amazing works are block-long sequences of stores, done with the aid of computers, like the stretch of stores on Bedford Avenue between North 7th and North 8th Streets. Some of those stores, like others of those in the exhibit, are gone just two or three years after the photos were taken.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the exhibit, lending resonance to the beauty of the visuals are the skillful video interviews with second-generation Brooklyn storeowners like Gennaro Aliperti of Emily's Pork Store on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg (just a few blocks away from Dumbo Books HQ; he almost makes us want to stop being vegetarians) and Giovanni Lanzo of Luigi's Pizza in Greenwood Heights:
Counter/Culture- The Disappearing Face Of Brooklyn's Storefronts by James and Karla Murray
really connects our past and present and fulfills the Brooklyn Historical Society's mission of making Brooklyn history vibrant and relevant. Until the Murrays' book of mom-and-pop storefronts in all five boroughs is finally published, this is your only chance to see these amazing photographs. "Counter/Culture" runs until December 28. For more information, see the BHS website.


brooklynphyl said...

Hi! Thanks so much for the mention of Jack Lubel's name. I'm his daughter and it is nice to know that he and his world are not forgotten. (By the way Syd and Jimmy are both still alive). The handwriting at the bottom of the Pants Set pictures is his. It is amazing to see it appear like magic on my Apple screen. Write on.

Richard said...

I think I remember you, or knowing about you. Funny, I was just on 86th and Bay Pkway recently and I can picture seeing your father in that store. I am glad Syd and Jimmy are still alive, and I will tell my father. My mom went into a nursing home (she has Alzheimer's) just two weeks ago, and it's pretty hard on him now. We did see your father's obituary in the paper. He was really nice to me when I saw him; I liked all of them a lot.

Richard said...

If you have any digital pics of his store, I would love to see them. My email is