The photographers scrambling to capture New York's disappearing mom-and-pop shops
Less than two years ago, a walk through the Flatiron District in Manhattan would bring you to Eisenberg's Sandwich, a vintage luncheonette that had been feeding hungry city dwellers since Carl Eisenberg first founded it back in 1929. Upon entering the restaurant, you’d be hit with delicious aromas of the tuna melts, omelettes, egg creams, and matzah ball soups that had defined the menu for over a century.
Featuring an iconic lunch counter complete with swivel stools, the institution functioned as an old-school New York City eatery and a cultural beacon. But, to the dismay of its loyal patrons, Eisenberg's indefinitely closed back in March 2020, as the pandemic first surged here in the U.S., in a tragic turn of events that brought beloved restaurants all around the world to their knees.
Mom-and-pop shops — family-owned and valued as touchstones of the community — were indeed among casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. These restaurants in particular represent the American Dream in so many ways, and watching them shutter was truly a complicated type of loss for all of us. Even ones that stayed open (Katz's Deli and Russ & Daughters, for example) faced an unprecedented set challenges as social distancing mandates went into effect last year.
According to a recent study by economists at the Federal Reserve, the pandemic resulted in the permanent closure of roughly 200,000 U.S. establishments. Back in February of this year, CBS News reported that "3 out of every 10 small businesses in the U.S. say they likely won't survive 2021 without additional government assistance." Given the 30 million small business operations in the U.S., that number would amount to about 9 million mom-and-pop shops closing for good before the end of this year.
It all leads to a series of questions: What do we lose when mom-and-pop shops close? What do these small businesses say about the towns they take up residence in? What makes the corner bodega and the neighborhood dry cleaner so special and so essential to our definition of city living?
"A lot of [these shops] act like little community centers and the people who really care about whatever they are selling or doing — whether it is a service or a product — take pride in them," says Karla Murray, a professional photographer who, alongside her husband James, has been chronicling New York's constantly changing storefronts since the 1990s. "They're places where you hang out and gather, and we missed them during the pandemic because we were all inside. And it was devastating to store owners."
Given the number of stores that were forced to shutter both within New York and beyond, it should come as no surprise that keeping records of the various shutdowns has become a sort of social media sport. Small business owners and their devoted fan bases have been taking to Instagram and other platforms to bemoan the death of the mom-and-pop store while asking the public for help to keep various operations afloat.
James and Karla Murray, who post their photos on the now uber-popular Instagram account @jamesandkarla, have become central figures within the discussion of struggling mom-and-pop shops all around New York. Followed by close to 70,000 users — including celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, influencers like Leandra Medine Cohen, and restaurateurs like Frank Prisinzano — the account has been active since the early 2000s. But it has enjoyed newfound fame during a year defined by the disappearance of the very subjects of the Murrays’ photos.
Telling the story of New York through its changing facades, the Instagram account amounts to a walk down a memory lane peppered by destinations that make (or, perhaps, made) the city the cultural hub that it is. In a way, the images also portend change: If these shops are closing, or will soon close, what can we expect the future of the city to look like?
“The mom-and-pop stores we document are really the backbone of the community,” says Karla. “The very reason why we moved into the East Village [in the 1990s] was the little quirky stores, galleries, fun places, the diversity. And that reason seemed to have disappeared, and that’s why we started documenting them.”
The couple’s devotion to small businesses echoes New Yorkers’ deep connection to the sorts of stores that make a person feel seen and even nurtured. These storefronts remind us that we’re not spectators in this city — we’re individual threads in a vibrant fabric. Where else can community members meet to find rare cookbooks that speak to our penchants for flavor? Or candy stores and records shops that fill us with unparalleled and somehow familiar comforts?
Initially focusing on the striking typography of the various stores’ signs — from the neon to the hand-painted — the couple eventually began interviewing the destinations’ storeowners, providing a behind-the-scenes look that gets at the heart of what compels folks to open stores like Casey Rubber Stamps in New York (a tiny boutique solely selling rubber stamps), James Smith & Sons in London (a Victorian-looking shop selling umbrellas, walking sticks and parasols) and biscuit business Maison Dandoy in Brussels.
Lest you think of their account as a repository for now-defunct businesses, think again: The Murrays’ goal is to raise awareness of the importance of the neighborhood store as a concept and help it survive and thrive.
Of course, this goal has become even more fundamental given the COVID-19 pandemic — which actually isn’t the photographers’ first brush with tragedy. The breadth of the couple’s career has taken them face-to-face with a slew of other historical moments that have directly impacted their work, from 9/11 to the 2008 real estate crash.
James cites the mood of the storeowners when reflecting on how different of a crisis the pandemic is. “Back then, it was about defiance,” he explains. “Today, when we talk to storeowners, it’s more about despair.”
His wife Karla echoes his sentiment. “When 9/11 happened and stores were closing, people would tell us that it wasn’t going to let it get them down,” she says. “But now, between being forced to close if they weren’t essential businesses and still having to pay rent and employees not feeling safe, there were many different moving things they had to contend with.”
That sense of desperation seems to stem as much from the inability to conduct business in a world dominated by fear of the outside world the government’s reaction to the pandemic. “When the pandemic hit, the huge disadvantage that surfaced right away was that big companies grabbed all the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan money within the first two weeks and it was gone,” says Loycent Gordon, the owner of Neir’s Tavern, the oldest continuously-operating bar in New York City still located at its original address in Woodhaven, Queens. “When small mom-and-pop shops tried to apply for it, there was nothing left. That disparity was so evident right away, and we didn’t have the cash reserves, equity funds and investments that we could borrow from.”
Add to that mixture an almost endless rush towards all things online, with shoppers choosing the convenience of the Internet over experiences at brick-and-mortar stores, and you’ve got yourself a compendium of problems that clearly can’t be easily solved.
The Murrays have heard tons about New York-specific issues that have contributed to the shutdown of a seemingly endless number of local shops. But what makes a city like New York ripe for these sorts of problems is also what renders it a mom-and-pop shop haven in regular times. “New York is unique in that it is a very walkable city,” says Karla. “Just walking the streets will lead to discovering things that you wouldn’t know were there if you weren’t walking in the first place. At first, James would ride his bike and I would roller blade but we’d miss things because we were going too fast.”
Whether a city’s walkability will help businesses stay afloat is yet to be seen. Perhaps, given New York’s astronomical rent prices, smaller towns will eventually become ideal ground for mom-and-pop shops. Or, maybe, the pandemic will have helped shops in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan regain popularity as folks crave human connection just as much as they do a return to a semblance of normalcy. After all, grabbing a cappuccino from Starbucks just doesn’t feel as special as ordering one from a neighborhood cafe, whose owner knows exactly which pastry you want with it.