The Precarious State of the Mom-and-Pop Store
Few businesses in the U.S. are regarded with more fondness than mom-and-pop retailers. There’s an “all’s right with the world” quality about owner-run shops that meet a neighborhood’s everyday needs and, through repeated face-to-face exchanges, help people feel they’re members of a mutually supportive community. And yet for a long time, mom-and-pop stores have been under stress. In the half-century after 1950, cars shifted much of America’s retailing to unwalkable roadside strips and winnowed the ranks of neighborhood-scale mom-and-pops. In the past two decades, the burgeoning of the internet has intensified the pressure on brick-and-mortar retail, a situation worsened by the pandemic.
Many mom-and-pops have shut down. Given both the modest environmental footprint of small shops, many of which are within walking distance of their customers, and their nurturing of social well-being, we ought to be searching for ways to bolster such businesses’ prospects.
Two people who have documented mom-and-pop enterprises and helped focus attention on their economic predicament are James T. and Karla L. Murray, a husband-and-wife team of photographers in New York’s East Village. Since the late 1990s, the Murrays have thoroughly explored all five boroughs, walked the neighborhoods’ streets, and shot storefronts—usually straight on, at first on 35-millimeter film, more recently in digital form. The initial motivation was visual: “We just fell in love with the way these stores looked,” says Karla.
For some time the Murrays stored their photos “in shoeboxes after shoeboxes,” not showing them to anyone or thinking about how they might be put to use. “We were just doing it for ourselves,” Karla says. Ultimately what resulted was a hefty pair of large-format books: Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York (2009) and Store Front II: A History Preserved (2015), both published by Gingko Press. A selection of their richly detailed photos was exhibited recently at the Municipal Art Society of New York. In a gallery talk, the couple expressed concern about the dulling of streetscapes and the weakening of neighborhood ties as small, family- or individually operated enterprises go out of business.
Each volume of Store Front presents more than 300 pages of richly colored images of pharmacies, clothing stores, grocers, bakeries, butcher shops, restaurants, taverns, and other vendors, all arranged by borough and neighborhood. Because the photos are printed as much as a foot wide—and in the case of a two-page spread, up to 2 feet wide—the reader can hardly resist poring over them, inspecting facades and signs, and pondering what makes small shopfronts effective parts of the urban environment.
A storefront customarily is, or at least used to be, a communication device, arranged to attract the attention of passersby. On Prince Street in Little Italy in 2004, the Murrays photographed the lively green storefront of Vesuvio Bakery, which the Dapolito family founded in 1920. Vesuvio relied on a time-honored promotional technique: put the products in the windows so that people walking by could not help but notice them. Vesuvio was renowned for piling a generous assortment of loaves, rolls, and other baked goods in its tall windows. The displays generated sales and at the same time helped make the streetscape, and thus the neighborhood, a more pleasurable place to walk. (Since 2009, when the Dapolito era ended, two other bakeries have occupied the space, each continuing to make good use of the windows. As it happened, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission required that the venerable facade, and its name, remain unchanged. Some shops and storefronts are so deeply embedded in a neighborhood’s consciousness that they are willed into permanence.)
A less artful use of windows is the posting of prices and related information on the glass. For decades, grocery stores covered much of their glass with signs announcing sale items. At their best, when they were smartly hand-lettered, the signs had a certain vivacity. In Williamsbridge, the Bronx, the Murrays documented the Shop & Save Meat Market, which exuberantly pasted paper circles, in several colors, across the front windows. Each circle trumpeted a different item, many of them exotic: “smoked cow skin,” “burnt goat head,” “white cow feet,” “pickled tails,” “fresh Jamaican products,” and so on. Signs like those might be less appealing than the loaves of bread in Vesuvio’s windows, but even paper signs can enliven the passing scene.
Storefronts with names blazed in neon have been the backdrop of street life in New York for generations. A striking one belonged to a legendary bar called the Subway Inn, which stood on East 60th Street near Lexington Avenue from 1943 (or earlier) until 2014. Above a glass block front was a commanding, bright red-and-white neon concoction. Neon fell out of style in the 1960s, but since then the glow of well-shaped neon tubing has gained a new following. It makes many bars, restaurants, and stores livelier than they would otherwise be and adds to a streetscape’s intensity. It’s fitting that when the Subway Inn lost its lease in 2014 and reopened a year later on Second Avenue, the prized red neon sign was mounted on the replacement storefront.
On Atlantic Avenue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, the Murrays not long ago shot the Long Island Bar & Restaurant, a classic corner tavern that opened in 1951 and was operated for half a century by Buddy and Emma Sullivan. The bar had gone dormant in 2007 after Buddy’s death and Emma’s retirement, but in 2013 a talented new pair of operators reopened it, and the Tribeca firm Let There Be Neon repaired its broken neon tubing; “Long Island” glows again in a flowing script of green neon, while “BAR” and “RESTAURANT” call out in red neon capital letters, the language of urgency. The rejuvenating energy of a younger generation and a bit of restoration are sometimes enough to bring a neighborhood institution back to life.
Small independents come in every esthetic stripe. A few, like P.J. Clarke’s, the Midtown tavern where Johnny Mercer wrote “One for My Baby” on a napkin while sitting at the bar, are demure, their architecture and their signs marvels of understatement. At Clarke’s, whose origins go back to 1884, the owners knew that a reserved facade would communicate refinement and help bring in a choosy clientele. But Clarke’s is a departure from the commercial norm. For every Clarke’s, there’s a faded, cluttered old storefront like Mishkin’s—a drug store at Amsterdam Avenue and West 145th Street in Harlem that has kept going for over a century, behind windows typically cluttered with crutches and plastic bed pans. Sometimes a mundane front is fine. Neighborhood retailing is not primarily a beauty contest.
Though the Murrays started out wanting to capture the look of storefronts, the couple’s interest eventually broadened. “The story,” Karla says, “became equally or more important.” The couple interviewed hundreds of merchants, many the second, third, or fourth generation in their businesses, others newcomers who prevailed by putting in long hours and paying close attention to their customers’ desires.
Edgar “Augie” Santana bought a pet store in the Norwood section of the Bronx and made it successful by specializing in tropical fish and birds—creatures he knew and loved from childhood visits to his grandfather in Puerto Rico—and by going to nursing homes and hospitals and helping set up fish tanks at no charge, “so that the sick patients can enjoy seeing beautiful fish.” The customers at his E&N Pet Paradise “appreciate all that I do for the community and know when they buy a fish or bird from me, that I will stand behind what I sell,” Santana says.
A specialty with a particular quality has been key to the survival of independents like Morscher’s Pork Store, a butcher shop that’s been in business in Ridgewood, Queens, since 1957, using recipes the owner’s ancestors brought over from a German enclave in Slovenia. “We don’t use artificial smoke like most large meat processors, but instead our equipment uses real smoke from hickory, apple, and cherry tree wood chips to impart the special smoky flavor we are known for,” says second-generation owner Herbert Morscher.
The shop invested in high-tech machinery that smokes the meat and keeps the humidity constant, a key to proper aging. The aim, Morscher says, has been “to maintain the old standards but to be able to function in the 21st century. If we had stayed with the same way of manufacturing meat products, we would have been out of business long ago.”
The Murrays report that 85% of the businesses in their 2009 book are now gone. Skyrocketing rents are a major reason. The changing composition of neighborhoods is another. Merchants tell of feeling stranded in neighborhoods whose Italian or Near Eastern or Jewish clientele has moved away (though this is offset somewhat by old customers who drive in from the suburbs or have the products shipped to them in Florida and elsewhere). Pharmacist Seung Yoo, owner of Mishkin’s, says his Harlem neighborhood has become safer and more affluent over the years, but the newer residents don’t necessarily support the longtime retailers. “Unfortunately,” says Yoo, “many of the smaller older stores like mine have disappeared and have been replaced by big-name franchises.”
The expanding size of real estate projects adds to the risk. In the East Village, many of the old tenement buildings had small shops on the ground floor, but that’s under threat. “On one block,” Karla Murray points out, “a developer bought and knocked down all the tenements.” When a new building rose on the site, all of its street-level space was rented to a single merchandiser—a Target store.
So how can small shops get more of a fighting chance? “The most important thing you can do as a person right now to ensure that your mom-and-pop store survives is to shop in it,” Karla says, “They need the customers.” To which James adds: “Now, more than ever.”
During a punishing period like the pandemic, some landlords, especially small longtime building owners, have been willing to reduce the rent or forgive a portion of it. Merchants can collaborate with neighboring merchants to coordinate sales events by all the nearby stores and come up with promotions that will draw customers to a retail area, as was done recently on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. New York launched an “Open Streets” program that allows restaurants to extend their dining areas into the streets for a limited period.
In New Haven, Connecticut, the Chatham Square Association, a civic organization in the largely Hispanic Fair Haven district, supports neighborhood restaurants through “Community Dining Out Nights.” At one restaurant, once per month, residents get together to eat, socialize, and give a bump to the restaurant’s income. During the pandemic, the event became “Community Dining In Week,” with residents ordering takeout meals from a different local restaurant each week.
Lee Cruz, a Chatham Square leader, brings groups of Yale graduate and undergraduate students, as well as Yale-New Haven Hospital medical residents on walks that highlight the district’s history, businesses, and potential; they sample the Mexican, Puerto Rican, Peruvian, and other restaurants. Converting outsiders into customers “can make a significant contribution to the monthly income of a neighborhood restaurant,” he says. “The businesses the neighborhood needs include bodegas, restaurants, bakeries, dry cleaners, pharmacies, barber shops, and beauty salons,” Cruz says. “These are the businesses that make a residential area into a walkable neighborhood.”
Dhiru Thadani, a Washington, D.C.–based architect and planner, says developers and municipal agencies should be trying to “reel in many small retailers,” not just one or two big stores.” This requires more time and effort, he acknowledges, but “small retail shops generate more money and taxes and add a whole lot of character.”
In new buildings and developments, retail should be carefully orchestrated—the right vendor should be sought for the space. Recruit a vendor that fulfills a need within the community. “These curated retail businesses should receive a subsidy in rent for the first five years, until such time as they are established and can pay the market rent,” says Thadani. At Seaside, Florida, where Thadani has worked extensively, the strategy “was to partner with the vendors, charging them a very low base rent, which was superseded by 10% of the gross sales,” he says. “This makes the landlord and tenant partners, and both strive for the business to be successful.” Also, Thadani suggests: “Help existing vendors with the selection of their goods, based on the demographics of the neighborhood. Curate what they sell.”
In new development, whenever possible, encourage small blocks and small buildings because they generate a more comfortable walking environment and they offer greater opportunities for businesses to own their quarters. This strategy, associated with the “Lean Urbanism” movement, tries to line the sidewalks with a series of modest-sized retailers and avoid having long stretches dominated by one or two chain stores.
In Brisbane, Australia, alleys and laneways have been populated with low-rent retailers. The narrow passages become a labyrinth of intimate spaces filled with cafes, quirky bars, fancy dining, and other enjoyable elements of city life. The key is recognizing how crucial human scale and human connection are, and not being distracted by those who are enchanted by branding and bigness. A Target store is, most likely, not the right target.
All photos courtesy of James & Karla Murray. Featured image: Vesuvio Bakery, Little Italy, New York, 2004. From Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.