Gem Spa, the East Village’s General Store, Remembered

Parul Patel was a teenager when her father, Ray, bought Gem Spa, the beloved corner store in Manhattan’s East Village, in 1986. The main thing she remembers from the time is the crowds. “We literally had to squeeze our way through people outside the store,” Patel said on the phone on Sunday, three days after the store said it would be closing permanently—another city institution lost in the wave of shutterings brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Perched at the intersection of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, the newsstand and egg cream shop had often been a gathering place, whether for hippies, beatniks, punks, or unaffiliated neighborhood residents, since it opened in the 1920s.

The tributes that followed Patel’s closure announcement on Thursday teemed with references to the art in which the store had served as a backdrop: Madonna’s turn in Desperately Seeking Susan; Patti Smith writing about going for an egg cream with Robert Mapplethorpe in her memoir Just Kids; a pair of lines from an Allen Ginsberg poem (“Back from the Gem Spa, into the hallway, a glance behind / and sudden farewell to the bedbug-ridden mattresses piled soggy in dark rain”); the back cover of the New York Dolls’ first album; the title of a 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting; Lou Reed’s song “Egg Cream.” The works traced a timeline of the East Village that both belonged firmly to the 20th century and remained top of mind.

Last May, Patel began running Gem Spa herself, after a police sting led to it losing its cigarette and lottery licenses. (The cops say the store sold cigarettes to minors.) Her father has Parkinson’s disease and had hired someone else to manage the store for around ten years, and the debts had piled up. Patel’s efforts to keep Gem Spa open—including Instagram and merch campaigns, as well as plans to install a lunch counter—prompted a media blitz and an array of activist efforts, and though Patel says the landlord, City Urban, was eager to see the store go, the trajectory was promising until the pandemic.

“We’re walking away from a very big mess, and we fought really hard to stay,” Patel said. Her family had fielded plenty of offers over the years to sell the store. “We never wanted to leave.”

As much as Gem Spa was an emblem, it was also a neighborhood standby. New York City councilwoman Carlina Rivera grew up nearby, attended high school down the street in the ’90s, and now represents the district. She said the closure was a sign that the federal and state governments were failing mom-and-pop shops amid the greater COVID-19 crisis. “This would be our corridor,” she said of St. Marks Place. “Gem Spa is the place where we would go in; we would kind of look around. We didn’t have much money, but they didn’t really kick you out. So we would all chip in. We would get our egg cream, and we would hang out on the corner. It was one of the best places to people-watch.”

“I would be in Gem Spa one minute,” Rivera added. “I would be window shopping in the Gap across the street—I know that’s not as bohemian, but this is the type of thing that we would do. And then eventually I was like: You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna get my belly button pierced today.”

Ada Calhoun, a writer who grew up on St. Marks Place, is generally less pessimistic than familiar city doomsayers. In her 2015 book St. Marks Is Dead, she recounts a series of transformational moments in the neighborhood as shifts rather than deaths. (In 1972, a Village Voice story reported on news of Gem Spa possibly closing by writing, “It’s too late in the day for the passing of Gem Spa to earn a place as a prophetic omen of the East Village-Lower East Side decline. Too many old scenes, like the Fillmore and the Electric Circus, have already folded.” Even those in the halcyon days were talking about the halcyon days.)

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