Gem Spa had been open for under 40 minutes earlier than the first tour group of the day got here by. It was early on a Saturday, and a potbellied man with bleached blonde hair and a goatee who calls himself Bobby Pinn was lecturing to a devastatingly bored preteen and 4 adults who didn’t appear to know what he was speaking about.
He was explaining the idea of an egg cream — the quintessential New York fountain drink that some individuals say was invented at this location. “It’s very refreshing,” he mentioned. “Almost like a Yoo-Hoo.” Then Mr. Pinn flipped via a laminated e book to point out the vacationers a black-and-white picture of the New York Dolls posing in entrance of Gem Spa’s iconic signage earlier than shifting gears.
“You guys watch Woody Allen movies?” he requested, main the group additional down the block. No one on the tour entered Gem Spa, and nobody purchased something.
This is the present state of what’s probably New York’s most well-known nook retailer, which first opened in the 1920s and was given its present identify by its second proprietor someday in the 1950s.
Once frequented by beat poets, punks and world-famous artists, it has turn out to be a shadow of its former self, because it contends with each obsolescence and hypergentrification. This previous spring, the retailer misplaced its cigarette and lottery licenses, and now has to provide you with virtually $17,000 a month in gross sales of Juul pods, formally licensed T-shirts, and varied bric-a-brac simply to maintain the lights on.
The lady who has given herself the process of saving the retailer is Parul Patel, who took the reins final fall from her father, who has Parkinson’s illness.
She didn’t like what she discovered: Her father, Ray Patel, had apparently been working at a loss, racking up about $100,000 in debt. He now lives in Chatham, N.J., with Ms. Patel, who commutes virtually two hours each day to 2nd Avenue and St. Marks to strive and revive the bodega her father purchased in the mid-’80s.
By that point, Gem Spa’s glory days had arguably already handed. Allen Ginsberg, who had talked about the retailer in his poetry, was lengthy gone from the metropolis. David Johansen, the songwriter of the legendary East Village proto-punk band the New York Dolls, fondly remembered when the earlier homeowners of Gem Spa switched the egg cream glasses from glass to plastic, as a result of his mates used to show them into weapons in opposition to cops when one in all their ilk was stopped and searched.
Although the homeowners barely tolerated their presence, it was a standard assembly place for individuals in the counterculture of the time. “That’s where the town criers would congregate,” mentioned Mr. Johansen, who’s now 69. “It was a meeting place, and if you stood there for a couple of hours you would see everyone you knew.”
He moved uptown in 1973, and Jean-Michel Basquiat painted “Untitled (Gem Spa)” in 1982. Just a few years later, a teenage Parul Patel was learning to mix ice milk, seltzer and flavored syrup in her dad’s new shop.
Ms. Patel, who is now 48, used to manage $40 million as a Morgan Stanley financial adviser. She also ran a successful cake-baking business. Now her days consist of trying to get people to actually buy something from a corner store that they may recognize from album covers and movies but which doesn’t actually sell much.
She usually starts work around 8 a.m., spending the next six hours making sure that the sunglasses from Gem Spa’s rack outside aren’t accidentally taken to the cashier at the stall next door, and trying to keep the bodega’s cat, James, inside.
She frequently has to contend with East Villagers who are convinced that she stopped selling magazines and newspapers because she’s an evil gentrifier intent on depriving old-timers of their analog reading material.
“I’m really rolling in the money,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. “That’s why I’m here instead of with my kids on a gorgeous day.”
Ms. Patel’s business is probably the least of the neighborhood’s concerns. In the 2015 book “St. Mark’s Is Dead,” the author Ada Calhoun wrote that the street “is for the wanderer, the undecided, the lonely, and the promiscuous,” but today, it’s more likely for people who want to buy Japanese beauty products at a boutique across the street from Gem Spa.
Meanwhile, Ms. Patel says there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation of what happened to the magazines. Her distributor came and took them away when she was on a trip with her daughter this past June. He claimed Gem Spa owed him money. The newspapers had to go, she said, because people would steal them more often than buy them.
Ms. Patel would consider bringing both of them back, she said, if only so people will stop coming in and giving her the finger.
The old-timers aren’t wrong about the world having changed. Any corner store that’s been around for decades has an awning that reads like a time capsule: newspapers, faxes, phone cards, stationery. These are not purchases made in the world of digital media and texting.
As to what Gem Spa can do to survive, the options are limited. It isn’t a deli, so sandwiches aren’t in the picture. Nor is beer. In April, it lost its cigarette and lottery licenses after an employee made a sale to an undercover cop. (She has since fired everyone except for the guy who relieves her of the cash-register duties in the afternoons.)
In that one recent Saturday shift, she pulled in about $400 worth of sales, and two expensive vaping products made up about half of that. Perhaps worse than slow sales and debt is a lawsuit from her landlord, who claims to be owed thousands in back rent. Their court date is set for Sept. 4, according to New York City civil court records.
Ms. Patel has to get creative until she can reapply to sell cigarettes and lottery tickets in about two months. She’s catering to the Instagram crowd, and has even introduced a vegan version of the egg cream. And she’s always looking for an opportunity to sell an authentic taste of New York City to curious to tourists.
A woman eating an apple wandered into Gem Spa looking for a map of the city: the perfect mark for an egg cream upsell. She was from Reston, Va., couldn’t name what borough her hotel was in, and had never heard of the drink. She called in her husband, who was wearing wraparound shades.
“It’s like an ice cream soda, without the ice cream,” Ms. Patel explained. He repeated the phrase back to her slowly, as if trying to solve a riddle out loud. He ultimately handed over $5.
Gem Spa is now all over social media, and Ms. Patel has used her accounts to promote a line of Gem Spa T-shirts. Broadly speaking, apart from those willing to spend $80 on vape cartridge refills, like one longhaired, loyal customer did, she’s selling the history of the store. (Gem Spa T-shirts are $20 and can be purchased online for pickup in house.)
Ellen Fagan, who is 55, had stopped by shortly after the Virginians left. She is a native New Yorker, but she lives in the West Village, and Gem Spa isn’t exactly her local corner store. Still, she felt compelled to make the trip after hearing about the store’s troubles. She wanted to lend her support to what she considered the last vestige of weirdness on St. Marks.
“It used to be hippy-dippy and wacky,” she said of the neighborhood. “Now it looks like everyone here could be from Connecticut.”