From The New York Times Book Review (April 5, 2009):
For those who think modernization is always a virtue, the demise of these relics may be a good thing. For me, it marks the end of an era of sign painting and storefront innocence. Which is why my eyes widened when I saw James T. Murray and Karla L. Murray s oversize (11 3/4 by 13 1/4 inches) coffee-table book, STORE FRONT: The Disappearing Face of New York (Gingko, $65). The Murrays, authors of two books on graffiti art, Broken Windows and Burning New York, have been photographing storefronts for more than eight years, and in this book they employ large-scale horizontal pages (and a few gatefolds) as they track their odyssey from the Lower East Side to Harlem to the Bronx, from Brooklyn to Queens to Staten Island. If you re at all interested in the passing cityscape, this book is a documentary mother lode; if you re happy to see these joints disappear, it might at least kindle appreciation for them.
The Murrays photographs, however, do not romanticize these not very picturesque locales. The images are bright and crisp, though most of what the authors photographed was dingy and covered with graffiti; quite a few fronts and signs were falling apart or grungy to begin with. Yet it is in this state of decay that the stores hold a curious fascination indeed, a raw beauty for anyone concerned with vernacular design. I was particularly taken with the Lower East Side remnants that are slowly being squeezed out by hip restaurants and shops. Zelig Blumenthal s religious articles store, on Essex Street, appears not to have changed since my grandparents lived nearby. The Hebrew lettering on the window is as clean as it was back then. Meanwhile, at Rabbi M. Eisenbach s shop, the painted signs seem to be fading. Beny s Authorized Sales and Service, which sells fine jewelry, electric shavers, lighters, pens, is not just a throwback; it also exhibits a totally alien aesthetic compared with that of most stores today.
Store Front is not mired in nostalgia. Take the photograph of the (now closed ) Jade Mountain Restaurant, on Second Avenue near 12th Street, where I ate cheap Chinese food as a teenager. It is not a storefront I get misty-eyed seeing again; even the so-called chop-suey-style sign lettering does not make me long for what s lost. But it s part of a larger mosaic that was (and is) New York s retail consumer culture.
The book is also a study of urban migration, featuring Jewish delis and Italian latticini freschi stores downtown, Hispanic bodegas and Irish bars uptown, and a white-bread Howard Johnson s in Midtown (now gone). There are also photos of single blocks, with various contrasting storefronts tightly packed next to one another, that resemble a third-world market. Downtown is much more alluring than uptown but maybe that s because I was raised downtown. --Steven Heller for The New York Times. --The New York Times Book Review
Overly affectionate accounts of days gone by make up an entire genre in America these days, part of the general shift in the past generation from future-focused optimism to nostalgia-laced longing.
You see it in paeans to roadside America, to lost highways and long-forgotten attractions. Most of it is unabashed ode. Rarely, though, do you see an account that zooms in on a chunk of the American landscape what was, what is and the hint of what may be and manages to be both lyrical and documentarian, elegant and decidedly anthropological.
That's exactly what awaits when you crack open "Store Front," which at nearly 7 pounds is a mighty volume that functions as a visual catalog of New York City retail architecture and all the stories behind it. This is an appealing, unmatched tale of individualism and the tapestry of entrepreneurial zeal, all wrapped up in brick, mortar and colorful signage.
The Murrays, authors and photographers, traveled from neighborhood to neighborhood in New York City Manhattan and the outer boroughs alike and set their camera up squarely in front of facades they deemed worthy of chronicling. What emerged is surprising and delightful. Among the storefronts revealed:
_The now-defunct Jade Mountain, a Chinese restaurant open since 1931. It survived three generations of Chans until the latest owner, Reginald Chan, was killed on his bicycle while making a delivery in 2006. His family closed the place months later. In the photo, it remains vibrant, a colorful beacon of Asian-American restaurant architecture.
_Manhattan Furrier, which is not in Manhattan but in Greenpoint, a Brooklyn neighborhood. Looking at it transports you back to the 1940s abruptly and delightfully.
The names go on, as distinctive as the architecture they present to passers-by.
Every page is full of such discoveries in miniature all the businesses that the New York immigrant experience birthed and helped thrive for many decades. "These storefronts have the city's history etched in their facades," the authors write. "They set the pulse, life and texture of their communities."
Americans treasure distinctiveness almost as much as they treasure big-box stores. New York, though, has always been different. Even as standardization marched across the land during the decades after World War II, New York City somehow remained largely immune until the past 15 years or so. The shift happening now makes a book like this not only fascinating but, from an urban preservation perspective, urgent.
The nature of the photographs their aesthetic, their vantage point unites the book and offers a baseline for comparison. Most every storefront is shot straight on, proscenium style, as if it were a stage. So they seen in their entirety, as if you are driving by slowly and can take a lingering look.
This is counterintuitive but effective. Walkers, who make up so much of NYC's texture, encounter their storefronts in fragments, in close-up and at odd angles a more natural way to view them. This pulling back of the lens to a blocked-off rectangle equalizes the facades and makes them more democratic. It's as if each is given an equally fair chance of drawing you in, of capturing your business with original signage or compelling wares.
Taken together these storefronts chronicle so much of modern American commercial culture the emergence of typefaces, the use of neon as a drawing card, the struggle to imbue business graphics with sophistication and then, eventually, with simplicity again.
They tell the story of the 20th century in New York, with wisps of the 19th and hints of the 21st. If you want to understand the aesthetics of the country's most famous city at street level, this is the best way to do it short of actually going there. And even if you're a New Yorker, this will show you the city in an entirely new way. --The Associated Press