New York’s storefronts constitute the city’s vernacular architecture, shaping the look and feel of the five boroughs no less than more celebrated elements of the skyline. These unfussy, elegant, and richly colored photographs of butcher shops, bakeries, fabric wholesalers, cuchifritos stands, stationery and sporting-goods stores, laundromats, groceries, and dive bars give connoisseurs of signage, folk typography, and ambient erosion much to pore over. Shops that opened in the nineteen-seventies now look as ancient as those dating back to the twenties. The tone is elegiac as much as it is celebratory; interviews with shop owners make it clear how close to extinction many of them stand, and the photographers report that nearly a third of these businesses have gone under in the time that it took to make the book.
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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..... STORE FRONT: The Disappearing Face of New York..... 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 --New York Times
From Publishers Weekly (March 7, 2011): Anyone who loves the compact, diverse small businesses that are a part of urban living will be fascinated with the new, compact version of this labor of love from the Murrays (Burning New York). The authors, who have been working on this project for eight years, are shocked by the rapid changes to their chosen subject; changes to zoning, rent, and families have contributed to a rapid loss of the sorts of small businesses showcased here, in vivid photos shot on 35mm film. The Murrays divide their book into five chapters, one for each borough, and include neighborhood maps and brief histories. Photographs are accompanied by their own narratives or those of business owners, providing details about former locations, family history, products on display, and more. Manhattan, home to many of the institutions, buildings, and diverse neighborhoods that have made New York famous, occupies nearly half of the book. Readers will feel an immediate nostalgia for the famously walkable city; a single block can contain a bakery, restaurants, stores selling clothing, jewelry, gifts, linens, musical instruments, sporting goods, and more. This handsome little book will make non New Yorkers want to skip Times Square on their next visit in favor of catching some of these neighborhood spots before they're gone for good. --Publishers Weekly