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The Gem Spa Sign, in My Kitchen

Of all the time-worn New York institutions that finally gave out during the pandemic, few inspire the cultish affection of Gem Spa, the cigarette-and-candy shop that stood at the corner of Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, under various names, for a century. Like Patti Smith, who went there for egg creams with Robert Mapplethorpe, the place harked back to the tattered cool of bygone countercultures, which it attracted in waves: Beats (Allen Ginsberg mentioned Gem Spa in a poem), then hippies, then punks. Madonna filmed a scene there for “Desperately Seeking Susan”; Jean-Michel Basquiat named a painting for the place. Until it packed up, last May, the shop still sold egg creams, which, lore had it, originated there.

Illustration by João Fazenda

“We never thought this store would not be with our family,” Parul Patel, its most recent proprietor, said the other day. Patel took over in 2019, from her father, Ray, who had been the owner since 1986. As a teen-ager, she worked summers, back when the big sellers were magazines and foreign cigarettes. “I did everything from handling the register to making egg creams,” she said. She went on to work as a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley, managing some forty million dollars, until she quit to raise two kids. By 2018, her father was suffering from progressive supranuclear palsy, a disease akin to Parkinson’s, and Patel started filling in. She found the business in a precarious state: foot traffic was down, people were stealing newspapers. After an employee was caught selling cigarettes to minors (Patel suspects a setup involving a “massive conspiracy”), her tobacco and lotto licenses were suspended, torpedoing eighty-five per cent of the business. She worked twelve-hour days trying to turn things around: she sold e-cigarettes, launched a T-shirt line, set up an Instagram account. By last March, she was breaking even.

Then the pandemic hit. Patel added Gem Spa to delivery apps and sold merch online, but that wasn’t enough to cover the $20,500 monthly rent. “My mother said, ‘Let it be. You’ve tried your best.’ ” For a while, Patel put Gem Spa’s remains—including the awning, the egg-cream station, and the yellow storefront signs that became emblems of East Village grungy chic—in storage, but that got expensive, too. So she decided to auction everything off, using the profits to help pay for her father’s care. “If the stuff is in some loving new home, at least there’s some life,” she said.

The first item to go was a glass “Gem Spa” sign that appears behind Courtney Love in the 1999 movie “200 Cigarettes.” It sold for a thousand dollars, along with one of the shop’s two metal roll-down gates (three thousand), to Chris Maltby, a writer in Red Hook. “Back when I was a kid, I’d play hooky from school, and I’d get a pastrami sandwich from the Second Avenue Deli and then an egg cream at Gem Spa,” he said. He once left his keys on a pile of magazines, and David Johansen, the New York Dolls front man (and a Gem Spa regular), found them. Maltby is planning to put the Gem Spa relics in a refurbished barn next to his new house upstate.

Claudia Besen, a retired speech pathologist, bought the other metal gate, as a fifty-seventh-birthday present to herself. (The gates, graffitied by the artist Paul Kostabi, were installed two years ago, after Patel could no longer keep the store open twenty-four hours.) Besen, an alt-rock fan with dyed pink hair, lived on St. Marks in the nineties and used to stop by Gem Spa on her way home from the Pyramid Club. “I saw Chris Farley there once—he had on a ton of black eyeliner,” she said. “It was sort of a beacon of light on my way home, as dawn was breaking.” She plans to hang the gate in her living room in Connecticut, or maybe out on her patio. “I smile when I think about Gem Spa,” she said. “And then I cry.”

Jason Sheehy nabbed one of the big yellow storefront signs (seventy-five hundred dollars), plus a milkshake machine (three-fifty). Sheehy lives on a grain farm in Ohio, but “the East Village has always just been my jive,” he said. Both items will live in his nineteenth-century farmhouse, part of which he has turned into an Irish pub, furnished with a bar and stools from O’Lunney’s Times Square Pub, another pandemic casualty.

Diana Goldfeder Stewart, a graphic artist in San Francisco, bought an egg-cream sign for her kitchen (three thousand dollars). Her family operated the store from the twenties through the fifties, when it was called Goldfeder’s. She grew up hearing stories about her great-grandfather Nathan’s chocolate-sauce recipe. (“He served what was called Goldfeder’s Famous Egg Cream.”) Like a lot of Gem Spa fans, she was anxious about what will replace it. “That corner—it’s a magical corner for so many people,” she said. “It can’t be just nothing there.” ♦

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