BY BILL WEINBERG | It was slightly traumatic for old-school East Village residents when they last approached Gem Spa to buy a paper at the newsstand that had long stood outside the corner store. The newsstand, a fixture for generations, displaying a multilingual selection reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity, was gone — not a scrap of printed matter was to be found at Gem Spa.
Parul Patel is behind the counter every day now, putting her “life on hold” to save the family business. The newsstand was a necessary sacrifice, she said.
“We don’t make money on newspapers,” she explained. “Six or eight dollars each day — if nobody steals any. My dad was doing it as a community service.”
Her father, Ray Patel, now ailing with Parkinson’s disease, purchased Gem Spa in 1986.
“My father loves newspapers, he’s from that generation,” she said. “He carried the torch at his own expense.”
Old-timers who still buy newspapers could be accommodated — until a twist of fate plunged the business into crisis.
Sales initially dropped 80 percent in April, when the store’s cigarette license was suspended. Patel said a “rogue employee” (subsequently fired) sold butts on two occasions to undercover snoops from the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs.
“It’s not in line with our philosophy,” Patel said. “We wouldn’t be here 33 years otherwise.”
She pointed out the pop-up sign on the register that prompts cashiers to ask if tobacco purchasers are 21 years old.
A city judge imposed no penalty on Gem Spa after the rogue cigarette sales last year, noting the store’s clean prior record. But word of the sales was automatically shared with state authorities, who imposed a six-month suspension in April.
The newsstand was removed in early June, partly at the urging of the management company for the landlord, which sought a cleaner look for the storefront. Zoltar, the mechanical fortune teller, was also removed.
The inside magazine racks were likewise removed. Patel said the distributer, Hudson News, “scooped up” the entire stock of magazines following a financial dispute.
She said newspaper and magazine sales took a plunge some 10 years ago, as digital media became ubiquitous.
The loss of the newsstand exemplifies a cultural shift. Opinion differs on when Gem Spa first opened. Certainly, the store has been at the corner of Second Ave. and St. Mark’s Place since the 1950s. But sources maintain it had an earlier incarnation at the location under a different name in the ’20s. It is widely credited as the first place in New York to sell egg creams. It began selling Yiddish newspapers, but became an outlet for the underground press in the counterculture of the ’60s. Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith invoked Gem Spa in their writings, and the New York Dolls shot the back-cover photo of their 1973 debut album in front of the iconic store.
When the New Jersey-based Patel family bought the store, they learned how to make egg creams from the previous owners.
“I’ve been making egg creams since I was a teenager,” Parul Patel boasted.
What’s critical now is making it to October, when the tobacco license will be restored, according to Patel. She’s added CBD items to try to take up the slack — and vegan egg creams with almond milk. “We’re catering to new segments of the neighborhood,” she said.
Patel anticipates eventually restoring magazines and newspapers — although not the outdoor newsstand — on a limited basis. But she said it would just be the “main titles, not all the exotic stuff we carried, in Chinese, Polish, Italian and Spanish.”
“I’m overwhelmed by how many people have come forward to help us,” she said. But she was quick to add, “I have to triple what I’m doing right now. We’re just surviving, with no pay for myself. I never see my kids.”
Harry Bubbins of Village Preservation notes rumors that a Citibank is planned for the Gem Spa space. This could be allowed under the terms of the East Village Historic District, as long as the exterior is not changed. Village Preservation is pushing creation of a “special commercial district” for the East Village, which would restrict new chain outlets from opening between E. 14th and E. Houston Sts. from Second Ave. to Avenue D. Community Board 3 approved the idea in June, but the plan must first pass muster with the City Planning Department before going to the City Council for a deciding vote.
“St. Mark’s is not dead, and it’s because of businesses like Gem Spa that have been in the neighborhood for decades,” Bubbins declared. “It’s a quintessential East Village corner store.”
Patel said supporters are planning a benefit for Gem Spa, and she’s promoting the store on social media. She said that despite having been a successful businessman, her father has little money. A devout Hindu, originally from Gujarat, India, he gave much of his earnings to charity.
“I need this business to take care of my dad’s medical needs. And it meant so much to him,” Patel said, wiping away a tear. “I want him to die with dignity.”