Don’t just complain about the decline of mom and pop shops in New York City — get out and do something about it.
That is the message that James and Karla Murray have been spreading through their popular photography, social media posts and workshops.
And Monday, an entire exhibit focused on their ambition will debut at the Theater for the New City Gallery in the East Village. The couple behind several photography books on storefronts curated the show, called "Capturing the Faces & Voices of Mom-and-Pop Storefronts," pulling work from more than two dozen who attended their free workshops.
The exhibition boasts colorful images and compelling stories and interviews with many of the city’s small business owners. Some feature shops with deep roots in communities, while others focus on those just starting out.
Sheng Lin highlighted the Yi Fa Hair Salon on Doyers Street, which has weathered population changes in Chinatown, while Bonnie Barber sat down with the owners of Gringer & Sons, a 100-year-old appliance store known for its iconic neon sign on First Avenue.
While a few of the couple’s original images — including a massive banner of long-gone punk rock mecca CBGB’s — adorn the walls, they are happy to shine the spotlight on fellow New Yorkers’ work.
“We found it very important for not only us to continue our mission of photographing them, but also to have other people do it as well,” said Karla Murray.
All of the submissions have been shared on the Instagram account, @momandpopstorefronts, which publishes pieces from those who attended the workshops. Murray said social media has helped draw attention to the number of beloved institutions shuttering across the city. Still, she said, merchants are up against the rise of chain stores, skyrocketing rents and gentrification.
“We don’t want to wait until they are closed; we want to document them while they are still in business,” Karla Murray said. “There are vibrant businesses that we can help save or help keep them going before they get into trouble.”
About 70 people attended spring workshops, where the couple provided tips on how to best document small businesses. Speaking to the owner is key, even if you have to return several times because they are busy.
“It was kind of like fishing,” said Bianca Bob, a lifelong New York City resident and workshop participant who spent time at several stores in upper Manhattan. “I would come back and eventually be able to sit down with the owner.”
One of the places Bob documented was neighborhood staple V & T Pizzeria, an Italian eatery on Amsterdam Avenue that her grandmother once frequented. While its pizza still earns raves, the restaurant is suffering under the shadow of scaffolding.
Bob and others spoke to dozens of merchants, who explained that being obscured by scaffolding is a major problem for businesses.
Sweet Life Pastry, a newer shop in Washington Heights that serves custom-made cakes and Mexican food, also caught Bob’s eye.
“Everything is so beautiful and handmade,” Bob said. “I believe in keeping these places going.”
James Murray said the documentary process helps people gain a new appreciation for their own backyards.
“Now they are starting to notice what’s in their neighborhoods, which we love,” James Murray said.
The Murrays estimate that 80% of the places they captured in the 2009 book, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York,” are gone.
“It’s like trying to build sandcastles with the tide coming,” said Robert Zerilli, the fourth-generation owner of Veniero’s, the legendary Italian bakery in the East Village. “Even though we own the building, it’s still challenging with the economy and the rising costs of goods.”
Veniero’s storied history and efforts to keep up with changing tastes of customers was captured for the show.
Along with the freshly-baked classics like ricotta cake, rum cake and cannoli, Zerilli said Veniero’s is always trying new items, such as red velvet cake.
The Murrays hope people will come see the exhibit, which runs through Oct. 27, and walk away inspired.
“The message is for people to support their local mom and pop stores because they need your business,” Karla Murray said. “That’s the key to their survival.”
She noted that small businesses are particularly significant because of the jobs they create.
“When you shop local you are supporting someone who is going to hire local,” Karla Murray said. “It really is a full circle of helping the community.”
IF YOU GO:
“Capturing the Faces & Voices of Mom-and-Pop Storefronts” runs Sept. 16-Oct. 27; daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Theater for the New City Gallery, 155 First Ave. at 10th Street.
A free opening reception will take place on Sept. 16 from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.