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Workshops from 'Store Front' couple aim to document NYC's mom and pops

"It's a celebration of what we have": Via photography and oral history workshops, photographers Karla and James Murray advocate for New York's fading independent businesses.

Jennifer Prezioso, left, and her grandfather Mo Albanese

Jennifer Prezioso, left, and her grandfather Mo Albanese run Albanese Meats & Poultry on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

At I Need More, a rock-and-roll clothing boutique on the Lower East Side, you can find elaborate, hand-painted motorcycle jackets, a shimmering suit that appears to have been dipped in gold and T-shirts featuring punk godfather Iggy Pop — the store’s patron saint.

The shop’s uniqueness starts with its charismatic owner Jimmy Webb, a veteran of the downtown arts, music and fashion scene.

“I really like people, I really like my job,” Webb said, standing near the store’s rock-and-roll shrine. “I want to make dreams come true every day.”

Webb’s welcoming ways illustrate the value and importance of small business owners, said Karla and James Murray — photographers devoted to capturing such city gems on film and in words.

“New York City is known for its authentic and great mom and pop stores, so we want to help preserve that,” said Karla. “You can go to any city and go to a chain store. You don’t come to New York City to go to a chain store.”

The married duo has authored three books, maintains a popular Instagram account (@jamesandkarla) and has just launched a YouTube channel — all focused on these vital-but-rapidly-disappearing parts of the city.

Soaring property values and competition from big box stores have contributed to the shuttering of scores of neighborhood bakeries, hardware stores, butchers and other merchants.

Documenting the ones that are left as well as new enterprises is not a two-person job. James and Karla have received some grants to hold photography and oral history workshops titled “Capturing the Faces and Voices of Mom-and-Pop Storefronts” in order to foster public awareness and advocacy. While space is limited for the June 17 and June 24 workshops, they said anyone can contribute by posting on a specially-created Instagram account @momandpopstorefronts or emailing them at jandk@jamesandkarlamurray.com.

They are currently raising funds for an exhibition to highlight the participants’ work in September at the Theater for the New City Gallery in the East Village.

The couple said their work is not designed to detail doom and gloom, but to shine a light on the work of small businesses.

“It’s always been a celebration, it’s never been about a lament,” James said. “It’s a celebration of what we have.”

Webb is well-known for his time as the manager and buyer at Trash and Vaudeville, an iconic East Village shop that clothed everyone from The Ramones to Debbie Harry.

“You meet people like Jimmy — he is the heart and soul of the shop,” Karla said. “They all have interesting stories and experiences.”

I Need More is filled with photos, instruments and messages from Webb's famous friends, such as Slash and Duff from Guns N’ Roses. Actor Ewan McGregor has purchased silver rings there (the store’s name came from an Iggy Pop song). But Webb and his staff make sure every customer feels like a rock star, whether they are spending $1,000 on a one-of-a-kind jacket or $27 for a T-shirt.

“I think if you build something on integrity and character, there will be a longevity in it,” Webb said. “And you never think you’re too cool for school.”

Karla grew up in the Bronx and moved to Manhattan in the late 1980s, while James had left Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the city several years earlier. The two shared a love of photography and the city's streetscapes. While searching for graffiti art in the outer boroughs, they stumbled upon a variety of mom and pop shops, only to see them disappear on the next trip.

“We would notice that the great store with the hand-painted sign and all this stuff in the window that had attracted our attention was gone,” Karla recalled. “The neighborhood didn’t look the same anymore. The neighborhood didn’t feel the same anymore. It lost its character.”

Chronicling these sites became the Murrays’ passion project. By the time their first book “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York” came out in early 2009, one-third of the establishments they had photographed were gone. Now that number has jumped to 80 percent, they said.

Last week, James and Karla stopped at the Albanese Meat Market to check in on Moe, the owner and his granddaughter Jennifer Prezioso. Prezioso has taken on the challenge of revitalizing a store started by her great grandparents in 1923. (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans will recognize the shop from the Amazon Prime series.)

“I want to see this place thrive,” said Prezioso, who is also learning the art and vocation of being a butcher. “I learn more every day. I want to keep it as authentic to what it has always been.”

The butcher shop — once one of many on Elizabeth Street — is now surrounded by chic boutiques. Prezioso hopes to boost the shop's customer base with the kind of personalized service not available in supermarkets and other retailers.

“Everything is cut in front of (the customer),” she said. “That’s what my grandfather has done. That’s what my great-grandmother did.”

At their workshops, Karla and James said talking to owners is just as important — if not more — than snapping a photo of their storefront.

“You need to show the love and passion they have,” said Karla. “What we are really trying to convey is that these places are important and you need to support them because then they can be around for the future.”

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