Gem Spa Rally Turns Beloved East Village Institution Into Mock "Schitibank" Favorite 



Sep 12 2019


New York City

A source of delicious egg creams and daily newspapers since at least the 1930s, an unassuming shop at the corner of St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue was renamed Gem Spa in 1957 and swiftly transformed into a meeting ground for generations of downtown artists, musicians, poets, and activists. This year has brought fears that the store is in danger, however, and on Saturday a "cash mob" helped transform the venerable newsstand into a "Schitibank," evoking past counterculture happenings of the old, weird East Village.

Organized by Vanishing New York’s Jeremiah Moss and #SaveNYC to draw attention to the plight of small businesses in a corporate-dominated Manhattan, the protest blanketed the legendary corner in art that mashed up Citibank’s brand of cuddly capitalism with the neighborhood’s countercultural heroes.

“Yes, another Schitibank,” read the banner over the front window, while art featured some of the store’s most famous customers. "The same Schiti ATM used by the New York Dolls,” promised a sign with a picture of the glam-punk quintet outside Gem Spa, originally featured on the back of the band’s 1973 debut. Another offered “Robert Mapplethorpe points,” redeemable for egg creams, vapes, and leather cock rings.

It’s been a turbulent year for Gem Spa. The illness of longtime owner Ray Patel and the recent loss of their cigarette license, compounded by the ongoing decline of print media, have only fed ongoing rumors of takeover by Citibank or another corporate force. Zoltar the Fortune-Teller disappeared in the late spring, as did the daily newspapers. Last month, the NY Times reported that Patel is being sued by the shop's landlord for thousands in unpaid back rent. But Parul Patel, running the business in the wake of her father’s illness, insists “the worst is behind us. We’re not closing, we’re not thinking about closing.”

The egg cream line stretched to the refrigerator cases in the back on Saturday (not unlike this above scene from 1969), as Patel stood behind the counter and directed traffic. Earlier in the year, in an effort to attract customers, she established the store’s social media presence (on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) and began to concoct new share-ready egg cream flavors. A new Gem Spa T-shirt was an instant hit, sucked into the world of influencers. Already cited as a fashion must, it’s been declared “way cooler than Supreme” by the editor of streetwear magazine Fucking Young, and Patel says it will soon be sported by neighbor Remy Holwick at Fashion Week in Paris. Sold out and reordered several times over, bootleg knock-offs quickly appeared online. Patel stresses that customers should only purchase the $20 shirts directly from the store, or via the store’s PayPal account. Egg cream pint glasses and other merch will follow.

“This is the best day in Gem Spa history,” Patel declared on Saturday, simultaneously distributing shirt orders, greeting visiting family members, and firmly explaining to a photographer that James the cat is very friendly and would surely only have batted someone if suitably provoked.

Outside, the corner overflowed with supporters and a healthy scrum of reporters.

The Gem Spa bodega cat, James.
The Gem Spa bodega cat, James. GRETCHEN ROBINETTE / GOTHAMIST
“It’s about raising awareness that this is some place the community really cares about,” Jeremiah Moss said, emphasizing that “it’s about more than just Gem Spa.” Representatives from #SaveNYC passed out literature, emphasizing their objective of passing the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. “We want to make clear that banks and big chains really aren’t welcome here.”

“They devised the whole campaign, they did everything,” says Patel. “We’ve always gotten press, but I need to get business. As I told them, I don’t need a one-hit wonder, I need to people to continue to patronize the store. I think I’m seeing that, though, and not just this weekend, either.”

But the mood on Saturday was less like an organized protest than a cross between the casual gatherings Gem Spa has been informally hosting for decades, and the kind of surrealist ferment for which the neighborhood has long been known. In fact, the very idea of the chaotic media-activated socially-conscious flash mob manifested for the first time only five blocks to the south of Gem Spa in 1967, when Bob Fass organized a “Sweep-in” of East 3rd Street via his WBAI show, Radio Unnameable. Later that summer, Abbie Hoffman martialed his Yippie forces outside Gem Spa and led them to the Stock Exchange, where they threw money from the balcony.

“Events like this make you see a kind of invisible community,” said Doug Cameron, co-creator of the Situationist-inspired Schitibank mash-ups with partner Tommy Noonan. The pair—who work by day as the design firm DCX Growth Accelerator—came to Moss’s attention after they helped stage an “Artisanal Rent Hike Price Sale” at a Boerum Hill bodega in 2015. “You start paying attention to who’s really going to the deli, who’s really around the neighborhood,” Cameron said. One homeless patron of Gem Spa told Cameron that the store had saved their life on multiple occasions.

Parul Patel works the counter
Parul Patel, right, works the counter at the rally GRETCHEN ROBINETTE / GOTHAMIST
On Saturday, parents could be seen introducing their kids to egg creams while neighborhood weirdos got on with their hustles and James the cat threaded through the crowd, friendly but camera shy. “It’s weird, literally like a bubbly milkshake,” observed one teenage egg cream newbie. Painter Mark Miletta, a devotee of Gem Spa regular Jean-Michel Basquiat, drove from north of Albany to honor the store and sell prints of his paintings of Gem Spa. In a dog collar, leather pants, and faux-leopard-print jacket, punk-coiffed Devyln Shadow performed for #SaveNYC’s cameras and posited about a Lower East Side bank and an alternative currency with Joey Ramone on the one dollar bill.

Citibank, meanwhile, denied via Twitter that they were interested in Gem Spa’s corner. “We’d love for you to come to @Citi HQ to share your egg creams w/ our staff who care about iconic NYC traditions." A rep for Citi, Matthew Polevoy, told Gothamist on Monday, “Citi and our team of colleagues in NYC love and respect NYC institutions like Gem Spa. We have never explored opening a branch at that location.”

Even if they didn’t inquire about the property, as has been rumored, the bank remains emblematic of the neighborhood’s disappearance into a mire of corporate storefronts, and one can easily imagine them getting jealous of the Emigrant in the former Fillmore East/The Saint a few blocks to the south, and the Chase currently occupying the original Second Avenue Deli a few blocks to the north.

“It was great!” Patel said of the rally, when we spoke to her on Monday. “It was beyond my wildest dreams. I thought 20 people would show up, and the day before they told me 150 people had responded. I thought I’d prep for 150-200 people. But I didn’t count, and way more than that showed up. The store was packed the whole time. There were lines going out the door, even beyond the time of the event. It finally quieted down around 6, and it continued into Sunday.”

The Schitbank makeover will remain on display for the immediate future. As of Monday morning, the store now sports a new grate painting by artist (and White Zombie co-founder) Paul Kostabi.

Posted by Andy Bichlbaum on

Staff rating: 

It is hard to measure just how many pedestrians began following the #SaveNYC movement or actually joined it, but this creative project certainly achieved its goal of gaining attention.