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The Humble “Nerve Center” of the City: Gem Spa

Gem Spa, from our historic image archive; © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

The East Village is a rich palimpsest of fascinating histories. If many of them seem to share as their geographic nucleus the corner of 2nd and St Mark’s Place, that’s because, for a hundred years, there stood a 24-hour general store, the mythic stature of which increased by association to multiple waves of countercultural movements that took root in the neighborhood. Customers found there a go-to place for underground magazines, cigarettes, and, of course, their legendary egg creams. We are referring, of course, to Gem Spa, whose iconic signage graced, not just the neighborhood, but countless photographs, movies, and paintings that, by depicting it, sought to capture some elusive essence of the East Village. Several of these pictures are found for purchase in our historic image archive, including the image above, taken by Fred McDarrah on August 13, 1966.

The store opened its doors in the 1920s and was renamed Gem’s Spa in 1957 by its then-owners (GEM was an acronym composed of the first letter of those owners’ wives and ex-wives). During its early decades, it served the area’s predominantly immigrant population, selling convenience items, candy, and foreign language newspapers. The shop was a favored destination among locals and would remain so through at least the 1980s. But it was its popularity with beatniks, hippies, and punks during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s that earned the store its iconic stature in bohemian and alternative subcultures. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, who named it a “nerve center” of the city, and other local poets were frequent patrons (Kerouac enjoyed its egg creams). Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were also regulars (Rubin also enjoyed them).

Jerry Rubin in front of Gem Spa, from our historic image archive; © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

Some years later, the corner store became a recurring destination for musicians Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, the Ramones, and the New York Dolls (whose guitarist, Johnny Thunders, would reputedly get his sugar fixes there in between sets at CBGBs). Artists Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat were also fans. 

As would befit an establishment that has catered to such a distinguished artistic clientele, Gem Spa has been regularly memorialized in numerous media over the years. This has mythologized the place and rendered its signage part of the iconography of the neighborhood. The shop is featured in a Ginsberg poem and in Patti Smith’s autobiography. It shows up as the title of a Basquiat painting and as the back cover of the New York Dolls’ classic debut album. It also served as the setting for a scene in the movie Desperately Seeking Susan

The New York Dolls

Beginning in 1986, the owner of Gems Spa was Ray Patel, who immigrated to the city from Gujarat, India. During his tenure, the store continued to sell the same assortment of goods that it had for decades: candy, lotto tickets, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, bandanas, knick knacks, and soft-drinks (including egg cream, whose closely guarded recipe was handed down to Patel by his predecessor).

egg cream!

According to Patel, business thrived until the 90s, when rising rents started driving much of its traditional clientele out of the neighborhood. During the late 2010s, Ray became sick, and his daughter Parul took over the management of the shop. By then, business was suffering. In a bid to save the business, she increased the store’s profile on social media and launched a t-shirt emblazoned with the iconic Gem Spa sign. This effort to capitalize on the store’s iconicity worked for a while. Merchandise sales, along with an activist awareness campaign, helped keep the business afloat and put an end to plans to shut down. The shop’s fortunes, in fact, seemed to be on an upswing. The pandemic, however, drastically changed that trajectory.

In 2020, the Patels decided to shut down Gem Spa for good, putting an end to the store’s storied tenure at the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. Having, however, shuffled off its physical shape, Gem Spa lives on virtually, on a site from which you can still buy artwork and themed merchandise that continues to evoke the surprising role that this humble convenience store played as a center of gravity for generations of East Villagers. 

Gem Spa, from our historic image archive; by Carole Teller

One response to “The Humble “Nerve Center” of the City: Gem Spa

  1. Thanks much for this…bringing back memories of the Filmore and Ratner’s, too. Thank God for Fred McD!!!

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