I hate to be one of Those People, but New York City ain’t what she used to be. Then again, she never was. In New York, the old is constantly being subsumed by the new. The pace can range from light speed to glacial, but nothing can last. Complaining about this is almost as old as the city itself. I bet Peter Stuyvesant bitched when they started building houses above Canal Street.
There is one thing that has disappeared from New York in my lifetime, however, and I do think the city is worse off for it. That is the Weird Little Shop, which has virtually no chance of surviving in the NYC of the 21st century, where real estate is at such a premium it can no longer accommodate the eccentric dreams of kooks who somehow luck into retail space.
By Weird Little Shop, I don’t mean a place that specializes in one curious niche, because those still exist in droves. And I don’t mean a thrift store, either, because there are still plenty of those, too. And a thrift store usually has some kind of focus and organization. What I mean is the kind of hovel that had zero focus and sold whatever the hell it felt like. Not a single thought or deed was spared to appealing to anything but the proprietor’s whim.
These stores often had no names, at least as far as the street was concerned. No awning, no sign in the window, nothing hanging from the door. It could be difficult to tell if they were stores at all, or just cluttered street-level apartments. They were never in large supply. It’s not like there was once a Golden Age of kooky retail. But once upon a time, if you wandered the East Village or the Lower East Side like I did and were willing to risk life and limb to enter strange spaces, you could find a few.
Were they all worth patronizing? Of course not. Some exuded the bad kind of weird, with smells and clientele to match. Some were downright creepy. Some gave off the vibe of being a front for something nefarious.
Still, if you were willing to be adventurous and dig, you could find some awesome stuff. I remember a Weird Little Shop that sat just east of Fourth Avenue during my college days. It had little focus, but had many items from the 1960s and 1970s that they sold for pennies. Clothes. Old toys. Books. Very little of it in very good condition, but if your only goal was to own a copy of something, they could accommodate you. I picked up a slew of old Mad Magazine paperbacks from the early 1960s there for virtually nothing. And when I bought them, I handed my money to a strange little man who was dressed like an old timey English undertaker, veiled top hat and all. I can’t imagine finding such a place now.
I’m thinking of these bygone islands of nuttiness because the weather has improved suddenly, after a far-too-long winter, which makes me think of the many hours I spent wandering around the city in my feckless youth. There was one experience that stands out in particular, one that was at the same time so strange and idyllic, I still wonder if I didn’t just imagine it all.
This was at least 15 years ago, possibly longer. I was walking downtown on Lafayette Street, right around Spring Street. I was probably headed to Little Italy/Chinatown for no reason. This area was only slightly less la-di-da than it is now, but there were still a few isolated pockets that had yet to be overtaken by criminally priced luxury apartments or boutiques. Like a simple, unassuming diner on Spring I ate at a few times before it passed into history.
It was right around here that I spotted a “store”. It certainly didn’t look like one from the outside. The front of the building was boarded up, a plywood door on creaky metal hinges its only entry point. I assumed it was just a construction site, except the word OPEN! was spray painted on the door. As I passed by it, I heard music seeping out from the door, which was slightly ajar. Intrigued, I grabbed the door, just to see what was inside. (Yes, I too am surprised I am not dead.)
From the outside, it looked like a thrift store, racks of old clothes with little organizing principle. I felt confident enough to go inside, even though I wasn’t in the market for anything. The place looked to be the shell of an old building, either one being built up or about to be torn down. The old wooden floor creaked with every step. The lighting came from construction site-style lamps, lightbulbs half enclosed by orange plastic cages, the power lines clasped to the ceiling beams with large clamps. Even so, everything remained dark, so much so I couldn’t tell if the walls were just a harsh brown or actually black. The place had one attendant, a young man who sat in a large chair behind an even larger desk. He was reading something and did not budge an inch when I came inside.
I feigned interest in the clothes, running my hands through the racks. They all looked nearly identical to me, old blue work shirts. In my head, I counted down an acceptable period of time until it would be okay to leave, and then I spotted some natural light coming from a door in the back. Again, why I was not murdered several times before the age of 21, I have no idea. Still, I ignored whatever misgivings I probably should have had and ventured through this door.
In there, a room much like the one I’d just left, but smaller, and with a small window that looked out on scrabbly, weed-overrun backyard. The room was completely empty, or the floor was. For a moment, I thought for sure a serial killer would come barging in, axe raised high. And then I saw it. Above my head, a series of clotheslines on which hung Freezy Freakies. Dozens of pairs of them. Hundreds, maybe. Not an inch of space above my head was not occupied, in some way, but a Freezy Freakie.
If you were not a young child in the early-to-mid 1980s, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Freezy Freakies were winter gloves that had designs on them that only showed up when it got really cold.
Why was that cool? Adult me has no idea. Kid me, though, desperately wanted a pair of Freezy Freakies. I don’t remember wanting any other article of clothing; then as now, I was not a fashion plate. But Freezy Freakies, those I wanted. Probably for the same reason I wanted GI Joes and Transformers and Thundercats and a million other things: because other kids had them. Because I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t have [BLANK].
But more often than not, I was the only kid without [BLANK], because we didn’t have a hell of a lot of money. I understand that now. I sort of understood it back then, but Christ Almighty, I wanted Freezy Freakies for a brief, desperate period. I never got them.
Now, I was in this weird room in this weird “store” in Soho, with a ceiling tapestry of Freezy Freakies waving above my head in the cool spring breeze. It was something from a daydream, or a nightmare.
Did I buy a pair? Of course not. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing so and robbing this room of its perfect symmetry. I marveled for a moment, then slowly made my exit. I never went back. I’m not sure I was ever there to begin with.