Gem Spa, a corner store in Manhattan’s East Village, has several claims to fame. It’s the supposed birthplace of the egg cream, a New York City soda shop delicacy made by blasting milk and flavored syrup (usually chocolate or vanilla) with seltzer; its signage — bold yellow letters spelling “GEM SPA” in saloon-meets-circus font — has appeared in movies like Desperately Seeking Susan and on memorable album art; and it’s as much a part of East Village iconography as Tompkins Square Park or the CBGB facade. But, like the latter (which is now a John Varvatos store), Gem Spa is at risk of disappearing, with the building’s landlord hoping to sell the space to a Citibank. But Gem Spa’s owner, Parul Patel, isn’t vacating quietly, instead looking to a surprising source to save her business: hypebeasts.
Streetwear wasn’t the most obvious path to making Gem Spa relevant again, even among the NYU students who largely inhabit the area. Patel is trying to get back the cigarette and lotto licenses the business lost when a former employee sold cigarettes to underage smokers. She’s also looking to modernize the menu: Stop in for an egg cream and she’ll tell you they now have a vegan version with almond milk, and more flavors than just vanilla and chocolate. She’s stocked bottled kombucha and cold brew next to the Sprite, has plans to serve milkshakes and smoothies and juices, and she’s streamlining the candy selection, saying “no one will notice because nobody buys it.” But it was the third part of her plan — merch — that’s surprisingly been the most successful.
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Had to share this post by #ckjeans #model @remyholwick of a text with the @fuuuckingyoung #magazine editor declaring the Gemspa Tshirts are cooler than #supreme !! #gemspa #eggcream #madonna #basquiat #nydolls #davidjohansen #leonardodicaprio #leodicaprio #dreadematteo #nyceats #eavieats #nycc #nycgo #nycityworld #nycity #nycblogger #nyclife #nycliving #newyorkcity #tshirt #fashion #fashionweek #nycfashion #nycfashionweek #newyorkcitylife
Before Parul Patel’s father, Ray, bought Gem Spa in 1986, it had already gone through multiple evolutions. Over the years it’s transformed from soda shop to bodega, but given its location on the corner of St. Mark’s Place, longtime epicenter of cool and counterculture, it was always a hangout. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it was where the beatniks and hippies gathered. In 1973, the New York Dolls released their first album, and a photo of the band in front of Gem Spa graced the back cover. In 1982, Basquiat featured the stand in one of his paintings, and in 1984 Madonna shot a scene for Desperately Seeking Susan there. And through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ray Patel kept the shop going, making egg creams from the recipe he learned from the previous owners until he was diagnosed with Parkinsons and his daughter took over. It was then that she realized that saving Gem Spa would take more than making up for some back rent.
When Patel started talking to the regulars, she found that what kept them coming back wasn’t the need for cigarettes or Snickers. “I wanted to understand if there’s any future in this business, or do I need to just close,” she said, “And the more I talked to them, the predominant thing I heard about was their memories. It felt like Gem Spa was this special place, and if I spoke to that in some way, that’s something they’d pay for.” So, a T-shirt — something that the old-timers could take with them, and would entice newcomers — was made. After all, “most of the people who loved us had moved out, and 90 percent of this neighborhood is students,” Patel said. It’s not that young people didn’t think Gem Spa was worth saving — it’s that they weren’t aware of its significance. But with a shirt and an Instagram account, Patel could remind them that Gem Spa was part of New York City culture.
Currently, the only way to get a Gem Spa shirt is to go to the store and put your name on a list. You pay $20 up front, ideally in cash, and are given a handwritten receipt with your order, along with instructions to watch for updates on Instagram (@besteggcream). Then you wait. For model and photographer Remy Holwick, who’s lived in the East Village on and off for 17 years, the process felt familiar to “waiting for the drop” of a cult fashion brand. “As someone who works in fashion, it kind of strikes the same chord of devotion that the cult brands strike,” she said. “I was making jokes about it like ‘Guys, we need to set up like a red velvet rope outside of Gem Spa because we are all waiting in line for T-shirts now.’”
Holwick wasn’t the only person connected to the fashion world who noticed the shirt. Looking through Instagram, there are jewelry designers, artists, and clothing designers all posing with their shirts, and sometimes making their own Gem Spa-inspired art. This weekend, #SaveNYC is hosting a “Cash Mob” event at Gem Spa, featuring guerrilla art inspired by the store.
Kyle Brincefield, clothing designer at StudMuffinNYC who styled Missy Elliot for the VMAs, said Gem Spa was an integral part of his first years in New York. “I got into the fashion industry and would always run to Gem Spa to grab magazines that featured my pieces,” he said. So when they offered a shirt (and a print of Madonna outside the store), he felt it was an obvious way to show his support, literally, for a place that had always been there for him. Plus, the shirts are just objectively cool. “I think fashion wise; New Yorkers are genuine and passionate about their neighborhoods,” he said. “$20 for a T-shirt isn’t asking a lot to help out a local business that may be struggling. Giving back is cool. Caring is cool. The East Village is cool.”
For Holwick, buying the shirt was a similarly no-brainer way to both help the business and floss on fellow fashionistas. “Anyone who has spent time in the East Village loves this logo as much as we love any brand that we’re devoted to as New Yorkers,” she said. The shirts—which are black with the “Gem Spa” typography across the front—are eye-catching yet minimalistic. “It’s a genuinely cool logo,” she said, but that’s not the focus. Instead, it’s using fashion to bridge the gap between the ever-shifting concept of cool and the tangible losses of city landmarks. “We are all losing places in our neighborhoods to gentrification. We’re all seeing rents rise and seeing businesses that have defined our youths and defined previous eras be driven out. The Gem Spa response is this kind of perfect fashion moment where it can actually be about both.” Holwick, who is traveling for work, plans to wear her shirt around Paris Fashion Week.
Gem Spa has sold about 600 T-shirts in two months, and plans on expanding the merchandise line to include long sleeved jerseys, tank tops, PJs, and more. And what’s surprised Patel is how sincere the popularity feels; no one is buying these shirts ironically. “It’s all been organic,” she says, adding that some local designers have reached out to her about collaborating on variations of the T-shirt. “The support that we’ve gotten from the community is beyond my imagination,” says Patel, and to her, the popularity of the merch is proof that the love for the store was there, just needing someone to tap into it. “I’m fixing a mess still,” she says. “Now it’s just a more glamorous mess.”
Overnight, the struggling Gem Spa on 2nd Ave. & St. Mark's Place has been transformed into a 'Schitibank' — 'A New concept bank, in New York's bohemian East Village.' Heh. Perhaps this signage is for the cash mob here Saturday (Sept. 14) from noon to 2 p.m. pic.twitter.com/0jGqenX54U— evgrieve (@evgrieve) September 12, 2019
On Thursday, the sun rose to show Gem Spa transformed winkingly into a “Schitibank,” a stunt to promote the cash mob that will happen on Saturday, when New Yorkers are encouraged to visit the store between 12-2pm and spend their money on art, basic corner store conveniences, and, yes, Gem Spa T-shirts. Instagram posts, #savegemspa #streetwear #betterthansupreme, highly encouraged.