Signs of the Times

By Dana Bowen

Published on September 6, 2009

We walk or drive past them every day: the old-fashioned bakeries with the phrase "pastry shop" adorning the façade in aluminum cursive lettering; the butcher shops with the name of the owner's family neatly painted on the front window. Too often, it's only after one of those old establishments is replaced by, say, a Dunkin' Donuts that we realize just how reassuring, how quirky and beautiful, their storefronts were. Strung together along a city block, they're urban art: timepieces that speak to the history and craft behind these food businesses. Two New York photographers, James T. and Karla L. Murray, make a strong case for preserving these relics in Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, a book of the couple's work published in March by Gingko Press. The Murrays were drawn to the colorful, fanciful signs that announce the names and wares of these mom-and-pop shops. Since the couple started working on the book, in 1998, more than half of the 226 stores they documented have closed. But some—like Russ & Daughters, a tiny, 95-year-old shop selling smoked fish and other traditional Jewish delicacies on New York City's Lower East Side—continue to be run by younger generations of the family. The Murrays hope that their book helps convey the enduring value of spots like Russ & Daughters. "When a place like that closes," Karla says, "the neighborhood just isn't the same."

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