You’d be hard-pressed to find a “distinctive” newsstand in New York City. Yet after appearing in poetry from Ginsberg to Berrigan, gracing punk album covers and artwork by Basquiat, becoming the neighborhood’s go-to source for the egg cream, and keeping their doors open while high-end development disfigured the charming neighborhood around them, the nearly 100-year-old Gem Spa in Manhattan’s East Village has managed to achieve “iconic” status, at the very least.
According to local lore, the founders of Gem Spa were one of the first retailers to sell the egg cream, a flavored, carbonated milk beverage. Vending cigarettes, candy, lottery tickets, magazines, and newspapers 24 hours a day, Gem always had something for everyone, at any time. Located on a heavily trafficked corner of the city, the one-stop shop became a landmark through the 20th century, becoming a meeting ground for beats, hippies, punks, and everything in between.
Shifting neighborhood demographics, however, threaten the newsstand’s existence today. As regulation besets the crowded area, the landlord laxity that allowed the current owners to sell shirts and fedoras on the sidewalk for years has been curtailed. Astronomical rent hikes have forced many longtime regulars into outer boroughs as well, creating a corporate enclave that doesn’t regularly patronize newsstands. The store lost their cigarette and lottery license after an employee was caught selling cigarettes to a minor—cutting out 80 percent of the business’s sales.
The importance of Gem Spa to New Yorkers is evident in the tooth-and-nail efforts to salvage the business. The current owners’ daughter developed an Instagram account through which she began selling black t-shirts with “Gem Spa” across the chest in its signature font. The shirts have become a statement piece among area hypebeasts and skaters. She also leveraged the fad-thirsty interests of newer Village residents by selling juices, milkshakes, kombucha, and a vegan egg cream option to make up for the loss in cigarette and lottery sales. When Citibank was rumored to express interest in buying out the owners, an area blogger teamed up with a creative design firm to cover Gem Spa—with the owners’ blessing—in satirical advertisements for “Schitibank.” The concept gag preceded an organized “cash mob” aimed at stimulating the business with one day of mass patronage.
While developers relieve the Village of its singular character, Gem Spa looks to tether New Yorkers to the neighborhood’s history of arts and activism, to counter-culture, to mohawks, to egg creams, to cool.
Know Before You Go
Take the R or W train to 8th Street-NYU or the 6 train to Astor Place. The candy store is about a five-minute walk.