Photo by Genghis
WIGGED-OUT HANGOUT: Gem Spa on the corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place.
“Gem Spa is a newspaper stand located on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. It opened under another name in the 1920s, and received its current name in 1957. It is open 24 hours a day, and is known for selling authentic New York City-style egg creams, which its awning describes as ‘New York’s Best.’ It does not stock pornographic magazines, and it gets magazines delivered one or two days before other New York City newsstands.
In the 1950s, Gem Spa was a gathering place for beats, and in the 1960s it was a hippie hangout, known for selling a wide selection of underground newspapers. New York Magazine named it the best newsstand in the East Village in 2001, and it has been featured on television programs about food, including Kelly Choi’s Secrets of New York.
‘It had been a Beat mecca in the 1950s, a hippie hangout in the sixties and more recently was the scene of a famous photograph of the Dolls.’ —Gary Valentine Lachman of Blondie.
The Lower East Side History Project reports the site was an outlet for the Chain Shirt Shop in 1922, and that Gem Spa had opened by the 1950s. Sociologist Daniel Bell, who claimed in the 1970s that his uncle Hymie created the egg cream, says that another man called Hymie owned a candy store serving egg creams on the site of Gem Spa in the 1920s. Village Voice reported in the 1970s that people remembered going to the store before World War I. For thirty years up until 1957 the store was owned by the Goldfeather family.
From 1957 until at least 1969 the store was owned by Ruby Silverstein and Harold Shephard, who employed 11 staff to keep it open 24 hours a day – Silverstein estimated that every 30 seconds someone walked in the store. The clientele initially mainly bought Jewish and foreign-language papers, which began to change around 1963 as they sold more copies of the Village Voice and underground magazines. Silverstein and Shephard gave the store its current name, initially Gem’s Spa – the name comes from Gladys, Etta, and Miriam, the names of the wives of Silverstein and Shephard and Shephard’s ex-wife. The owner in 1971 was Irving Stein. The store was closed for a time from February 1972 when it ran into financial trouble, and the storefront caught fire that May. The owner in 2005 was Ray Patel, who was born in the early 1940s in Gujarat, India. He learned making egg creams from the previous Italian owner, who in turn learned it from his Jewish predecessor.
In 1966, The Village Voice called it the ‘official oasis of the East Village’; it was known as a ‘hippie hangout.’ Abbie Hoffman gathered people for his 1967 protest at the New York Stock Exchange at Gem Spa, Allen Ginsberg called it a ‘nerve center’ of the city, and the Art Workers’ Coalition had their offices above the store. In the late 60s it was midway between two other iconic venues, the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus.
In popular culture Gem Spa is featured prominently in the book The Mad Man by Samuel R Delany, who lived in the neighborhood. It is also featured on the back cover of the first album by the New York Dolls. Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan both mentioned the stand in their works.”
My Sportster “Sally The Bitch” was at the end of the line of Harleys, parked in front of Gem Spa, the candy store at the corner of Second Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, in the Lower East Side of NYC. “Candy store” is NYC vernacular for any newspaper store which sold newspapers, candy, soda and a variety of sundry products designed to lubricate a New Yorker’s day. This might include items such as cigarettes, rolling papers, condoms, batteries and a hundred other necessities of life, required in the Naked City. There are a million stories in the Naked City, and the storyline of Gem Spa The Candy Store, is that it was the Ace Cafe for Harley riders of the 1960s.
I was proud of my Sportster. I’d recently disassembled Sally to mold her frame and paint her candy apple red. She had a cut down rear fender riding on Smith Brothers & Fetrow struts, no front fender, a Frisco-mounted Sporty tank, and drag bars on five inch glide risers. In a switch from today’s trend, I painted her rear and front spokes black, and left the rims chrome. I painted her cam cover black, too. Sally was a beauty. A cantankerous beauty.
Next to Sally on this Harley line, was Mitch “Hippie” Diamond’s gold rigid pan. Mitch’s bike had a wishbone frame, moustrap, and six inch extended wide glide with glide risers and six inch z-bars. Mitch was the one who gave me the nickname of Genghis. He Said, “Hey Genghis, z-bars rule, ya know. I bet that yer Sportster isn’t as hard to kickstart as my pan.” I said, no way, man. Sally’s definitely harder to kick over, her compression’s higher.
We took turns kicking over each bike. To my surprise, Mitch’s pan took more leverage to start, and this is what Mitch meant: That there was more metal to move around in his Harley 74, than in my 55 cube Sportster. Also surprising me, was the amount of hand pressure one had to apply to the clutch lever with the mousetrap setup. I’ll tell ya what ruled: Mousetrap eliminators. Steppenwolf, who was there with his straight-leg panhead, agreed that pans required more leg effort fo kickstarting.
Arthur “Steppenwolf” Sellers, was a one percenter who belonged to the Rat Pack M.C. Ironically, even though Mitch and Arthur were friends, it would be another Rat Pack member who would eventually murder Mitch in Mitch’s railroad apartment on Second Street. On this day however, that murder wasn’t even a glint in the killer’s eye. After the Rat Packer murdered Mitch, he cleaned out Mitch’s place of Harley parts.
The fight that led to the murder, was over money. Mitch was letting the Rat Packer park his Harley in his ground-floor Second Street apartment, and Mitch refused to let the Rat Packer take his bike out until the Rat Packer paid money owed to Mitch. Here’s one thing that severely disappointed me after Mitch’s death: Arthur showed up with a sissy bar on his panhead, that belonged to Mitch and was stolen from Mitch’s apartment after his murder. It looked like the Rat pack M.C. shared the wealth of Harley parts glommed from Mitch’s apartment. Steppenwolf’s attitude was, “Hey, I didn’t have anything to do with Mitch’s death, but why waste parts if we can use ’em?”
Arthur lived on Sixth Street between First and Second Avenues. His was one of two buildings on the block painted red. I pass this building every day on my way to work now, and it still has the same faded red paint it sported over forty years ago. Arthur’s apartment was the first ground floor apartment, whose door was inset twenty feet from the street. The windows of his apartment faced the street. His apartment door was the first on the left, just past the building’s inner locking door past the vestibule.
Arthur used to wrestle his pan into his apartment, which was an arduous task. This sometimes took up to twenty minutes. He had to drag the bike from the street into the narrow hallway past the front door, then make a tight left turn once he got past the second inner door, into his apartment. Then he had to make another tight left turn once in the apartment, to bring his bike to the front room adjacent to the street, because that was the only room in this cramped apartment spacious enough so that the bike would be out of one’s way. This is known euphemistically, as an “NYC garage.”
Arthur was an actor, who I got to see appear in the movie “The Hospital.” This was a 1971 flick that was shot at Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, starring George C. Scott. As I remember, Arthur had a short scene in the flick playing a resident. My ex-wife Nancie and I used to watch Star Trek episodes in Arthur’s apartment, during which Arthur would critique and mimick William Shatner’s portrayal of Captain Kirk. Arthur would say, “Man, this guy is great!”
Often joining us was one of Nancie’s and Arthur’s friends, whose name escapes me. This wispy, willowly and taciturn brunette, eventually married the actor Joe Dallesandro, one of Warhol’s crowd. This woman hardly ever spoke, but was very sweet, very good natured. When I used to visit Joe and his wife, Joe would dramatically offer, “Hey, you’re a biker. I’m impressed!” I never was able to ascertain if his comments were consciously patronizing, or not. One of Joe’s most memorable comments to me was about Syliva Miles, and older actress that he had a nude scene with in a flick. Joe said, “She’s got great tits for an old lady!”
Arthur’s pan was the third bike on line in front of Gem Spa. He also had a wide glide fork extended six inches, and had buckhorn bars on glide risers. His was a straight-leg pan painted black, with no front fender and a chrome rear fender. In that space between the gusset bar that ran between the top tube and the bottom of the frame’s neck, Arthur welded a metal lattice plate, giving it a distinct look. Shortly after this, Arthur tore the bike down to have his motor rebuilt, including the cosmetic repair of a chipped front cylinder fin. This defect looked like someone placed his thumb on the fin, and broke it off in the shape of the thumb. When Arthur’s motor was being rebuilt, we stored his pan’s rolling chassis in my parents’ Chinese laundry in Queens.
Arthur called me at work a few years ago, out of the blue. He now lives in Los Angeles and he married a Chinese woman. Arthur became a Hollywood screenwriter. The next bike in line parked in front of Gem Spa, was Spade George’s Harley. George, who many bikers know of, has a shop in California now, and was also a member of the Rat Pack M.C. The last time I saw George was in 1970, when my ex and I visited him where he lived in Daly City. He lived in a multi-bedroom house that was a commune for bikers. Including bikers who lived there, was a double-amputee who rode a Harley trike.
There were other Harleys parked in front of Gem Spa that day. The identity of the owners of these bikes have been fogged in my memory, by the passage of time. Gem Spa, was indeed the Ace Cafe of the ’60s for us, and is an institution that survives to this day, and acted as a silent witness to many eras that celebrated bohemian lifestyles of the Lower East Side. Gem Spa of the 1960s, was the nexus of the counterculture movement, since it was situated on St Mark’s Place. St. Mark’s Place was the gathering ground of the tribes of the day. One of those tribes consisted of bikers. The only difference between us and the English bikers who gathered at the Ace Cafe, was choice of beverage. While they sipped coffee in between doing the ton, we slugged down chocolate and vanilla egg creams, in between doing burnouts on Second Avenue.
I have a forty year history with Gem Spa. I’ve been a regular there since I moved from Queens to the Lower East Side in 1969. Gem Spa is for me, one of those inexplicably stable anchors in a life, where other entities come and go. Sort of like an old Harley. In the 1980s, I went there to buy the magazines that I wrote for, eagerly looking for these Rainbow Publications titles. These were Black Belt, Karate-Kung Fu Illustrated and Martial Arts Training magazines. In the 1990s, I went there eagerly looking for Iron Horse magazine. Snow’s Iron Horse was my favorite rag to write for, and Gem Spa would be among the first newsstands to carry the new IHs.
I generally have a strong attachment to the Lower East Side as Home, and places like Gem Spa as symbolic of my longstanding history with the Lower East Side. Businesses come and go in the area, but Gem Spa, like a faithful ‘ole Harley, still chugs along, year after year, decade after decade. It is such a little store, so unassuming and unimposing, that its appearance belies its historical significance to the Lower East Side. Two blocks downtown from Gem Spa, was another Lower East Side icon, the Fillmore East. Three blocks further south from the Fillmore, was (and still is) the Hells Angels clubhouse. The Fillmore East is just a grass-hazed memory, but Gem Spa continues on.
For the past twenty years, I’ve ducked into Gem Spa every morning on the way to work, to buy a newspaper and scope out the magazines. I’ve done this ever since I got a job on Ninth Street near University Place. My walking trajectory from my apartment on South Street next to the East River, to work, places Gem Spa directly in my pathway. Gem Spa is only nine feet wide and thirty feet long. The first thing you encounter, are the newspapers on sale on a counter in front of the store’s window. The window consists of a speakeasy’s sliding window, allowing the clerks to collect money from customers on the street. On display outside Gem Spa, are wigs, hats and bags, depending on the season. All of the clerks at Gem Spa as far back as I can remember, were Indian.
The format of the store hasn’t changed much over the years. Constants are the counter in the front-left of the store, lined with candy. Both walls are dominated by racks of magazines. Gem Spa is one of those old-timey feeling places in NYC that oozes authenticity. There is definitely a low-rent feel to the place, and I mean this in a good way. Too much plastic and shiny metal is so impersonal.
The Harleys are gone. They, and the bikers who rode ’em, no longer congregate in front of Gem Spa. The bikers who hung here have scattered to all points across America. Maybe Mitch’s ghost still hangs here. My Sportster’s somewhere in England. Who knows what she looks like now. But, Gem Spa is still there, waiting for the next sociologically interesting lifestyle to roll by, revitalizing Gem Spa’s role as silent witness. I’m still here too, buying papers and magazines. Hey man, Gem Spa, along with my Harley 74 Mabel, will be going the distance. Later.