Parul Patel stood behind the counter at Gem Spa, the nearly 100-year-old East Village corner store on the corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. Her face mask and gloves were on, but there wasn’t a customer in sight — the store had been closed for weeks. Most of the shelves had been torn off the walls, and what snacks and bottles of soda remained were now mostly strewn on the floor, the result of a quick breakdown after it was announced last Thursday that the store would close permanently. Gem Spa is the latest small business to close in part due to the COVID-19 shutdowns, and it most certainly will not be the last.
“You’re welcome to take footage if you want; it’s not a pretty sight,” said Patel.
Gem Spa has been an East Village institution for decades, heralded as the birthplace of the egg cream and known for being the background to the neighborhood’s punk rock years. But recently, the store ran into financial trouble as a result of losing its cigarette and tobacco license, a major source of revenue. Its lottery license was also suspended because of outstanding debt. Patel came in to clean house and replace her father Ray, who has owned the store since 1986 but is now battling Parkinson’s Disease.
Patel put up a good fight, pivoting to e-cigarettes and launching a streetwear brand emblazoned with the iconic store’s logo, which had also appeared in movies and on album art. “Little by little, it was really going in the right direction,” said Patel. “I’m telling you, if it wasn’t for this pandemic, we were on the verge of explosive growth.”
As Patel prepared to lock up for the last time, Eater spoke with her about what happened, what more could’ve been done to avert closure, and what she sees for the future. Her statements have been edited for clarity.
“Under normal circumstances, we were barely breaking even. We were on the trajectory, but it was gonna take time. But with half the people on the street or nobody on the street, there’s no chance. It was gonna take about six to 12 months. We have $20,500 for the landlord. Then we have insurance, tax, utilities, water, garbage, all these people want to be paid. So a lot of money. For six months, you’re looking at about 120 grand [to stay afloat].”
“I barely raised $4,000 on GoFundMe [that I launched after the shutdown]. I was very shocked. The amount of people that have told me to do a GoFundMe in the last year, and they told me you could easily raise $100,000. All I could do was $4,000… But the funny thing is, now that we’re closing, now everybody wants to buy in. And they’re like, what can I do, I wish I could give you money. But it’s too late. It’s too late. It’s not enough.”
“The city required people to shut down. That’s fine. That’s honorable and the right thing to do. But what they should have done hand-in-hand is freeze rent for us. Freeze mortgage payments until the federal bank supports us. That would have been the right way. It would have been less catastrophic.”
“Look what they did with the small business grants, they give $10 million to Shake Shack. I knew from the application that this was a hoax, because on the application, they actually had this ridiculous question: If you have less than 500 employees, blah, blah, blah. It’s like, no small business ever has 500 employees. That’s not even a midsize business. That is a large business. So I knew. I was like, ‘okay, this question. That means we’re never gonna see this.’”
“I feel like the government’s going to have to support businesses and help them survive. It’s not going to return for at least six months, and that’s really optimistic. I think it’s more like a year. And I don’t know how many businesses have that staying power.”
“If you’re not a grocery or you’re not vape [store], you’re not gonna survive, and even vapes are about to go out of business. Look: soda, candy, chips. Health wise, people stopped eating this stuff. Whatever they’re ordering, they’re ordering on Amazon and get delivered to their door. It’s cheaper. New Yorkers want convenience, and they want to save money… The people who live here, they love us, but they’re not going to walk five blocks to come and buy their cigarettes here, or their soda. They’re not even going to walk one block if there’s a guy in the middle. That’s just how New York is. ”
“The neighborhood that appreciates old New York is not here. This neighborhood is all young professionals. They want everything beautiful. They want everything new.”
“I was running it with my heart. And I did not want to let go of my baby, because it was my dad’s baby and it became my baby.”