Volume 73, Number 31 | December 3 - 9, 2003

NOTEBOOK

This is my Village; my mom-and-pop store story

By Lisa Ellex

In 1906, my great-grandparents left their town in Italy and found their way to Christopher St. in Greenwich Village. On that street, my great-grandfather opened a shoe repair shop where he and his wife lived in the back. My great-grandmother birthed and raised seven children in the back of this tiny shop. The shop is gone now and in its place is Ty’s bar.

When their seventh daughter, my grandma Ida, was old enough, she played piano for the silent movies on Christopher St. That theatre is now recognized as The Lucille Lortel. Grandma Ida saved enough money to open her own business. In fact she had several. The first, a luncheonette on Bedford St., was where my mom and her brothers and sisters would have dinner every night after my grandma closed shop. I was the first grandchild to be born and on that day, my grandmother wrote on the store window, “It’s a girl!” That shop is gone now. In its place is the Middle Eastern restaurant Moustache.

My grandmother struck gold when she opened her new luncheonette on Hudson and Christopher Sts. She made the best egg creams and tuna fish sandwiches around. Before the sun rose, she’d serve the longshoremen on their way to the docks. Forced to help as children, my mother and her sisters had no interest in the family business. My mother’s brother joined the Marines, and eventually grandma Ida sold the business to a Portuguese immigrant. The luncheonette is gone. In its place are three shops: a deli, a barber and a “spy” shop.

When I was nine, my mother took me to watch my father play in the stickball World Series. The players would meet on the corner of Greenwich and Barrow Sts. The game took place in the street. My father was a stickball champion. From home plate, you could see the post office on Greenwich and Christopher. If you were a boy turning 18 years old, that big building meant one thing: draft registration. Walk by now and you’ll see a different kind of boot camp: Crunch gym. And of course, that post office has been renovated into The Archives apartment building.

When I was 14, my father took me to the West Side Highway to teach me to drive. This was the ideal place to learn because there was no traffic. Just rats and a few prostitutes. After my lesson, we drove back to Christopher St. and parked the car in front of our door. You always got a spot in front of your door. As a reward for not hitting anything, my father gave me a nickel to buy a chocolate lollipop from Lilac’s. Though they’ve passed down to a third owner, Lilac’s is still there.

Like my grandmother and my mother, I could never leave the Village. I tried a few times, but came back home. My daughter attends school down the block from that longshoreman’s luncheonette. She asks what all this talk about “the Meat Market” means. She doesn’t understand why everyone is so angry about Wal-Mart and Costco. She thinks they’re really cool places.

As I walk with my daughter to Lilac’s to buy a chocolate lollipop (40 cents plus tax!), I tell her of my memories. The Christopher St. on which I rode my bike, roller-skated and hula-hooped will always be there. My daughter says it looks like a dirty mall. As we turn the corner onto Bleecker St., there is another mall. A nicer mall, filled with Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Fresh and soon-to-be Gucci. To keep the illusion of that “mom and pop” business, they throw in a few boutiques run by “hobby wives.” No one seems to mind this mall. They didn’t bother to petition or go to the community board to try to stop it. I guess they like the stores. Maybe they’ve never been to Short Hills.

I look out my bedroom window at 5 a.m. The loud creak of the 100-year-old hardware store sign often wakes me. Rumor has it that this newly vacated site is the future home for Louis Vuitton. I watch the cars of johns that stop to talk to the hookers. They are not the West Side Highway hookers that once serviced the longshoremen. These are the “trannie” hookers that service the guys from the burbs and outer boroughs. The sun comes up over Greenwich Village and business is still booming.

This is my Village, love it or leave it. This is my Village. Where people come to buy $3.2 million brownstones only to gut them and invest another $3.2 million. My grandmother is rolling in her grave. Not because she is upset but because she is laughing so hard.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see great-grandpa and grandma at work. I remember the days when I could ride my bike around the sidewalk on Christopher St. and not see a single person. You couldn’t smoke a cigarette or misbehave because the old men on the corner would yell at you and threaten to tell your parents. I can hear the horse and buggies clopping across Bleecker St. to sell fruit and vegetables to the old ladies. Now we shop for produce at Chelsea Market. I guess the fruit is better Uptown.

Well, like the song says, “Everything Must Change.” Meet me for a cup of coffee and tell me how your birthplace has changed. I hear there’s a new Starbucks opening soon.


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