East Village Residents Are Rallying to Save an Egg Cream Institution
New York City's 80-year-old Gem Spa was once the hangout of icons like rock legend Patti Smith.
Several years ago, The Village Voice published a guide to the landmarks that iconic rocker and poet Patti Smith wrote about in her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids. Smith beautifully detailed life in New York City in the 1970s, a decade that many would argue was the city's most electric, most exciting, and most iconic. But that version of the city only exists in books like hers, on the back covers of reissued records, and in nicotine-stained photo albums stacked on the top shelves of nicotine-stained closets.
Brentano’s bookstore where Smith once worked is an oversized Sephora now. The Hit Factory recording studio has been turned into luxury condos. And legendary club CBGB became a John Varvatos store. But the corner store where Smith's then-lover, the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, bought her an egg cream still exists. And, even better, it still serves those same now-legendary egg creams—although the shop is desperately trying to keep its doors open after a series of setbacks, lawsuits, and six-figure debts.
The shop at the corner of St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue has been serving egg creams since the 1930s, and it's been known for decades as the place to get one of the hand-made, hand-stirred combinations of milk, syrup, and seltzer. (Despite the name, an egg cream doesn't contain eggs or cream. And forget the drink's origin: even its etymology has been a long-time point of contention.) The shop was renamed Gem Spa—an acronym for the names of the then-owner's wife and exes—in the 1950s, and it was purchased by its current owner, Ray Patel, in the mid-1980s.
Patel's daughter, Parul, has taken over the day-to-day operation of the store, and she recently admitted to the New York Times that the store is struggling. Her father had been operating Gem Spa at a significant loss. It was stripped of its tobacco and lottery licenses (and lost an estimated 80% of its business) earlier this year after a now-former employee made a questionable sale to an undercover officer. And the owner of the building where Gem Spa has been wedged for decades has filed a lawsuit, alleging that the Patels owe thousands in back rent.
Patel has had to get creative in order to keep the shop open: there's now a Gem Spa Instagram account, and she's selling official Gem Spa t-shirts and art prints, and boy howdy, does she have to move a lot of Juul cartridges—the store's biggest moneymaker—every week. (And with the safety of e-cigarettes in question, it's probably not the best time to be in that business.)
Last weekend, a group of its East Village neighbors held a well-attended "cash mob" to drive traffic to the store, share its story on social media, and put some much-needed money in its till. "I can't tell you how many gallons of U-Bet [chocolate syrup] were used, but the egg cream soda fountain never stopped flowing for three hours, as fans of Gem lined up out the door of the store to get a taste of what the place does best—and to keep them alive," event organizer and author Jeremiah Moss wrote on his website, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York.
But that was just for a few hours on a single Saturday, and Gem Spa owes some $17,000 in monthly rent. The store will be able to reapply for its licenses to sell smokes and lottery tickets in another couple of months, but until then, whether you're a local or just visiting, it's worth dropping in for its signature drink. (Even NYC & Company, the city's official marketing and tourism organization, describes the shop as "a New York City institution, thanks to its egg creams.")
Gem Spa isn't the only place in the five boroughs that serves the sweet drink, but it's quite possibly the most iconic. If we've learned anything from this city, though, it's that even icons can be replaced, re-named, and re-inventoried with eyeshadow palettes, high-dollar rentals, or $2,000 trucker jackets.