Long-standing East Village candy store associated with egg creams and counter culture figures
"Everyone, it seems, is somewhere else. / None are lost, tho. At least, we aren’t. . . / I’m right here / sunlight opening up the sidewalk. . . ." So wrote Beat poet Ted Berrigan in Many Happy Returns, a poem published in a volume of the same title in 1969, specifically referencing Gem’s Spa. Fifty years later, this beloved East Village candy store, famous for its classic New York City egg creams, is still right here, on the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue, at least for the moment. In the fall of 2018, after more than thirty years in business, long-standing Gem Spa owner Ray Patel developed severe Parkinsons Disease and stepped down from behind the counter he loved so dearly. His daughter, Parul, took over the helm only to discover that the ship was in danger of sinking. The elder Patel had worked tirelessly...
"Everyone, it seems, is somewhere else. / None are lost, tho. At least, we aren’t. . . / I’m right here / sunlight opening up the sidewalk. . . ." So wrote Beat poet Ted Berrigan in Many Happy Returns, a poem published in a volume of the same title in 1969, specifically referencing Gem’s Spa. Fifty years later, this beloved East Village candy store, famous for its classic New York City egg creams, is still right here, on the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue, at least for the moment. In the fall of 2018, after more than thirty years in business, long-standing Gem Spa owner Ray Patel developed severe Parkinsons Disease and stepped down from behind the counter he loved so dearly. His daughter, Parul, took over the helm only to discover that the ship was in danger of sinking. The elder Patel had worked tirelessly to keep his customers happy, and had donated ninety-nine percent of his income to charity, so it never occurred to his successor that the family store was in serious financial trouble.
In reality, Gem Spa’s business model has been nearing obsolescence for some time. Commercial candy can’t compete with bespoke donuts, fanciful frozen yogurt, and mini-matcha cupcakes; soda is outpaced by cold brew coffee and cold pressed juice. People are cutting back on smoking, and print media is practically an anachronism. Rather than investing in advertising, Mr. Patel had always relied on word of mouth. While Gem Spa has a dedicated corps of regular customers, their numbers and spending habits are not sufficient to support an independent business, especially when the owners make a mere half penny off of every fifty-cent newspaper sale, and a measly thirty cents on each six-dollar New York Times. Further, the business must spend $1000 per day upfront, and if papers are missing or stolen, it comes out of Gem Spa’s pockets.
In April 2019, the store lost its lifeline—its license to sell cigarettes—after a seasoned employee was caught selling to an underage undercover cop. New York State’s Department of Taxation and Finance issues tobacco retail certificates of registration, the suspension or revocation of which can also invalidate a retailer’s lottery license, as it did in Gem Spa’s case. Tobacco sales have long provided the bulk of the store’s revenue, and as such, Gem Spa and its staff are extremely careful to abide by the state’s Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act (ATUPA). Their register more or less requires the merchant to check for an ID and then press yes to open and complete the sale. The younger Patel suspects that the bust was a set-up designed to force them off of their high-value, high visibility corner.
You really couldn’t ask for better real estate than Gem Spa’s. Indeed, in Jane Wilson’s 1969 New York Magazine article entitled “The Anatomy of a Candy Store,” then-owner Ruby Silverstein mused, “this has been an active corner for over forty years, a corner you can really do something with.” Despite the many “fantastic offers” Silverstein received for his storefront, the space has incubated small businesses since at least 1922, when it hosted the Goldfeather family’s shirt shop. In 1957, Silverstein and Harold Shephard bought the lease on the ground floor property, and dubbed their candy store Gems Spa, an acronym for Gladys, Etta, and Miriam, the names of the owners’ wives as well as the wife of Shepard’s former business partner. Silverstein and Shephard took great pride in knowing how to stock just the right inventory to meet local demand, which included everything from daily rags to foreign language newspapers to leftwing underground periodicals; from literary reviews to T.V. Guide to Playboy. Gems Spa catered to the Lower East Side’s stalwart Eastern European and Puerto Rican residents, as well as the East Village’s artists, Beatniks, hippies, and punks. Counter culture catalysts including Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Ted Berrigan were known to gather at the coffee counter, and tourists from uptown, across the rivers, and around the world flocked to Gems Spa to take in the spectacle and pageantry that defined the infamous intersection.
The masses also came for the egg creams, which may or may not have been invented on site. No one really knows where egg creams came from, but purveyors are notoriously proud, competitive, and secretive about their recipes despite the fact that they all contain exactly and only the same three ingredients: milk, seltzer, and flavored syrup. Is the confidentiality around construction all about alchemy? When Second Avenue was a mecca of Yiddish Theater, soda fountains abounded, and egg creams were everywhere. Many shop owners made their own syrups, with chocolate and vanilla the requisite classics. Now there are only a handful of places to buy an egg cream—all of which claim to serve the best—and most makers swear by Fox’s UBet Syrups.
Gem Spa changed hands in 1971, and owner Irving Stein found himself contending with junkies and financial troubles that led to a short-term closure and new management in early 1972. Ray Patel took over in 1986. Born in Gujarat, India, Patel came to New York at the age of thirty-two, seeking opportunity. Initially he owned his own travel business, and then operated corner stores in nearly all of the five boroughs before obtaining Gem Spa’s lease. Patel ran the store with his wife, and learned to make egg creams from his Italian predecessor, who, in turn, learned from the previous Jewish owners.
Now his daughter Parul is teaching the nearly century-old business some new tricks, and she is reviving some cherished old ones. She has introduced custom Gem Spa merchandise, including an eye-catching t-shirt, and is planning to release additional branded items in the coming months. She has also mounted an intensive Instagram campaign, with @besteggcream as her nom de plume. Fans near and far (Denmark, Australia, Alaska, for example) and have invested in Gem Spa gear and lent much-need media muscle. East Village business owners, including other second-generation leaders, have rallied around Parul, sporting Gem Spa t-shirts and spreading the word about the store’s plight to their own audiences (B&H Dairy, open since 1938 and Fineline Tattoo, established 1976), and stopping by with a supportive tray of their classic treats (Veniero’s cannoli).
Parul is also adding visual art and photography to Gem Spa’s decor, particularly vintage depictions of the store, large-scale prints of press they’ve received over the decades, and iconic images like the 1973 cover of the New York Dolls’ eponymous first album, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1982 painting Untitled (Gem Spa), and David Godlis’ 1984 photograph of Madonna during the filming of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” She is also opening the walls to local artists to show and sell their Gem Spa-related work. A friend is printing Metrocards featuring Gem Spa’s likeness.
Purists may balk, but Parul has already stepped up Gem Spa’s egg cream game by adding new flavors like mango and creamsicle, and offering a vegan variety with almond milk. The concept and method are entirely traditional, and the strategy seems to be working. “Egg Creams set us apart—that’s our heritage. I take that seriously, but we also need to stay current,” Parul says. She is adamant about maintaining Gem Spa’s egg cream notoriety. “We need to honor our history and that means we need to serve frozen milk to make it right. There’s only three ingredients, but there are so many ways to screw it up. The difference between the average egg cream and the best is very slight, but that is what we stake our reputation on.”
Milkshakes, offered in the olden days, are coming back, and if everything goes well, the cigarettes and lottery tickets will return, too. Gem Spa’s tobacco penalty ends in October, and although Parul must apply to reactivate the registration she already technically has, in theory the store’s revenue streams will stabilize by the end of the year. At that point, she plans to apply for a beer license, which, if granted, will put Gem Spa on track to pay off outstanding debt, meet the $21,000 monthly baseline expenses, and rehire staff to relieve Parul from her current grueling fourteen-hour workday.
“My customers and neighbors are my support. They are my family. No, correction. They are beyond family. The amount of outpouring has been incredible,” Parul says. Even the punks who assemble and panhandle on Second Avenues sidewalks have pledged their devotion, keeping watchful eyes on the store when she opens early every morning, and offering hands when heavy lifting is required. “Everyone is sick of seeing generic stores replace things that have meaning, that made the East Village the icon that it is. We’re one of the last, if not the last, on St. Marks. When does it end?”
With help and support from friends, neighbors, and allies, it looks like Gem Spa is stepping into its role as David, taking on the goliath forces that have conspired to change the East Village over the last several decades. Maybe the time has come, and one small business can really help to save the funky, punky soul of the neighborhood, which has lost myriad venues like the CBGB’s, the Fillmore East, Electric Circus, and many more mom and pop shops, legendary bars, and culture bearers. Egg cream may be a misnomer, but don’t mess with it. In the immortal words of rocker, writer, and poet Lou Reed,
When I was a young man - no bigger than this
A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed
Some U Bets Chocolate Syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk
Stir it up into a heady fro - tasted just like silk
You scream, I steam, We all want Egg Cream.
(from Set the Twilight Reeling, 1996)