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Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Gem Spa et cetera

In New York City in the 1980's and 1990's we were fortunate to live near the Gem Spa a soda fountain and newsagent at the corner of St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue. There is testimony from neighbourhood residents who could remember going into the shop as children before WWI.
The Gem was a holdover from the days of proper soda fountains where you could buy an ice cream or egg cream, a cup of coffee, or a root beer float or sundae. It is one of the very few left. They also were and still are an excellent newsagent. Oh and an "egg cream" is a particular New York fountain soft drink which was created in Brooklyn and which does not include either eggs or cream.
Way back in the misty past of the pre-internet days I would purchase my NY Times, Guardian, Independent, Irish Times and other papers from their extensive selection of papers in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian and Chinese. They were one of the vendors that received and sold the complete Sunday New York Times on Saturday evening.
Antoinette and I used to walk out of a Saturday evening to see and be seen taking in the human carnival that was the East Village in the late 80's leaving Sean at home sleeping soundly in the king position. We'd head up to De Robertis' pastry shop on First Avenue and 11th Street order a half dozen large cannolis and pass by the Gem to pick up the NYT before heading home to put on a pot of coffee. My wife would grab the News sections, I would grab the crossword and Arts sections and plunge into the coffee, paper and connolis.
What really excited me though was their magazine selection. For a narrow little shop they had a huge selection of magazines covering many interests and again in several languages. They had all the British music publications like NME and Melody Maker and The Face in addition to Rolling Stone and other US pop star mags, auto and racing magazines, news mags, fashion mags, glamour mags etc. and best of all they sold no pornography.
I used to eagerly await the arrival of the latest CAR magazine from England with its stellar staff of editors and contributors which included  George Bishop, L. J. K. Setright, Ronald Barker, Mel Nichols, Steve Cropley, Russell Bulgin, Philip Llewellin, James May, Alexei Sayle, its sister Sports Car, and what grew to be my favourite, Classic & Sports Car. The British auto mags had larger format trim sizes and the paper stock was of a higher quality which increased the effect of the photography on their pages exponentially. Classic and Sports Car over time became my favourite due to its focus on a wide variety of vintage vehicles, British, European, and American. It covered too, the vintage racing scene which was much more active in Britain in those days than it seemed to be in the USA and had fascinating classifieds.
They also employed an illustrator who did a dissection of the vehicle that was featured in each issue and they used it to point out places on the car that needed special attention for maintenance and for restoration. Expert restorers were consulted to contribute their opinions and experience. It made for a thorough and invaluable resource for someone like myself who was seeing some of these cars for the first time or for someone who was considering purchasing or restoring one. In short, terrific stuff for motor heads.

A visit to the Gem could cost me quite a bit as it could involve purchasing 2 British magazines at about 5 bucks a pop (the US ones -Road & Track, Car and Driver, Autoweek- fortunately I received gratis at work) a couple of newspapers at $3.25 each, the latest NME $3 and a pack or 2 of cigarettes.
Have I mentioned they were also tobacconists? They stocked Rothmans, Dunhill, Players Navy Cut, Gaulois, Gitanes, Craven A's from Jamaica along with all the US brands, cigars, loose tobacco, and cigarette papers.
In short a small slice of heaven for me and just a few minutes walk from our flat on East 3rd Street.