Monday, September 19, 2016

Spotlight on Gem Spa, a stop on our upcoming Storefront: A Historic East Village Food Tour for Untapped Cities

Please join us on Sunday, October 9th at 12pm as we lead a Storefront: A Historic East Village Food Tour for Untapped Cities @untappedcities. On this walking and tasting tour of some of our favorite East Village food establishments, you can discover the food, history, and diverse culture of our neighborhood while tasting delicious specialties from at least 6 different tasting stops.

On this tour you will learn about the diverse German, Italian, Jewish and Ukrainian history of the East Village and try some fresh homemade mozzarella, drink an authentic New York City egg cream or have a freshly roasted cup of ‪coffee‬, taste a hot Ukrainian potato pierogi with toppings, sample a freshly baked Jewish sugar cookie, enjoy an authentic New York hot dog and tropical drink and taste a freshly baked cannoli. Enough food will be sampled so that for most people lunch afterwards is not needed.

Tickets for this tour are $40 (food included) and can be purchased at:  

(Photo above of Gem Spa (2001) from our book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York)

One of the many small businesses we will stop and sample a drink from is the newsstand/candy store Gem Spa, located on Second Avenue at the corner of St. Mark's Place. Gem Spa was originally called “Gems Spa” and was founded in 1957 by Ruby Silverstein and his partner Harold Shepard. In an interview in 1969 with New York Magazine, Ruby explained that the name “Gems” comes from a combination of the initial letters of Gladys, Etta, Miriam, and Silverstein-Shepard. The three ladies used in deriving the name were his wife, his partner’s ex-wife, and his partner’s current wife. The “Spa” is a word that he says was picked up when he was overseas in the service.

(Photo above from NY Times 1969)

Ruby kept Gems Spa open 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week and estimated that “someone comes into the store every 30 seconds, averaged out over 24 hours. Notice that I did not say ‘purchase’ –but someone walks in every 30 seconds”.   Gems Spa is where Jack Kerouac and other beat poets got their egg creams in the 1950s and it also became a hangout for many musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, who performed at the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus, which were located on either side of the store. Patti Smith was a long-time customer and the New York Dolls shot their 1973 debut album, New York Dolls back cover in front of Gem Spa.

(New York Dolls album back cover)

Poets Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan both mentioned Gem Spa in their work and Gem Spa is also the name of one of the major works painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982.

(Photo of Ted Berrigan at Gem Spa by Gerard Malanga 1971)

(Photo of Basquiat painting "Gem Spa" 1982)

Before Ruby took over the lease for the space, it had operated as a candy store by another name since 1920 and was run by the Goldfeather family. The current owner, Ray Patel bought the business in 1986, but has only slightly changed the storefront and expanded its outside vending area, selling hats, socks, sunglasses, scarves, gloves and wigs.

Gem Spa is still famous for its egg creams, a quintessential New York beverage originally served in candy stores throughout the Lower East Side beginning in the 1920s. The egg cream, is said to have been invented at this candy store. Contrary to its name, the egg cream does not contain eggs or cream but is a mixture of very cold milk, seltzer, and flavored syrup. It is believed that the name “egg cream” came from the egg-white-like foam that rose to the top of the glass. Another theory about its unusual name is that the words echt keem, Yiddish for “pure sweetness” were used to describe the drink and the Anglicized form of the words led to “egg cream”.  The Gem Spa owners have always kept their milk on ice because one of the keys to making a great egg cream is to use extremely cold milk.

(Detail of Gem Spa interior soda fountain/egg cream prep area)

It’s also “all in the way you stir it,” Ray Patel told us when interviewing him for our book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.  Because most of the original soda fountain locations have closed, true egg creams are rapidly disappearing.  To this day, Gem Spa continues to make their egg creams using the same recipe and original soda fountain machine from the 1940s.  The countermen learned to make egg creams from the previous owner who learned from the previous owner before him.  The chocolate, vanilla, and coffee-flavored syrups were once made in the basement by the store’s original owner but Gem Spa now uses the famous Brooklyn-made Fox’s U-Bet flavored syrups. On a typical weekend night, Gem Spa sells about 70 egg creams.

In Lou Reed’s 1996 song “Egg Cream” he sang that, “When I was a young man, no bigger than this / A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed / Some U-Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk / You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk.”  

The corner where Gem Spa is located has always been one of the busiest intersections in the East Village and to us it is the “Times Square” of the Village.

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