James & Karla Murray Talk ‘Store Front’ with Exhibit at Village Works

Posted on: March 28th, 2022 at 5:18 am by

Photo: Lori Greenberg

We’ve written extensively about the mall-ification of our city and the resulting loss of community when a mom-and-pop store disappears. It’s never made sense how people come to the city to experience what makes it different, and then immediately head to a Starbucks instead of a Caffe Reggio. Or their go-to pizza is from Domino’s. Even the worst New York slice leaves Domino’s in the (flour) dust. Just ask the pizza rat.

This is why we have such an appreciation for the work of James and Karla Murray, a couple who have been photographing and documenting mom-and-pop shops in New York City for 25 years.

We recently visited the Village Works bookstore and gallery to check out their current exhibit, “Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.”

Photo: Lori Greenberg

We loved seeing photos of the stores that are still here, and our wistfulness kicked in for the ones that are now gone. And the environment was perfect: New York-centric photos surrounded by shelves filled with New York-centric books.

It was there that we chatted with Karla Murray, who told us how this all got started.

What prompted us to photograph mom-and-pop stores is that, in the late 1990s, we were photographing murals and graffiti, and we noticed that the stores were disappearing.

We were going to all of these neighborhoods – the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens – and when we would return every few months to see if the art on the walls had changed, we would also see that [local places], like the little candy stores with hand painted signs, had disappeared. These neighborhoods didn’t look the same anymore. They had lost their character.

So, we thought [along with the murals and graffiti] we should be photographing these stores.

It was the pre-digital era when people still shot on film, and James and Karla often had unfinished rolls in their cameras. So they decided to use that leftover to document the storefronts before they disappeared.

We were amassing a big collection of [pre-digital] photos along with micro cassettes of interviews of the storeowners, and we had boxes and boxes of these.

[At the time] were putting together a graffiti book called ‘Broken Windows.’ The publisher came to our apartment and noticed a photo of a block-long strip of small mom-and-pop stores, the kind of block you almost can’t find anymore.

He was from California, and we thought, why on earth would he care about something like that? But he asked if we had more photos like that, and we said ‘More? We have more!’

We started taking shoeboxes down and laying the photos all out. We didn’t think anyone else was interested in little neighborhoods in New York. But he wanted us to do a book of these photos.

Even to this day, it was never, ever about a book. It’s a personal project of ours. No matter where we go or what we do, we always look for the mom-and-pop stores that make each neighborhood unique.”

Photo: James and Karla YouTube

We asked Karla how the show came to be at the gallery and bookstore Village Works.

We were, as usual, just walking around the neighborhood, and we saw the gallery, and we thought, ‘Oh, this is fabulous.’ What attracted us is that the outside of the store was painted by [local] artists. That really appealed to us because James and I were first documenting mural and graffiti art in the 1990s.

As Joseph Sheridan of Village Works explains in the video below, he had wanted to open a New York-centric bookstore and gallery for years. “All of my friends were telling me, ‘Everyone’s over New York City culture, get over it.’”

Photo: Lori Greenberg

Then Covid-19 hit; stores shut down, and New York City was eerily quiet. But after a while people were venturing out again and Sheridan began seeing signs of life. “It started feeling like New York again. Everyone started encouraging me to open it.”

The exhibits are by New York City-raised artists, Sheridan explains. “They do not necessarily have to have been born here, but they came here and spent years entrenching themselves into the city.

“We don’t go after the artists that are looking to come to NY [to] become ‘famous.’ We look for the artists that really, sincerely want to document NYC culture.”

Photo: Lori Greenberg

Village Works also has a separate installation, “Rare Bodega,” downstairs. The work, by the artist Arigato by Kid Stuff, is worth checking out.

Included is a wood and acrylic representation of a bodega storefront which neatly ties in with James and Karla’s photos.

Video below of James and Karla (and their dog, Hudson) interviewing Joseph Sheridan of Village Works.

Store Front is open seven days a week until March 31. General hours are 3pm – 11pm, and the closing reception is March 31st from 7pm – 10pm. Prints and books are available for signing.


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