RIP to the Gem Spa

I wanna know.

RIP to the Gem Spa

The first times I headed for Greenwich Village it was with a photocopy of an actual map that I’d marked up so I could pretend I knew where I was going. I went to St. Mark’s Place because that is where you went if you liked a certain music or dressed a certain way or didn’t fit in anywhere else. There was the hotel on the corner with the shitty pizza place underneath it, there was Sounds, where you bought records, up a heavy brownstone staircase from the Grassroots Tavern, where everyone had a drink at one point. On the left side of the street as you walked towards Third Avenue was the community center that was previously The Dom, which was famous because the Velvet Underground played their first gig there. There was a bookstore and there was Manic Panic store. The Dojo was on the other side, where you were always told to never pay by leaving money on the table and you would get a soy burger dinner with extra tahini sauce. I wrote an entire chapter of my first novel about that particular stretch of city street because there was a very long time that that block was a center of the universe.

But on the corner of Third Avenue, a stone’s throw from B&H Dairy and Free Being Records, was the Gem Spa. The Gem Spa! The Gem Spa. I knew the Gem Spa because the New York Dolls photographed themselves standing in front of it in full-on Dolls regalia, high heels and bright pink and teased hair and lipstick, on the back cover of the first album. I did not find my way to that record until 1978 or 1979 (“until,” as though the record hadn’t come out only a few years earlier!) when I found a copy of the Dutch pressing at the Phonograph Shoppe (I swear I am not making that up) in downtown Stamford, and then made the split second decision to sneak it into the house by sliding the bag between the clothes dryer and the wall as I came in the back door. I didn’t know if my mom was going to have a problem with the record if she asked to see it / asked what I bought, but it was surely different enough that I wasn’t going to take a chance.

I knew it was there but I didn’t KNOW it was there until I walked right up to it, and then it was there and real and I was there in the same vibrating air. Let me walk inside, ask for clove cigarettes. Let me walk out and now I’m facing the same way the Dolls did. 40 years later, I can describe the transformation of all four directions of that corner, from the Gap, the movie theater closing, the arrival of the BBQ, the bank, Yaffa just down 8th a scootch.

And the Gem Spa was a real place, a place that real neighborhood people used. You could get egg creams. You could get a selection of British music magazines. Cigarettes. A cold drink. Later they sold anything that drunk people would buy (sunglasses, fedoras, FUCK YOU YOU FUCKING FUCK baseball hats). You would wait for your friends there on your way to the Pyramid or anywhere points East, there were payphones there, you might walk all the way to Tompkins Square by yourself during the day but you were not walking that far by yourself at night (and if you did you probably walked down the middle of the street so you couldn’t get yanked under a stoop).

Now it’s gone. Another piece of history lost. You can argue about the economics or the need to keep up with neighborhood needs but I say that is bullshit and yes people will come to New York even if it is lined with chain stores for miles but this is not a good trend. And if I was a conspiracy nut I’d say something about the economics of the pandemic being deliberately weaponized against small businesses so that it takes out that level of success for those Americans and puts them back into the workforce where they will be paid as little as humanly possible.

[Is this just what happens when you get old? Is this something I should have talked about with my mom or my aunt or some other older person who is no longer on the planet? Is this what happens, when your touchpoints and the things you adopted as part of you are no longer there, and the world becomes wholly unfamiliar to you?]

I once tried writing about the experience of walking through Manhattan seeing what used to be there, overlaid on that bank or that drugstore or that other chain store (because it’s always a chain store) that moved into the place where you used to buy books or records or clothes. I would walk by a business with history and grit and I would immediately look at the entire physical plant and decide, “They must own the building,” because that would be the only possible way that place could still be there otherwise.

I never stood and took my photo in front of the Gem Spa like the Dolls, because at the beginning I didn’t want to be uncool and then later it was just something that was always there and why would it go away and I live here, motherfuckers. I lived here.