Gem Spa by Larry Baumhor


The COVID-19 pandemic is not just killing and sickening people; it’s decimating small businesses, some with storied histories. Few Lower East Side businesses had a more storied history than Gem Spa, the home of egg creams and countercultural rebellion. Everyone from Kerouac and Ginsberg, to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe hung out here. Blondie, the New York Dolls, Lou Reed and Basquiat. Now it’s all gone, as the family who owns it can’t keep it going due to the paralysis of virus.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I was in New York to interview Ray Patel, the owner of Gem Spa, a landmark general store in the East Village that sold a variety of goods, including hats, T-shirts, bandanas, magazines, candy, cigarettes, novelty items and much more. Gem Spa’s specialty and claim to fame was their egg cream. But their storied history was the lure of bohemia. This is where the Beats in the ‘50s and the hippies in the ‘60s hung out and bought underground newspapers. Kerouac drank the egg creams at Gem Spa. Abbie Hoffman and his cohorts met at Gem Spa before their 1967 protest at the New York Stock Exchange. Allen Ginsberg called Gem Spa the “nerve center” of the city.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the punk rockers hung out here. Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the New York Dolls were regular customers. The back cover of the debut album by the New York Dolls features a photograph of the place. The Village Voice called Gem Spa the “official oasis of the East Village.” Jean-Michel Basquiat named one of his paintings Gem Spa.

Madonna on set at gem Spa photo by David Godlis

In 1996, Lou Reed wrote the song “Egg Cream”: “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. You scream, I steam, we all want egg cream.”

Since the 1920s, this beloved institution has been at the corner of Second Ave and St. Marks Place in the East Village. And now the history is just a memory. Gem Spa is closing forever.

The Patel family stated they were heartbroken. “Business was not good before the crisis,” they announced. “The coronavirus concerns ultimately sealed the fate of our almost 100-year-old store. We will still be selling Gem Spa items on our website.”

The Patel family statement continued: “Patrons, artists, musicians felt Gem Spa was much more than a bodega, but rather an iconic East Village institution.”

Gem Spa by Rick Casados

According to Serena Dai and Tanay Warerkar, on the Eater blog: “The family also started selling t-shirts with the iconic yellow sign, which has been on album art and in movies such as Desperately Seeking Susan. Shirts and hats from Gem Spa quickly became a must-have among the artists and designers who felt special connections to the store. Still, it hasn’t been enough.”

In a Sept. 2019 article for the WWD news site entitles “Is The East Village Still Punk?”, Kaley Roshitsh wrote, “Back then a clear identity of punk existed (and perhaps, slept on the benches of Tompkins Square Park after peddling secondhand wares), but what about now?…‘Yes, I mean where else is punk? The beating heart of it happened right where we’re standing,’ photographer David Godlis said to WWD, referencing the New York Dolls’ album cover shot outside of Gem Spa, in between signing prints while wearing none other than a Gem Spa T-shirt.”

Since the 1920s, this beloved institution has been at the corner of Second Ave and St. Marks Place in the East Village. And now the history is just a memory. Gem Spa is closing forever.

The day I visited Gem Spa, Ray Patel was not available. He was home with an injured knee. But that didn’t stop me from interviewing his brother, the manager and patrons of the place.

K.C. Patel, Ray’s brother, and Shimul Paul, the manager, were very kind and generous with their time. K.C. insisted that I try his egg cream. “I don’t like egg cream,” I said.

“No,” K.C. responded, “you must try one.”

I began shooting photos of K.C. making me an egg cream from an old silver-handled pump used for fountain sodas in the old days. I tasted the egg cream and thanked K.C. but I didn’t like it.

Photo by Larry Baumhor

And then I started bombarding K.C. with questions.

Gem Spa is like a general store. What type of customers do you serve?

K.C.: A lot of NYU students, local people, tourists from around the world. We sell magazines, newspapers, cigarettes, candy, lottery tickets, hats, and general merchandise.

Why is Gem Spa so famous?

K.C.: Because of the egg cream.

Could you please tell me what the recipe is for the egg cream?

K.C.: Frozen milk, seltzer water, and chocolate and vanilla syrup. And then I stir it. People love it, especially the foam of the egg cream. It’s famous. It cost $5.00 for a small cup. People come in limousines to buy this egg cream. The store has been on TV and movies.

The counterculture and many artists and musicians came here. Do you know some of their names?

K.C.: “I wasn’t working here then. You’d have to talk to my brother. He knows all of the celebrities who come to the store.”

Shimul Paul, the manager, informed me that “the fountain is 70 years old. Ray is 82 years old and hurt his knee. Ray does not sell beer, meat, or alcohol and never closes. We’re open 24 hours. Business has changed. Before we made good money but now it’s slower.  A lot of people moved because their rent went up and it affected business. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, business was booming.”

As I was talking to K.C. and Shimul, I noticed a customer listening to our conversations. I introduced myself and explained to her I was writing a story about Gem Spa.

“That’s great. Thank you so much. My name is Kitty Kane. I live upstairs. My husband has lived here for twenty years.”

What’s your husband’s name?

“David White,” Kitty said.

Is it possible to interview David?

Kitty: “Definitely. He knows a lot about the East Village, but he’s not here right now.”

What type of work does David do?

Kitty: “He’s a musician and drove a cab for thirty-years. His band is Stumblebunny. He plays rock ‘n’ roll. You can find it on YouTube. He’s performed at CBGB and Max’s. He’s lived in the East Village since the ‘70s. Do you have a card?”

My mind became supercharged when I heard musician, CBGB, Max’s, and 1970s in the Village. I got a little nuts and began throwing questions at Kitty.

Bob Gruen and Legs McNeil in front of Gem Spa

Are there any venues for musicians in the East Village?

Kitty: “Otto’s Shrunken Head on 14th. But nobody wants to pay live bands anymore. So, he stopped playing there.”

What’s the difference between the East Village now and twenty years ago?

Kitty: “There’s a big difference. Empty stores. People moving out who lived here for decades because of the rent increase. Gentrification has changed the neighborhood. Some rents are going for five thousand a month. We’re lucky because we have stabilized rent, but I feel bad for the other people who had to move. It’s very sad.”

When asked what was the difference in the type of people who lived in the East Village now compared to years ago, Kitty said, “A big difference. It was gritty and people were friendly. People in the Village are more snobby now. I don’t like their attitude. It changed because of gentrification. But this place never changes. I love them. They are so kind and make the greatest egg cream.”

And then it happened. It seemed to come out of nowhere. “You know,” Kitty said, “Barbra Streisand sings a song about this store…’Everyone knows that I’m just Second Hand Rose, Second Hand Rose from Second Avenue. You can’t beat the egg cream from Second Ave,” sung Kitty in a beautiful soft sweet melodic voice that stunned me and filled my eyes with tears right inside Gem Spa. With customers looking I felt as though I was serenaded.

I didn’t know what to say. I became stupefied. “You think it was this store?,” I asked.

“Yes, where else on the Lower East Side,” Kitty said. “What other store sells egg cream on Second Avenue?”

Zoltar by Larry Baumhor

Photos of Dismantling The Former Gem Spa From EV Grieve: