MacDougal Street, once a cultural ground zero for the Village – the place where Hemingway and Pound drank, the Beats hung out, and where Dylan played his first gig, has lost another historic gem, with the closing of Monk Thrift
Vanishing Greenwich Village. It gets worse every year. In early December, I stopped by Monk Thrift at 175 MacDougal. The moment I stepped inside, I knew something was up. Red 50-percent-off tags hung from every rack, fixture and bookcase in sight – even the floor was plastered with large red stickers announcing the major ‘sale’. Although it was obvious that the store was going out of business, I asked the kid behind the register if he knew what would become of Monk Thrift. While I was at it, I asked him the price of the Dylan poster (which has been in the window for over a year).
“Become of the store?” the kid repeated, looking as if he were tired of life, taking a quick glance at his iPhone. “We’re not going out of business, if that’s what you mean. And the poster isn’t for sale.” At that moment, I became a nostalgic old lady who harbored negative feelings toward today’s youth. Had he any idea about the history of this store? Did he even care to know? Or worse, did he even know who Bob Dylan was? I was having an existential crisis. (Say it with me: “Snob!”).
It’s fitting here that I should provide some background to this beloved street, as many modern-day tourists have no knowledge of its history, let alone where it is located. MacDougal Street was named after seaman and Sons of Liberty leader Alexander McDougall [two l’s]. For reasons unknown, his surname was spelled differently from his father’s, who spelled his name MacDougal. McDougall, who hailed from the Isle of Islay in Scotland, was quite the rebel. In 1770, he was jailed for writing an anti-British pamphlet, and served as a major general in the Revolutionary War. In later years, McDougall represented New York in the Continental Congress, and became the first president of the Bank of New York.These particular ‘apartments’ at 127-131 MacDougal Street were originally built for Aaron Burr in 1829, and are referred to as Federal-era row houses. Luckily, these row houses did not undergo much renovation, and in 2003, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s proposal to “ensure their continued survival” was accepted, making them landmarks.
In her book, Classic New York (1964), the architectural historian Ada Louise Huxtable wrote: “Few New Yorkers realize that the comfortable, charming, and historically important small house c. 1800-30 still exists. It is too well hidden, too efficiently defaced, and – above all – too fast disappearing. Those accidental and anonymous survivors of the city’s early years may be gone before this guide ever reaches the reader’s hands. Some can, and should, be saved. Some are beyond saving. All are a special problem in preservation, for they are not monuments or masterpieces, but a more modest part of the city’s original fabric….Their value is contrast, character, visual and emotional change of pace, a sudden sense of intimacy, scale, all evocative qualities of another century and way of life. They provide the impression of a city ‘in depth,’ the richness of past and present side by side. But these buildings are not profitable, because they are small and old, and their greatest value seems to be cheapness of acquisition, so that developers and speculators…can tear them down to put up more high-return, faceless new construction…. What follows, therefore, may be here today and gone tomorrow, and my selections are presented with a small prayer that they may still be around to be seen when this is read.”
The deeper one digs, the more rich history for this street you will find. In the late 1800s, MacDougal Street was home to Stock Pharmacy (later Avignone Chemists), which is listed as the oldest apothecary in the United States. By the 1950s, the San Remo Café (unfortunately, no longer with us) was frequented by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Frank O’Hara, to name just a few. Years earlier, the Minetta Tavern was also notable for its literary customers, including Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. Lest we forget the Café Reggio, an institution since 1927. Rumor had it that the owner brought the first espresso machine over from Italy, and it was here that Americans were introduced to the cappuccino.
In addition to the quaint cafés and notable authors who frequented them, MacDougal Street also serves as the home of the Café Wha?, where Bob Dylan played his first gig (and later, Jimi Hendrix performed), The Gaslight Café, where Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and numerous beat poets performed, and the famous Gerde’s Folk City, which has since been replaced by the Kettle of Fish.
Jack Kerouac recited his “MacDougal Street Blues” with some jazz accompaniment:
As for Monk Thrift, older generations remember the shop as “Reminiscence”, which opened in 1975. It was the place for army surplus attire, mini dresses, and work overalls designed by store owner Stewart Richer. For someone like me, who missed out on the 1970s, Monk was about as close to Reminiscence as it got. I happened upon the store accidentally when I was 12, after walking back from Bleecker Bob’s. I remember being amazed by the jam-packed store that boasted a wide range of vintage clothing, records, cassettes, books….dorm furniture. Anything else you could conjure up, it was there.
Twenty-five years after Monk’s grand opening, it was evident that the place had gone to pot. The ceilings were moldy and water damaged, show tune records having been shoved under the ceiling tiles to hide the water stains that were visible throughout the store. Although the owner gave no fucks when it came to maintaining the store, there was something special about the peeling walls and record-covered ceilings. Monk was a place where I met up with my friends when it was too cold to hang around Washington Square Park, where you could buy outfits from the 1960s and rifle through record bins until you found something good.
By January of this year, the shop was locked up, little cards and stickers strewn about which implied the owner left in a hurry. Remaining at the back of the store were two abandoned bookshelves, looking out of place without the jam-packed racks of clothing. I don’t know what will become of the storefront. Perhaps it will be reincarnated into some high-end coffee shop or another sushi house, though I hope this isn’t the case.
As I walked past Monk towards Café Reggio, one thought remained in my mind: “If St. Marks is dead, then MacDougal Street is dying.”
The trouble is: What can we do about it? Unfortunately, we live in a world where antiquated buildings are hailed as ‘undesirable’ and new, poorly-made constructions are considered appealing due to the modern façade. As Ada Louise Huxtable said in 1964, these old buildings are by no means monuments or masterpieces, but they are a representation of the city’s history. These buildings that developers so desperately want to get their hands on….they are storytellers.
Will they be around to tell their stories to the next generation of bohemians, or the generation after that, or the one after that?