Tuesday, May 19, 2020

John Jovino Gun Shop


John Jovino, the oldest gun shop in the United States, has closed for good after 109 years in business in Little Italy.

Founded in 1911 by John Jovino, and originally located in the gun center around the corner on Centre Market Place, the store was purchased by the Imperato family in the 1920s and has been run by Charlie Hu since 1995. It's been featured in many films, including Mean Streets and Serpico, and its famous wooden revolver sign has been a landmark in the neighborhood for over a century.

Charlie removed his mask briefly for this socially distanced shot. 
All photos by Stacie Joy.

Charlie, also known as "Gun King Charlie," was packing up the shop this week and graciously consented to speak with Vanishing New York about the end of an era. Stacie Joy visited with her camera and listened to Mr. Hu tell his story. Like many small business people who are forced to close, having a compassionate ear is an important part of saying goodbye.

"I turned away interviews from NBC, CBS, CNN, and the New York Times," Charlie said. "I only want to talk to you. I’m very emotional right now, as you can see, I am having a rough day. Everything is super sad. I'm glad you are here."

Charlie recalled the difficulties of running the shop years ago. The Italian mafia and the Chinese gangs both wanted protection fees, but Charlie refused. When they threatened him, he told them, “If you want to shoot me, shoot me right here,” and pointed to his heart. You had to establish toughness back then and Charlie was tough. “I don’t care," he told the gangsters. "I don’t give a shit, you do what you want.” They left Charlie alone. He outlasted them.

As a Chinese immigrant, and the first Chinese gun dealer in the U.S., he faced racism and hatred on a regular basis. He recalled how people would come into the shop and give him trouble for not speaking English with his wife. They threatened him, spat on him, called him racial slurs, and told him to "go back to China." But Charlie was tough. He outlasted them.

Charlie showed off the gun he keeps holstered at his hip. A Beretta 84 .380 pistol, it was clearly loved, oiled and cared for. He keeps it with him all the time and even featured it on the shop's iconic t-shirt.

“This is my gun," he said, pointing to the shirt. "It’s my design and it’s been the same price from the beginning. The price never increases and never decreases."

Charlie's phone kept ringing, as phones do on the last days of small businesses. Each time, it was another member of NYPD's top brass calling to check on him, ask how he's doing, and thank him for his decades of service.

Over the years, Charlie gained many friends in the NYPD, as he worked hand-in-hand with law enforcement to keep illegal guns off the streets. Charlie is proud of this--and of his dedication to the shop.

"All my life," he said, "I've never taken a vacation or a sick day. I never had any violations. And now this is the end of the world. My whole life went into this."

As he put away the many awards he received over the years, tears rolled down his cheeks and into his mask. It was not his choice to close the shop. This is not how he wanted it to end.

The rent, he said, is the number one reason for closing. And then the coronavirus, shutting down business. There's also the trouble with regulations, the slow-down in shipments of ammunition, and people buying on the Internet instead of from their local shop. Finally, Charlie said, “I’m old, I’m 74 years old, I was born in 1946, I am old.”

He'll be retiring after this. He hopes to travel, once the restrictions are lifted, and he's getting offers to teach and advise for security firms in Asia. He's considering it. But saying goodbye hasn't been easy.

A text came into his phone from his boss, Mr. Imperato.

“You are completing the mission,” he told Charlie.

“Thanks, boss," Charlie replied. "With my tears.”

Post Script:

I always loved seeing the three-dimensional sign and the colorful targets and posters in the windows of John Jovino. Last week, I wondered what happened to the antique wooden gun that hung from the sign.

On Facebook, I read that Charlie sold it to a man who makes gun sculptures.

via Facebook

He was very happy to get it and it's now sitting in a studio in Brooklyn before it is moved to Los Angeles. Another little piece of the city's heart.

For historical photos of the shop and its big revolver, see my previous stories here and here.

via Facebook

Monday, May 18, 2020

Gem Spa Dismantling Continues

The dismantling of our dearly departed Gem Spa continues today. After yesterday's removal of the lighted signs and yellow awnings, workers are carefully removing another, more delicate sign.

Previously hidden, the sign has GEM SPA painted on glass.

Owner Parul Patel tells me it appeared in a number of movies, including 200 Cigarettes (which I recommend only for the scenes of the East Village in the 90s--I wrote about it here).

200 Cigarettes

Parul told me the signs are safely in storage. She hopes that one day, on the other side of the pandemic, there might be another life for Gem Spa. Who knows?

In the meantime, there is still merch.

Vinny Peanuts

I missed this sad news, until I saw this memorial on a wall of plywood at Mulberry and Grand in Little Italy.

Vincent Cirelli Sabatino, lovingly known as Vinny Peanuts, died on April 13 from complications of COVID-19. He was 68 years old. His family posted the announcement on Instagram.

He ran Vinny's Nut House, a fixture on the corner for nearly 50 years. At the Feast of San Gennaro, the stand was always brightly lit and busy, with Vinny cutting big bricks of torrone with a knife and a hammer. It was a beautiful thing.

Vinny was one of the last holdouts of authentic Little Italy. As he told Pavement Pieces a decade ago, “There’s no more Italians left. There are no more stands like me. Before, there used to be 10 stands down just this one block that sold Italian food, just like mine. Now, I’m the only one left.”

I always got his lemon cookies, which were the best. Just the best.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Gem Spa Sign

It's happening. Right now. The Gem Spa sign has been removed from the building. The yellow awning is going with it.

Thanks to Michael Quinn for sending in these sad shots of the wreckage:

The word "iconic" gets thrown around quite a bit when it comes to New York's classic small businesses, but with Gem Spa, it fits.

Earlier this month we learned that Gem would be closing for good, felled by greed and coronavirus crisis, after decades of standing sentinel on St. Mark's Place, and after a long battle in which many of us tried like hell to keep it alive.

As long as the sign stood, it felt like Gem was still there, just waiting for the shutdown to lift, and maybe there was still a chance.

This is truly the end.

And into a U-Haul:

Update: Parul tells me, "We will be auctioning the signs, the gates, the egg cream fountain, and old milkshake machine. We are also trying to get the egg cream counter out and will auction that too if we can get it out. We are sad to be taking them down, but I did not want to leave it for the landlord to throw in the garbage or use it in the next business that comes there if they rent it to someone. It is going to storage for now and quite a few people have already asked to buy it."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Jovino's Gun

What happened to the wooden revolver hanging off the sign of John Jovino's in Little Italy? (See my update here on the fate of the sign--and the closing of the shop.)

It was there and now it's gone. Maybe they put it away for safekeeping during the coronavirus shutdown?

Jovino's has been in business since 1911 and used to be around the corner on Centre Market Place, before the block was luxurified by the Novogratz family. (I wrote all about it here.)

I don't know how old this particular Jovino gun is, but an earlier version of it shows up in a photo by the great crime photographer Weegee, who lived in a one-room apartment above the shop from the mid-1930s until 1947.


The gun also made an appearance in the 1973 Al Pacino movie Serpico. It makes for a very photogenic antique sign and I hope it returns.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Movie Popcorn

If you miss going to the movies and enjoying a big bucket of popcorn, well, you can still enjoy one of those things. The wonderful Village East Cinema is selling movie popcorn to go -- including big, big bags of movie popcorn -- every day from 4:00 - 7:00pm.

So why not get your buttery fix and support a historic and beloved East Village theater at the same time? Win win! (Get it at East 12th and Third Ave.)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

I Happen to Like New York

Even though the New York Times and other major media outlets keep repeating the idea that New York City is dead in the coronavirus shutdown, let's not give up on it yet. There are signs of life out there. Even in grief and absence, the soul of the city is thrumming, playing in a lower register, quieter and more inward.

I made this short video from photos and films I've been taking around town since the beginning of the shutdown. The spirit of the city, the beauty and life, is here. You just have to look a little harder for it.