Friday, August 23, 2019

Bill's Flower Market


Bill's Flower Market opened in 1936. They are closing this month.

The sign in the window says the owners are retiring. It is another loss for the rapidly vanishing Flower District, which has been taken over and demolished by tourist hotels.

Reader Marjorie Ingall let me know about the closing. She writes, "Jim, Bill’s brother and co-owner, said he’s ready to retire and spend time with his grandkids in Nassau and Suffolk county, but high rent is a factor too. I bought a turkey made with real feathers that I will turn into a holiday centerpiece, two rolls of beautiful floral ribbon, and a tiny nest with two eggs and a sparrow. We both reminisced about when the Flower District went from 26th to 29th, Broadway to 7th Avenue. He said, 'It’s all fancy hotels now.'"

When I went by, Bill's was closed for the day, shutting down now at 3:00 in the afternoon, so I could not go in to see the artificial birds they are famous for. They used to have a sign that said something like "World's largest collection of artificial birds" and it was pleasant to go in and have a look at them.

Through the window I could see that most of the shop has been dismantled and emptied out. They're having a big sale on lucky bamboo and, while they still have a few birds for sale, the big displays are gone.

Here's what they looked like a few years ago:

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Seido Karate


Guest Post written by William Hennelly, an editor/writer and Seido Karate black belt

Down the block from the Flatiron Building in Manhattan sits another local landmark — the headquarters of the World Seido Karate Organization. Since 1976, the school founded by Kaicho (“Grandmaster”) Tadashi Nakamura has trained thousands of martial arts practitioners at 61 West 23rd Street, where it also has operated the Seido Juku Benefit Foundation, a charitable nonprofit.

Nakamura, 77, is a revered karateka worldwide, particularly in his native Japan, a status he earned in 1962 by knocking out a muay thai fighter in Bangkok in a much publicized international clash of fighting styles. But now Kaicho and his son, Nidaime (“Successor”) Akira Nakamura, 44, who is Seido’s chief instructor, are faced with a daunting opponent outside the arena — the New York City real estate market.

The owners of the 1886 Italian Renaissance-style building that houses the headquarters — or “Honbu” in Japanese — are repurposing the building, and all existing tenants must vacate by year-end. The family that owns the luxury men’s fashion company Ermenegildo Zegna, based in Milan, Italy, along with Taconic Investment Partners LLC, a Manhattan-based real estate developer, bought the building in June 2016 for $65 million, according to The Real Deal. The previous owners were the Drachman family of Long Island and their relatives, who had the seven-story building for more than 50 years.

The search for a new Honbu has been underway for some time, and Nidaime is currently looking at three rental properties near the current 23rd Street location. Seido recently launched a campaign to raise $250,000 toward escrow, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, a new dojo floor, office and locker rooms with ADA-compliant bathrooms. Live and online auctions also are planned.

In his office at Honbu, Kaicho recently recounted how he would traverse the neighborhood in the 1970s, scouting locations, when he came across the building that would become Honbu. “In the daytime, not many people walking around, then very, very quiet at night,” he recalled of a neighborhood that was not as prosperous and desirable as it is now. It’s that desirability that has made the neighborhood a costly place to operate what is essentially a family business.

The New York dojo is something of a karate museum. Its gleaming wooden floor has been polished by decades of vigorous martial arts activity seven days a week. “We have a veterans program, we run a disabled program, a program for blind students with Seido Juku Benefit support,” Kaicho said. “Not many organizations do that. We are all proud of that. I hope people keep this kind of spirit... Lots of wonderful, different kinds of memories, which is our treasure. It’s almost a miracle, same location for 43 years.”

The dojo’s walls are festooned with various proclamations by US presidents and New York City mayors. Over the years, Seido students from across the globe have come to visit and train at Honbu, as have some celebrities. Dolph Lundgren, who played the Russian heavyweight boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, stopped by once in the hopes of meeting Kaicho. In 2018, two of the stars of the 1984 movie The Karate Kid — Ralph Macchio, who portrayed Daniel LaRusso, and William Zabka, who was Daniel’s rival Johnny Lawrence — traveled to New York for an interview with AdWeek magazine to discuss Cobra Kai, the YouTube Red sequel to their movie franchise.

Seido also has stood witness to other events in history. In 2001, the Seido community was stunned by the loss of Sensei Pat Brown, a New York City fire captain who gave his life in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In 2012, undaunted Seido karatekas practiced with no heat and electricity in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. And while Seido is proud of its illustrious past, it is up for a new challenge.

“The members of the organization must now take the time to reflect on the rich history of the space and appreciate the time left to train and grow there, but also look now to the future, to bring the same energy and dedication to bear in finding, securing and building a new home for the World Seido Honbu,” Nidaime wrote in a letter to members in June.

Friday, July 26, 2019

We'll Always Have...Paris?

Last month we heard that the Paris theater might be closing. Now we hear it's staying alive.

Deadline first reported that the theater, "the last great single-screen prestige picture palace in New York," was "expected to shutter in late July or August."

Indiewire seemed to seal the deal when they reported: "sources confirm that the Paris will likely close next month," meaning July, because that "marks the end of the lease currently held by City Cinemas." They added, "alternative uses are considered likely for the street-level space at W. 58th and Fifth Avenue."

The Paris is one of the last places (on the planet) that doesn't cater to short attention spans. The purple curtains stay closed while the speakers plays jazz, Louis Armstrong, big band. There are no riddles or word scrambles on the screen, and very few commercials. It's pleasant to be there. It would be a terrible shame to lose it.

When I visited the theater to say goodbye, I was told by two employees that the Paris is not closing. They say the rumors are absolutely not true and the Paris will go on. The reason Pavarotti is playing for such a long run, with no end in sight? The rumors of closure have driven up ticket sales, as fans go to say goodbye, and this has made Pavarotti a success for the Paris.

So which is it?

As with all rumors and denials, take it as a warning. Go, enjoy the Paris, enjoy the movie. Because you really never know when it will be your last time.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Gem Spa T-shirts

Support the great Gem Spa by buying a t-shirt!

From Gem's Instagram:

"T-shirts can be purchased at on PayPal and picked up next Thursday evening after 5 PM. Or they can be shipped worldwide at an extra cost. Be sure to include your size."

Gem is struggling these days, so even if you can't buy a shirt, go by and grab a coffee, egg cream, Juul, anything and everything helps.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Michael Seidenberg

Michael Seidenberg, the proprietor of the great Brazenhead Books, has passed away. According to Facebook updates, he was in recovery from a heart attack and a bypass operation.

Family, friends, and fans are sharing memories on Michael's Facebook page. Their words say more than I can about a man that many remember as a one-of-a-kind New Yorker.

Brazenhead was a "secret" bookshop housed in an undisclosed rent-stabilized Upper East Side apartment, complete with a twice-weekly salon, open to all who could find it. I was fortunate to visit once before it closed in 2015. It was a truly magical place.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Book Culture


Book Culture has been on the Upper West Side since 1997, when it was founded as Labyrinth Books. Since then, it has expanded from one to four shops. It's a great local business and much beloved. But now, owner Chris Doeblin has announced in a letter (below) that Book Culture is in danger of closing--but it's unclear why.

UPDATE: I spoke with Doeblin about the situation. He told me that his landlords have been "terrific." Columbia University is one of them and "they're trying to keep us open and have made adjustments over the years." Amazon, however, "has just been devastating. A huge number of people shop there without being reminded enough of the value of having storefronts in the neighborhood."

The biggest bite, right now, says Doeblin is the 50% increase in wages. "We've not been able to grow fast enough to deal with the increase," he told me, "and we've had to lay people off. But I think we can make it, if we have more financing."

To that end, he's hoping for an angel. Either a wealthy investor or the city. "I'm hoping that the city will underwrite a loan for us. What would really help us is a significant loan from a local bank that's subsidized." He noted that the city and state "pulled a lot of strings for Amazon and every luxury building in New York City," so why not small businesses like Book Culture?

Doeblin also says he wrote the letter to get the word out. "I want people to hear from me about what it's really like" to run a small business in the city. "I want to direct people's attention to a better idea of the future."

Doeblin sent out the following letter and accompanying video on Facebook:

To all our members and patrons, to Mayor De Blasio, Governor Cuomo, Speaker Johnson, Gale Brewer, all City Council members, fellow citizens of New York, neighbors;

My name is Chris Doeblin and I am the owner and operator of Book Culture. We run 4 storefront bookstores in New York City, 3 in Manhattan and 1 in LIC Queens. We have been in business for over 22 years.

There is a situation that I need help with and I want to address as large a group as possible in the hopes of finding a solution. I hope to also make a statement about the future of our city.

Our 4 stores are in danger of closing soon and we need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing. This is true in spite of the fact that business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated.

Book Culture's stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state. We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. Book Culture has always been committed to paying our employees above minimum wage, both before and after the increase. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy, which is why I address our government here. Many large development plans, Amazon’s HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality.

Every one of our employees, including my family, spends virtually all our income in the city. We shop here, eat here, pay our rent, use the MTA, and all those expenses roll right back into the community economy, to the benefit of all of us. It’s the multiplier effect of storefront businesses. It isn’t a huge sum of our economy taken by itself, but it is integral to the fabric of our city.

The jobs we create aren’t tech jobs but our jobs offer a toehold to young people coming to New York, often times trained in the humanities and heading for careers in the arts or other cultural industries; to students, artists, dancers and writers. We have been employing young native New Yorkers forever too, often as a first job. Publishing and bookselling have long been a significant part of New York City’s cultural and economic foundation.

Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine. As an organization, we can take an empty storefront and spin it into a wonderful community asset that transforms a neighborhood. That takes vision, creativity, courage and entrepreneurial talent. This is a set of qualities that a city, any city or community, ought to reward and empower.

This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves. The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be. We have been financed by credit card, by 30% a year interest loans and by remortgaging our home.

For too long we have accepted that businesses need only serve their profit orientation as though it were an obvious fact, a natural law of the 21st century. As someone dedicated to our city and nation, as a leader building a company, and its culture, as a parent and citizen, I know we can do better. Book Culture as a business is dedicated to serving the community it inhabits. This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction.

We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate. We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation.

The families that own America’s 2 largest retailers, Amazon and Walmart, just 2 families, have accumulated over $250 Billion in privately held wealth. That is a 1⁄4 of a $1 trillion!
This grotesque inequity is one of the gravest dangers posed to our democracy, the civil society and the communities we hope to build for our children.

As a parent who has served as treasurer of our schools PA I have grown to see everything as a teachable moment; what are we teaching our children? What are our values here?
If each of those families had only, ONLY, $1 billion, we could have spent $2 million for every single public school in America.

But what really sets off the distinction for our future America is that these 2 companies, like so many others, still arrive in our communities with their hands out asking for more. And they arrive in our governments by way of lobbyists asking them not to represent our children and the best future we hope to create for them. They arrive to continue to pile on to the wealth of the shareholders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies like Book Culture, that are entwined with and dedicated to their communities, offer a better way forward.

Lastly, Book Culture contributes simply by being what we are, storefront businesses active in a community. We add to the street life and Jane Jacobs’s ideal of a neighborhood where people interact, face to face with each other in the simple conduct of our lives. Our shops light up the evening streets with a welcoming inviting space. We provide a place for parents and children to visit together and engage in books. We are a place for quiet, or conversation, discovery and reflection.

We need financial help to continue our transition.

If you run the city or the state or if you have the means to assist, or even if it simply means calling and emailing and writing to the local city council member where you live and the mayor and governor, please do so.

The price of doing business doesn't have to be incurred by the people. The price of doing business should be more about serving our common welfare.

Chris Doeblin

Monday, June 24, 2019

Show World to Hive

After going, going, going, Show World is so very gone.

On 8th Avenue near 42nd Street, the buildings that made up Show World and its neighboring businesses are wrapped in scaffolding and demolition shrouds.


The interiors have been completely demolished, but the buildings will remain, renovated into something called The Hive, "an $80 million boutique office and retail property," according to The Real Deal, geared to "attract technology, financial and media tenants."

So what else is new?

architect's rendering

In the Commercial Observer, The Hive speaks for itself, describing itself as "authentic" to the neighborhood.

"On the inside," it says, "you will find a hip, urban interior featuring exposed hardwood floors, brick walls and steal columns throughout. The historic character of the building reflects the roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic that defined the success of the many companies that called this neighborhood home."

Roll up your sleeves? More like take off your panties.

1976, John Sotomayor/The New York Times

Richard Basciano, New York’s former "prince of porn," opened Show World in the mid-1970s.

It featured a circus theme, the interior decorated with weird clown dolls.

After Giuliani’s 1995 zoning ordinance to restrict adult entertainment businesses, Show World soldiered on, its naughty bits whittled away piece by piece. By 1998, the live girls were gone and the theater space was leased to an off-off-Broadway company that performed Chekhov plays on stages where naked girls once performed live sex acts, including Face Shows—as the sign said, “Let our girls sit on your face.” (Here's an NSFW look inside in 1980.)



The original, main section of Show World Center vanished (mostly) in 2004 and became a family-friendly entertainment place, featuring comedy and light horror (Times Scare). However, right next door, a smaller Show World Center remained a XXX joint, a sort of annex to the original.

Along with video peeps, dirty DVDs, and toys, you could also find rooms full of (almost) nothing but crossword puzzle books -- by order of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

When he passed his unconstitutional ordinance against sex shops, part of the ruling stated that a store would be considered X-rated if 40 percent or more of their stock or floor space was in adult materials. As the Times reported at the time, the sex shops complied--by loading their spaces with just enough non-adult materials to qualify them as not X-rated.

So you could wander through Show World, up and down front and back staircases, into warrens and hallways, from one room to the next, passing through smut and crossword puzzles. It was a strange experience.

That Show World went up for lease or sale in 2008, but did not close until 2018, after the death of Basciano in 2017.

The end had arrived.

Show World main lobby, 2003

Show World main lobby, 2018

Gone with Show World are a number of other businesses, including those in Three Hundred Three Towers. With the entrance around the back, it held offices and apartments, possibly an odd hotel--I could never quite figure it out.

I don't know where its people were displaced to.



What remains of Show World and its neighbors will be just a shell, all its dirty, unfettered history gutted and remade for a new population.

But it's all okay, because "Working at The Hive," says The Hive, "will impart a sense of pride and authenticity."

It's going to be so authentic, in fact, the architects have rendered a new retail establishment called AUTHENTIC--just in case anybody thinks The Hive is anything but.

Also, these people playing ping-pong on the roof!