After my night outside the grand opening of Varvatos' new Bowery store, I went into the shop for the first time. Walking in, I got a confusing mix of emotions. It feels almost authentic. The vinyl, the scabby walls, the ragged clothing. I found myself feeling "not bad" about it. But then you look closer: The records are preciously pricey, the walls are preserved under Plexiglas, and the clothing is beyond pricey--a used Cheap Trick t-shirt goes for $250.
photo: hardcore shutterbug
While I expect many pro-Vongerichtifiers to support Varvatos' move into the CBGB space, I keep thinking about the surprising pro-Varvatos outcry from punks and other neighborhood people. That night, and in the media, they kept saying, "It's better than a Starbucks or a bank."
This sentiment echoes throughout the debate. From the Times' report, Jesse Malin of D Generation said, “I’d rather see this than a Dunkin’ Donuts or a Starbucks,” and Blondie's Clem Burke said, “It’s better than if it was a Starbucks or a bank." Bobby Steele repeats it in his account of the evening on his myspace page, "this was gonna become either a Starbucks or a Chase bank."
photo: semi-automatic gwen
In an interview with MTV, Varvatos says, "it won't become a bank or a Starbucks or whatever." New York points out that Varvatos believed he rescued the space from becoming a bank, saying "You’re not going to put a bank in here."
The repetition of "It's better than a bank" is hypnotic and serves to distract us from reality. It's a false dichotomy. George Bush uses this tactic--make terrorism the enemy and Bush the hero, so if you're against Bush then you must support terrorism. In this case, if you're against Varvatos, you must be on the side of Starbanks.
photo: bill shatto
I don't disagree that it could have become a bank, but let's think more critically. Are these really our only choices? Why can we not imagine anything other than a bank, a chain, or a super-luxury store for our city?
What if we used more creativity? What if, instead of a high-end shop that caters to the very wealthy few, Varvatos had preserved the space as beautifully as he did, then installed his wares in one section of the space, leasing the rest at reasonable rents to local small businesspeople? He could have a real thrift store, record store, and others represented. He could make a deal with BRC and have homeless men and women working the shop.
This would have created a democratic mix of high, low, and middle range experiences, all in support of each other. The rich could still choose to buy Varvatos' $250 Cheap Trick shirts while others could buy the same items for far less money. This is what New York City used to be. A mixture. A variety.
photo: Victoria Will/NY Post
Luxury shops don't save our city. Let's not be fooled by the rhetoric. We do have other alternatives.
More coverage of Varvatos' opening night: