After my post on Little Rickie and its devolution into a Starbucks, I talked via Facebook with the shop's founder, Phillip Retzky. He gives us the whole story of the shop, the time, the place, and everything...
Phillip & Fanny at the first shop
How did Little Rickie get started?
I got a call from my then boyfriend, Steven Rubin, who owned the eponymous Paper White flower shop on 2nd Ave between 4th and 5th, next door to Bink and Bink, the great food store, that a store on 1st and 1st was available, and was I interested? I said yes to the vacant store front (72 e. 1st Street), spent some months making drawings of what Little Rickie would look like, inside and out, and began conceptualizing the whole thing, like an art project, installation, Joseph Cornell box. When I opened the store, it was totally about what I liked and had been buying all my life. I've collected flotsam and jetsam since the 4th grade.
I moved the shop to 1st and 3rd in 1987, with my then life partner and soul mate, Mitchell Cantor. We started dating when I was renovating the 1st Avenue space that had been Tensor's Army Navy for 50 years prior. I used to buy my jeans there when I lived on 1st Avenue, way before Little Rickie.
Mitchell & Phillip at the first shop
Did you always have an artistic sensibility?
I had been to art school (San Francisco Art Institute, in photography, hence the B/W photobooth), and grew up hanging around the May Company department store (on Fairfax and Wilshire) in Los Angeles as a child and early teen in the 1960s. My mom worked there as a salesgirl, making 50 bucks a week. We were poor, but boy did I get a great early retail experience.
When other kids were doing sports, I was window shopping and making my rounds at all the cool shops. I studied art on the streets and in museums, galleries and stores. Aside from studying photography at SFAI, I studied performance art with people like Chris Burden, and had classes and was friends with people like Karen Finley. I studied drawing with David Hockney who became a dear friend.
At Little Rickie, I hired the genius local artist, Ilona Granet to paint the store sign in the window on 1st Street, later hiring the genius Julie Wilson to paint the reverse window paintings in all the windows on 1st and 3rd.
photo: Julie Wilson
What was it like to run the shop in the 1980s and 90s?
The neighborhood was full of characters. For example, it was not that I chose not to capitalize on Paul Reubens' tragedy in Florida by not raising prices on the items from his show. It was that Paul shopped at Little Rickie when Pee Wee's Playhouse was being shot in New York. Paul bought some of the best vintage items I had for sale, like a pair of 1950s shoes with springs attached to the soles, so one could walk like a pogo stick. I probably priced them at 25 bucks, which was the underlying philosophy of the store, make it accessible, nothing elitist. 10 cents bought you a cool novelty. 25 bucks, a museum quality collectible toy.
People like Taylor Mead became a good friend, and always stopped by the store to hang in the photobooth for the afternoon. At night we were all at The Palladium, Area, and local bars, like The Bar. There was a complete sense of local. We lived in, worked in, hung out in the neighborhood.
People on 1st street left their kids in the store with me for a few hours, while they ran errands. I loaned money to everyone (Nan Goldin still owes me 50 bucks!). I hired the local kids as soon as they were old enough as staff members. Sometimes their parents worked in the store along with them. People spent locally, and the money went right back into the community. This is the whole concept of buying local. Starbucks is not local. The majority of the money goes back to Seattle, or wherever the fuck they are headquartered, and into the pockets of shareholders. A mom and pop store (in this case sans Mom), as I see it, weaves a thick carpet in a community.
Taylor Mead & Phillip
Tell us about that wonderful photobooth.
The photobooth was an integral part of the store from day one. No other business had a B/W booth in New York at the time, save for a few Woolworth's, PlayLand in Times Square, and the arcade in Chinatown. I had been using photobooths since 1959, at the Thrifty Drug store across from the aforementioned May Company in LA.
When people were not in the booth, my dog Fanny slept on the floor in her bed. Fanny became a Little Rickie fixture of sorts.
I immediately put customer photobooth strips in the window on 1st street, in a grid, in homage to Walker Evans, the great photographer. The pictures in the window said: Everyone has a place here, no one is excluded. The images of gay and multiracial couples dancing, painted on our front windows, said we permanently support inclusiveness. We sold the Hells Angels calendar every year, and so the 3rd Street chapter were "our buds." We celebrated the births of so many neighbors, and the deaths from AIDS of what seemed like almost everyone, including Mitchell, my dearest of partners.
Mitchell was beloved during his 5 years at Little Rickie. From the moment we became a couple, he was an integral part of everything Phillip, and everything Little Rickie. Even when he was down to 80 pounds and had to take naps often behind the photobooth, people remember Mitchell as the shining light that he was.
AIDS had a big impact on Little Rickie, and of course on me. Many of the photobooth strips in the window were of people we lost. So it held great importance to me, all of it, and when I decided I'd had enough and needed to move on to the next phase of my life, in 1999, it was not without tremendous deliberation (it took years to make that decision). My heart was broken, shattered, by losing Mitch in 1991, and I never quite healed afterwards.
Mitchell & with Phillip
How did the Starbucks lawsuit over those "Fuck Off" stickers contribute to the store's closing?
It had nothing to do with why I closed the store, just odd timing. I did not make the stickers, I was selling them for a local guy who did make them, and I thought they perfectly stated what I thought of the fast moving corporatocracy of our country.
I used to buy flip flops at a Vietnamese store on the corner of W.Broadway and Chambers street for years, for $1.19 a pair. Then one day they were gone, maybe 1995, and a Starbucks moved in. No more flip flops--shitty coffee and the rents of Tribeca went through the roof. No more cool little shops. End of story. I was saying Fuck You to what Starbucks symbolized, and the satire of it is protected in the 1st amendment.
That did not stop Starbucks from paying their lawyers over $500,000 to sue me. First they sent a SWAT team of 6 suited, earphoned FBI-looking guys to confiscate the merchandise and attempt to scare the jeans off me.
What did you do after the store closed?
Finally, at age 47, I knew it was the store or me, and I chose myself in the end. I bought an old farmhouse in Provincetown, and moved there full time to write, sit, and ride a bike. I went back and got my masters and am now in private practice as a psychotherapist in New Mexico.
My house is for sale in Santa Fe, and when it sells, I might come back to New York and open another store. However, with rents as high as they are now, even in Brooklyn, that dream might be prohibitive. Commercial rents are killing creativity and opportunities, not only for old guys like me, who may want a second act, but for the new generations to follow. People may think, oh good, Starbucks, easy, good enough, or even like the crap, and then support them. That support will only create more of the same elsewhere, ad nauseum. It's like the 99% supporting the Republicans. Know where you put your money, and what that means, not only for yourself, but for your community.
Fred Schneider & Joey Arias at the shop
The East Village, like much of the city, is turning into Anywhere, USA.
The encroachment of NYU on the EV, the story of RENT, the Kate Spadification of downtown (my word), and yes, cellphones and a new crop of people, were all writing on the wall for me. I closed the store in great part for my own personal needs and growth, but I also mourned the changes in the neighborhood, in a serious way.
I liked that Little Rickie at any given moment could be filled with drag queens, Hells Angels members, Susan Sarandon, Happi Phace, every cool art person in the city, grandmas who lived in the projects across the street, anyone local, every age, color, race and predilection. It was a true neighborhood-city-cacophony, and I liked it that way.
I still have the thousand or so photo strips from the windows--one day to be a book for all of us to sit, laugh, and cry by.