Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Retzky on Little Rickie

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.


Phillip today

27 comments:

EV Grieve said...

I hope that Phillip is able to come back and open another store.

Claribel said...

Bull's-eye straight to my heart! I love love LOVE this interview!! Definitely a favorite.

marjorie said...

This made me cry! Little Rickie was one of my favorite places back in the day -- I wish Philip much joy and fulfillment in his writing, his life and whatever he decides to tackle in the future. Philip, Thank you for helping to make the EV what it was.

Anonymous said...

Great interview. Would like to see more of this on your site.

Marty Wombacher said...

Great interview! I'd love it if he published a book of the photobooth photos!

Anonymous said...

The first time I walked into the East Village was 1986. At that time I didn't know it was called the 'East Village'. A few years later, around 1989 I was dating woman that knew all about that part of town and re-introduced me to the nabe. One of the first places we went to was Little Ricky. I thought it was a riot because it was named after Lucy's fictional son and I had never really seen that level of pop-culture/retail/funky neighborhood kind of thing before. I went in there pretty regularly and still have some strips from the photo booth. I moved to the East Village in 1993 and still reside there, although these days I'm rethinking where I should be with as Phillip said 'much deliberation'. The neighborhood is done and it's not worth the battle anymore. It's really a shame and a betrayal. I walked down first avenue last weekend and saw the Starbucks and had to think for a second is that was the former spot of Little Ricky (and later The Bean). When a faceless corporation like that makes it that deep into the area you know it's really over.

Kids in their 20s now really have their heads up their asses.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Phillip is great--he shared so much of himself in this interview, as he obviously does in other aspects of life. wish there were more like him in the EV today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for another great history lesson. The mention of Bink and Bink sent me waaay back.
--BabyDave

Anonymous said...

J, this is great! Read about Little Ricky. When I got around to seeing it, it had closed. Phillip, please put all this in a book. Am sure it could be well illustrated with many wonderful photos. Please ple3ase!

P2P said...

loved to read this in helsinki

John M said...

Wonderful, Jeremiah. Just great.

DrBOP said...

Still remember the triple-take when I saw the first FuckStarbucks sticker in the window.....and the following 10 minutes of heads-back rip-roarin' laughter.
Wonderful store....wonderful owner.....wonderfull post.....thanks all!

Anonymous said...

So happy to read this. I've wondered for years what became of Phillip - always expecting to run into him on the block. I especially appreciate him mentioning the Army Navy store--there was one on the corner of 1st & 4th too, & you bought boots in one, t-shirts in the other. Like everyone, I loved Little Rickie. Last time I looked, the name is still in the sidewalk on First Street. Yay Phillip!

rj said...

a great story of a great place. thanks for the memories of that photobooth...

tziporah said...

What a wonderful article! What a wonderful store!
Little Rickie was a gem - we all loved it! It was total fantasy and spoke to the kid in all of us. A wonderful showcase for Philip's genius. It enriched all of our lives.

Jocelyn said...

Thanks EV Grieve, and thanks Phillip, for a great interview. I'm so not surprised that Phillip went on to help others as a therapist, and hope he'll come back to NYC...though yes, the shock over how its changing...the owners of the old Little Ricky's building are the perfect example of greedy monsters poisoning the waters. I'm just glad I have the memories! Every year around Xmas-time I'd see Tim Robbins leaving with armfuls of shopping bags, prob presents for Susan!

2LipsinHolland said...

I still have my photos from Little Ricky's - cried when the place closed! Thank you so much for this article - I always wondered what happened and had heard about the Starbucks thing back in the day...RIP EV NYC...

Judy said...

This was such a great interview—I walk by that corner and it just makes me sad now. I still have the Elvis clock my mom bought me from there. Sigh. Come back to New York and make retail fun again, please!

Anonymous said...

I left the EV 2 years ago after almost 20 years of residency. It really is done now, and it is such a shame. It was such a special place when I first got there in 1990. So happy to have at least had a few good years there before the gentrification started. The Bar will probably always be my favorite bar in the whole world.

Jason said...

I miss this store a lot. Thanks a bunch for the interview - it put a more personal spin on the charming memories that I have of the place.

F said...

Mitchell was a friend of mine in the mid to late '80s. We became pals at the Westside Y. He was an original. I'll always remember him describing his sartorial style as "dressing for harassment."

Freddie

C.L. Rogers said...

Are there any novelty stores left in NYC?

Viola Lynte said...

I loved this store dearly! Thank you for this interview & the pictures!

Joy Stick said...

Great article, I loved Little Ricky and the mad creative energy that fizzed and bubbled in the EV back in the 80's. The late Craig Coleman, artist and all round wonderful crazy friend and I would swoop down on Little Ricky and giggle like Hyenas. Phillip, always gracious and welcoming would indulge us. trying on and examining everything. I have a fabulous collection of cast iron mechanical saving's bank that I bought there along with who know what else. The place was a treasure trove and Phillip was at the epicentre.

Steve Abrams said...

I used to rehearse in a basement around the corner from Little Rickies. In between weekend sessions, we'd pop in to say hi to the fellas, who were always the nicest, friendliest guys you could hope for. I did all my holiday shopping there.

To me, Little Rickies was the epicenter of an amazing super-creative universe that existed briefly in NYC. I still have my b/w photos taken in that booth!! It really was Pee Wee's Playhouse come to life. When it closed, I believed it was a deathknell for the EV...

I will always have the fondest memories though. I still see imitators across North America, but none could ever top Little Rickie's sense of humour, community, and sublime cleverness.

Thanks!

Steve

Anonymous said...

Did you see this piece in the Wall Street Journal about Phillip's house in Santa Fe? He is selling it and hopes to get over a million for it and he is coming back to NYC to open a new Little Rickie. Can't wait to have him back and am thrilled to see he did so well for himself. An East Village success story.

http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2012/01/04/real-estate-news-general-growth-starts-year-with-gamble/tab/slideshow/#slide/11

Aunt Susan said...

I am the executive director of a historic preservation group in Albany, NY but used to frequent this fantastic store when I lived in NYC in the '80's. Gosh, Phillip, I wish we had a conversation then. I say what you are saying here, every day of my job. I don't know how the American public does not get this. We have lost so much and with the powers and greed of our electeds, we stand to lose so much more. Check out what is going on in NYC--my colleague historic preservation groups are fighting for the soul of the City. Thank you for being there to teach us things when we didn't even know we absorbed them! Best of luck to you in yr endeavors and I would love to see the photo booth book :)Susan Holland, Historic Albany Foundation