As we shared here last week, Joe's Dairy closed this weekend to retail customers. They served their last sandwiches on Friday evening. On Saturday, with lines out the door and the tip jar overflowing, it was all about the mozzarella. News photographers and reporters went in and out, aiming to capture something vanishing before their eyes.
As it often happens on these last days, the staff was surprised by the sudden outpouring of love. Vincent Campanelli told WPIX 11, "You think you’re selling cheese, and you start going up layers, it’s a whole of a lot more than you thought."
Customers gave their condolences, along with last-minute advice, "You should've put up a website, got on Facebook," and some dire predictions, "Marc Jacobs will probably move into this space next." Even with mom and pops vanishing all over town, it's hard to understand how, in a time and place where faux "artisanal" food is all the rage, actual artisanal food can't succeed.
But this wasn't the usual case of hiked rent. Some at Joe's said it was due to a shrinking customer base. One reader reported that owner Anthony Campanelli drove in to work on Wednesday and "it just struck him--'I can't do this anymore.' He was going to just close up and not tell anyone. He wanted to leave quietly. But then word got out and all the hoopla ensued... He, his wife and his daughter all told me that today is a happy day."
Mr. Campanelli told James and Karla Murray in 2008, "When I’m ready to retire, it will probably be a lost art in my family because I have a daughter but I won’t allow her to do this. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not that a woman couldn’t do it, but you have to get up really early and work long hours. I feel like I do this because I chose to. Nobody asked me to do it. This is what I wanted to do but I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone."
Why don't we have more people like the Campanellis to keep our longstanding mom and pops going when Mom and Pop can't do it anymore? In 1977, they took Joe's over from Joe Aiello and they didn't glamorize it, they just kept doing what had been done. Why don't we have more people who want to keep traditions alive without twisting them into something exclusive?
If someone new took it over today, chances are it wouldn't be Joe's Dairy anymore. It would be Faux Joe's, some upscale reproduction with luxury prices and the clientele to match. They'd reproduce the sign to look like the old sign, only spiffed up. They'd serve "The Campanelli," a mozzarella and prosciutto panini drizzled with truffle oil and slapped with a $35 price tag. They'd have lines out the door every day. In their interview for New York magazine, they'd defend themselves to their critics, "We saved this place. A lot of banks and Starbucks were looking to move in here. No, it's not the same as before. What we're doing is an homage."
Here's a true homage, a documentary about Joe's directed by Piero Iberti and produced with Jeremy Zalben, due out this summer--online and (hopefully) in theaters:
Joe's Dairy (Teaser) from 10Block Productions on Vimeo.
I asked the filmmakers some questions about Joe's Dairy and their film. Here are their answers:
Piero Iberti: My parents first discovered Joe’s when they were going to Soho gallery openings in the early 1980s. As I grew up nearby, I began to frequent Joe’s on a regular basis. I'm a native New Yorker and, at the heart of it, I wanted to capture a New York story that was important and resonant to me. On a basic level, I wanted to know how they made the cheese. I was interested in finding out the story of the people, the shop, and who this Joe was.
Jeremy Zalben: We both grew up in the East Village, 10 blocks away from each other. I never personally experienced Joe’s growing up, but when Piero told me about it, I knew it was an important story that needed to be shared with people.
Piero: I found out about the closing the night before and couldn't believe it when I heard. I frantically called Jeremy to tell him, and scrambled to phone those close to me who knew the store as well. I knew I had to be there the next day.
Jeremy: When Piero called me and told me, I didn’t believe him. I told him to call Vincent at the shop to see if this was actually true. I was truly surprised. When we first started out making the film two years ago, no part of me thought that the end of Joe’s would come before we could put our film out.
Piero: The city has lost a tremendous cultural force with the closing of Joe’s. It has also lost a piece of its identity and what makes New York, New York. One of the main motivations we had in making this movie was to capture that old New York feel that still existed because of shops like Joe’s. Now that feeling is on the verge of extinction. With less and less "mom and pop" stores around to provide that character, I’m not sure it's possible to retain it anymore.
Jeremy: For me, the city has lost another piece of what made New York such a special place. Stores like Joe’s are what made people want to live in New York. Joe’s provided a place where you could go, not just for a piece of smoked mozzarella, but to see your neighbors while waiting in line, to have a conversation with Ro behind the counter, or say hi to Vincent and Anthony while they worked on the cheese in the back. Unfortunately, people don’t want that anymore. They would rather go into a store, buy what they want, and go. I don’t think it’s possible for New York to ever be what it used to be.