Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Little Rickie vs. Starbucks

About a week ago, a Starbucks opened on the corner of E. 3rd Street and 1st Avenue. As Grieve pointed out, it's a Starbucks "Reserve," which means it's special. Starbucks says it's there to remind us of "the early days of the specialty coffee business that we helped to create."

In other words, they want us to feel like we're in a real place and not a fake place. I guess that's why the signage is hand-painted on the bricks. It's more rustic that way. Maybe, if it looks authentic, it won't be egged or covered with GET THE FUCK OUT signs.

Before Starbucks came to this corner, and before its predecessor The Bean, there was Little Rickie.

Tom Perottet

Originally opened on First Street in 1985 by Phillip Retzky, Little Rickie moved to 49 1/2 First Avenue in 1987. They sold nostalgic, kitschy novelties--a lot of Elvis and Jesus, Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons, and vintage stuff. It was a great little place.

(You might argue that Little Rickie was an early gentrifier of the East Village, but then I'd have to repeat myself for the thousandth time about how the hyper-gentrification of today is very different from the gentrification of the 1980s and 90s, and how Little Rickie and Starbucks are not the same thing, and then I'd tell you to read the first chapter of Sarah Schulman's book The Gentrification of the Mind, and I'm really not in the mood for all that, to tell the truth.)

New York magazine, 1987

The Little Rickie people also had principles. When Pee-Wee Herman was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991, Retzky refused to raise the price on his Pee-Wee dolls--unlike many other merchants, he didn't want to profit from Mr. Reubens' penile misfortune.

Ironically, Little Rickie was sued by Starbucks in 1999 for selling stickers that changed the words on the Starbucks Coffee logo to say FUCK OFF.

Starbucks also sued a number of other local businesses for distributing the stickers, including Alt Coffee on Avenue A. Said the owner of Alt to the Times, ''New York City is being mallified and when you start to sterilize things and limit choices, people in the East Village don't like it.''

People in the East Village still don't like it--hence the eggs and GET OUT signs--but more and more people in the East Village do like it. Take a walk by the special new Starbucks today and you'll find it filled with customers.

New York magazine, 1987

What I miss most about Little Rickie is the vintage photo booth. I took many a photo in that booth and always enjoyed seeing the black-and-white strips taped to the front window. You never knew who you might find there--the famous and the semi-famous, including interesting characters like Punk Rock Pat.

There's a Facebook page for posting photos from the Little Rickie booth. Looking at them now is to see the past, the people who made up the East Village in the 1990s. Ghosts of the old neighborhood, they're a different breed.

If they were all still here, and still young, would this Starbucks exist?

If this Starbucks had a photo booth, what sort of personalities would fill it today?


onlythejodi said...

Starbucks. On the Hell's Angel's block. It broke my heart when part of NYU law school moved in on that block, but the irony was at least amusing. Now, not so much. When I moved to the EV in '79, it was a choice to avoid the West Village which was so crowded with tourist and weekend rubber neckers. The EV was just folks, no need to come unless you knew someone who lived there or where looking to get high. Quiet. Ukranians. Hell's Angels. Junkies. Artists. Where the hell would I go now to find that...RIP

jw said...

That picture of little rickies made me smile. thanks for the link to that facebook page!

Tricia said...

That good ol' authentic look = another example of "authentrification." Tourists and young people frequently mistake new stores with this old look for stores that have been in the Village forever. Surprisingly (to me anyway), even a newcomer Starbucks falls into this category. NYC got its first Starbucks 18 years ago, so there's already a generation of coffee drinkers that doesn't remember a time before Starbucks and may assume because it looks old that it's been there forever. It makes me feel about 100 years old to remember and care about what was here before. PS Thanks for the wonderful photo of Little Rickies. Now that was a place that had character!

randall said...

I still don't think that you can differentiate between the so called hyper gentrification and just plain old gentrification. I know, it's your blog and you can do what you want, but the gentrification going on today is just a product of the world in which it is occurring. The tide of sameness has washed over the United States and there is precious little high ground. Why would NY be immune from national marketing trends.

This is not to say that I am in favor of it, but it's just the way I see it.

Carol Gardens said...

I recall very well my last visit to Little Rickys. Some young lady was there managing to chat on her cell phone while being a demanding customer at the same time. The owner threw up his hands and said dramatically, "Now THIS is why I'm moving!"

Anonymous said...

Its marketing, thank the marketers and pr of starbucks for doing their homework on nyc.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Dirty Girl. I used to weekend dog sit for a friend, in the early 90's, in Soho. It (Soho) was noisy and full of tourists then, although not near the level it is now (and I thought it was bad then!) I was always so happy to get back to the East Village, where I lived and still do. DG is right, no one came here unless you lived here or were visiting a friend. It was fantastic. It felt like a real (quirky) neighborhood. Now, all I do is think about getting out. It's incredibly sad, what the EV has become: a crowded, noisy frat bar, full of the most "common garden variety" people imaginable.

Brendan said...

The Little Rickie people also had principles. When Pee-Wee Herman was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991, Retzky refused to raise the price on his Pee-Wee dolls--unlike many other merchants, he didn't want to profit from Mr. Reubens' penile misfortune.

Principles! It's a kitschy doll, not penicillin.

People who fetishize the pop culture ephemera of their childhoods like this should be parted from their money as efficiently as possible.

(There is a word for such people, but it always starts arguments, so I won't say it.)

Agree that the hand-painted Starbucks sign is really creepy.

Marty Wombacher said...

Little Rickie was a great place and how ironic that it's now a Starbucks, the corporation that once sued them. Thanks for putting up that facebook link, some great photos and memories to be seen there!

Little Earthquake said...

One man's small time mom and pop coffee shop = another man's potential future Starbucksesque chain. You're just idealizing one corporation over another.

That's not to say they're all equal. I just don't put it past any coffee shop to capitalize the way Starbucks did if the circumstances were the same. Human nature.

the G said...

I know that Little Rickie's has been gone for a long time, but I haven't thought about it in a while, so seeing this post and the pictures delivered quite a jolt! A sad and excellent post.

I used to get ALL of my Christmas shopping done in ONE trip to Little Rickie's! Truly something for everyone!

Forgot about those photo-booth pix too--I see Fred Schneider in one here and I have a memory of Richard Hell being in one in the front window.

--the G

Romy Ashby said...

The photo booth pictures, hooray! The guy on the very bottom left is my friend Charles Schick. He lived in the nabe then, and he lives in the nabe now. He and his wife Regina Bartkoff are painters and actors. Regina has worked at El Sombrero Restaurant for decades. Starting March 7th they're doing a little Tennessee Willliams play, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, at their tiny theater at 292 East 3rd Street. Anyone who wants to see the best of the old E. Vil in action can see Charlie in the play and he looks just like he did in the photobooth, just a little older.

EV Grieve said...

Thanks for the post, Jeremiah. Many good memories of this place.

starzstylista said...

Already by the time Little Ricky's appeared on the scene there was a sense of the commodification of what had been an authentic scene. I bought alot of stuff at LR's, but everyone knew that they were just a retail outlet profiting from the art and aesthetics that came out of late 70s SVA and Club 57 - most notably artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.

I agree with Randall. I think hyper gentrification is the gentrification that kills the things one loves. I can't see a difference between then and now. As a matter of fact, it was almost worse then because there was a lot of artistic talent being forced out. The recent move against gentrification is just about saving small businesses.

I thought the interview with the guy who owned the Luna Lounge was hilarious. He was kvetching because the community didn't stand up for him. I wonder how often he gave free drinks to the community. G-d business owners like him and the St Marks Bookstore guys are just too tedious.

the G said...

... John Waters too--I think he was also in the window photos. Anybody remember?

--the G

Brendan said...

I found the classic Onion article this reminded me of:


It was the Mexican Day of the Dead thing that reminded me (what a cliche!), but the article also shows very pointedly the futility of making moral distinctions between different waves/kinds of gentrification. These distinctions make no difference to the working poor who are the first to be displaced.

Dane Vannatter said...

Thanks for the tip on the Sarah Shulman book. Looking forward to reading it, sort of....

Little Earthquake said...

Something about a coffee shop taking the time to print stickers that say "FUCK OFF" with the Starbucks logo is kind of chumpish. Wasn't there a better use of time and resources to keep your own business afloat? There's a lot of things I don't like, but investing time and energy in that kind of lame shenanigan is really more of a victory for the big guy than the little guy. Throwing eggs is at least slightly kneejerk and juvenile, but it takes a real sense of rudderless frustration to order and circulate stickers.

vancouverstreetblog.blogspot.com said...

Starbucks. They have popped up everywhere in Vancouver.

mch said...

Jeremiah, OT or doesn't belong as a comment on this particular post or, maybe, relevant to all your posts. Do you or your readers know this site?


A soulmate of some kind, I think.

Anonymous said...

Phillip Retzky, who owned Little Rickie's, is now a psychotherapist living in Santa Fe. I wonder what he would think of a Starbucks taking over the space. I would love to hear his thoughts. With his new profession, maybe he could give us all some advice on how to deal with our beloved old East Village slipping away from us.


Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon, you'll get your wish next week when I publish a lengthy interview here with Mr. Retzky.

Jocelyn said...

Thanks for this great post, Jeremiah. I remember asking Retzky why he was closing when he was, fearing the typical rent-through-the-roof response (and business was always booming), and was both sad but philosophical when he said he'd just had enough. He was always clearly a really smart guy with a great sense of humor and fun reflected in his wares but also just his presence.

Anonymous said...

I do miss Little Rickie's...those Starbucks stickers made me laugh! I had them made into coffee mugs that we still use 15 years later. So bizarre to walk by the place and see people patronizing the Starbucks there now. NEVER! Go to The Bean around the corner instead, people...they, at least, have the good sense to have Jim Power work his mosaic man magic to give the new location some street cred.