Monday, January 28, 2013

9th Street Bakery

By now you may have heard that the 9th Street Bakery is closing after 87 years in business. The landlord has doubled the rent. So I went inside, on a freezing winter's afternoon, and sat down with a cup of hot coffee.

The bakery was cold. The tops of the tables like slabs of ice. I kept my coat on. The radio played classical music, Beethoven's "Appassionata." Now and then, a customer came and went.

1. "Can I have an onion rye?"
"Slice it?"
The air judders with the vibrations of the slicing machine.

2. "Do you have a small challah, besides this one?" She coughs and lowers her grocery bags to the floor with a heavy sound. "That's Beethoven's sonata. Nice to walk into a store and hear something like that instead of the garbage they play everywhere. I listen to almost nothing but classical music. I guess I'm more monochromatic that way."

She leaves. The refrigeration condenser comes on growling, rattles on a bit, then stops. The bakery man counts money. It shuffles softly in his hands. A voice on the radio tells us it will be cold tonight and snow will fall but not accumulate. The bakery man yawns.

3. "Can I have two whole-wheat rolls? And a large rye?"
"No, thanks." The young woman waits, softly humming and bouncing on her heels. 

Across the street, the Bean mini-chain is full of people--drinking coffee, eating pastries, all gazing into the light of their laptop screens. People walk by the 9th Street Bakery, smiling lovingly into the faces of their iPhones. Inside, one customer departs, minutes pass, and another enters.

4. "Challah, please. Oh, I want to come in here with claws on and just make people have tea! I love this place. There's no TV, so it's a good place for conversation. So much better than the other places." She wishes the bakery man luck and leaves with her challah loaf.

5. "I'll take a coffee and a doughnut. And I'll give ya 20 dollars tomorrow." He sits without paying (he must run a tab), hurriedly dunks the doughnut (chocolate glazed) in the coffee, gulps it down in sopping, dripping pieces, and leaves.

Outside, it's getting darker. In the headlights of an idling black SUV, snow begins to fall, just like the radio promised. The classical station flickers out, breaks into static, allows a voice from a neighboring station to intrude, screaming: "Check out the awesomeness! Yaaaah!" The room's blood pressure jolts. But the bakery man fiddles with the dial and soft music soon returns us to our reverie.

6. "Apple strudel and coffee, please." He sits down in his black beret and opens a book on the table in front of him. "Is that a Mozart French horn? I believe it is. You always have good music in here. I approve."

Now it's my turn to leave. I step outside feeling transformed by the 9th Street Bakery. I feel calm, less angry than I usually do on the street. It's as if I've been drugged with some mild and delightful soporific. The East Village seems benevolent, and I find myself humming as I walk through it. More and more, we are losing the places that make us feel better about life and the city. What happens when they're all gone?


Ellen Fagan said...

What a beautiful little snapshot of another amazing vintage shop. I will surely be going there soon, as it's so very much more along the lines of my own sensibilities. Never set foot in those shiny, chrome-y, soulless monstrosities. Just a crying shame...

JM said...

What happens when they're all gone?

We leave, Jeremiah. Sadly, we leave.

Anonymous said...

You? Angry?

The balm of baking and boredom.

Bbethany7 said...

You'll need to move to Rome, or maybe Paris, where change takes decades if not centuries. Bonne Chance! Ciao!

vzabuser said...

Plain Bagels were still a quarter each in the late nineties there. Sesame Seeded twist for .50-

Herb Westphalen Chef/Mixologist said...

Thank you for sharing a wonderful, albeit sad, moment in this great city. I have mourned the loss of so many places like it.
I will always patronize these classic, beloved business till the day I die.

JAZ said...

Terrific post.

You know where you can run a tab? At a place that values being anchored in as a longtime thread in the fabric of an actual community.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i especially love the woman who said, "I want to come in here with claws on and just make people have tea!"

esquared™ said...

Reminds me of Maeve Brennan. You're The Long-Winded Gentleman: Notes from a New Yorker.

Jeremiah Moss said...

being compared to the incomparable Maeve is the best compliment you could give me. thank you for that!

laura said...

double rent is extreme. i suppose they did not have a clause in the lease w/a rent cap for a renewal. this is a normal place for me, quiet, nice people, good envirement. i grew up on ave. J in brookyn. we had "ebingers" bakery, & many more like this. i rememeber there was a french bakery on 6th ave between w/13th & 12th. i used to go in for a croissant, i wonder if its still there? what is the new thing? are bakeries passe?

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I felt like I was right there with you. Why is it that places like this that make us feel better about being here are harder and harder to find. Also, it's amazing that a place can do that to a person in the first place. I guess the opposite is also true. All those Starbucks must make the iPhone gazer feel "like totally awesome to be in New York City."

laura said...

ok, we wont have bakeries, or laundries, or small grosers. WHAT exactly will we have? 7/11s or an arty $5. per cookie place? the very rich, or the very lower end? 7/11s or a gourmet groser? as for the laundry problem, no laundry except in your apt in the highrise condo-or live in queens (??)

Anonymous said...

Catching a lovely moment in time- we all felt like we were there with you in the dying light, snow falling and disappearing into the asphalt, everyday people coming and going, their paths crossing in a brief connection- a place where you feel nurtured and uplifted and somehow so alive and in tune with this city and everyone in it.
Times when you remember that every city has a soul and a spirit that is not easily broken, and you hope that with every affront, every attempt to tame it, the city will always find its soul again.

laura said...

J, thank you again for that post. good challah is hard to find. classical music w/the challah? very luxurious. what i shame it will be gone.

mch said...

What a beautiful elegy, Jeremiah. I remember that bakery, passing by it. Ninth Street was the heart of my NYC experiences when I was young.

Here in rural Massachusetts, some interesting (if most unfortunate) parallels, just in the last two days. Not obvious parallels, I guess, but please bear with me.

Our car got mildly banged up a few months ago, and we're finally getting around to taking up the insurance company on its rust-prevention support. Rick's (all auto-body shops have one-syllable guy's names, right?) can fix it, but in the meanwhile (a few days) we can't rent from the Econoline next door because it's closing. Why is this profitable business closing? Its current building is falling apart, so it can't stay there, but any rents along the same highway strip (or any other spots in the general area) are so high that those profits would be eaten up. Rents for what? The only businesses of any use to real people on this strip are things like Rick's. Oh, maybe it's the new SUPER Walmart, that's about to replace the old plain Walmart, that's screwing with rents? I dunno. Something's not right.

My husband chats with "Rick." I buy wine at the liquor store (not a chain -- it's owned by a pleasant young man eager to do good wines, reasonably priced) next to the Stop 'n Shop. Much more familiar to me than the owner, though, is the obviously reliable behind-the-counter man, in his 60's, I'd guess. He and I always chat, at a store where I often spot Vietnam veterans (how is it that they are so easy to spot?), with whom he seems on quietly intimate terms. (We all dance around, respectfully observing one another in these places, no?) Till now, I have no idea where this guy stands on politics, and I am always respectfully cautious around fellows from the Vietnam era. But for some reason today he opens up to me about the payroll taxes going up -- that's okay, he says, a few dollars a month. I say something about that being regressive. He unloads (in quiet but assured tones) about Republicans, their plans to destroy the social safety net. Can't capture here how well-informed this guy is. (Yeah, he works behind the counter in a liquor store on a rural strip. He's smart. He's informed.) But what he really wants to talk about is the tax breaks being given for a sports store on the strip, that will put the sports store in the center of town out of business.

Don't now how to wrap this up except to say, the grit of 9th St and the grit of snow, ice, and dirt in January here in the boonies -- people with grit, and generosity, will make it all work out, somehow. Let us hope and pray.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, I dont know how you people who still live in the city deal with it? Its like sitting in a room with a corpse and watching it slowly rot or living under occupation. I got out in 2002 after being born and raised there. I just couldn't stand it anymore. Even if I had the money I would never move back.

goatsflee said...

“Towns and suburbs … are the natural homes for huge supermarkets and for little else in the way of groceries, for standard movie houses or drive-ins and for little else in the way of theatre. There are simply not enough people to support further variety, although there may be people (too few of them) who would draw upon it were it there. Cities, however, are the natural homes of supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small. Wherever lively and popular parts of cities are found, the small much outnumber the large.” Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 146. New York: Random House (1961).

Until the strange and the small can’t afford it anymore.

DrBOP said...

Something changed with Reagonomics and the first Yuppie/Gentrification wave.
Our parents and grand parents "built" the country/NYC on 2 to 3 percent profit ranges (after of course covering the overhead and their own salaries). With the 1980s 30 to 40 percent profit-taking became the norm; evolving to the "yes, I/the store/the company makes 40% profit, but it's not enough....shut-it-down, reorganize/jack-up the rent and it's 75% profit" scene/seen today.

I was raised to believe that governments were supposed to protect us from this greed, NOT make it easier for the greed pigs. Pretty naive, eh?

PS Absolutely beautifully written!

PPS Captcha = 1815rentsGeo HA!