Monday, August 28, 2017



Clayworks pottery shop and studio has been on E. 9th Street since 1974. In mid-September, it will be forced to shutter.

In a letter to her customers, potter Helaine Sorgen writes:

"Clayworks survived everything the mad universe pitched at it--Hurricane Sandy, blizzards, The Great Recession, swastikas painted across the storefront, the front window being intentionally blown out, water main breaks, ceiling caves, the crack epidemic, and of course 9/11...

That is, until the recent and well documented invasion of the EV by predatory landlords and perfidious financiers. You see, Clayworks now occupies real estate deemed too valuable to allow it to stay. The new building owner and the plethora of shell companies he hides behind wants me out, and this is a war that I cannot win. I have spent the past 2 years fighting. I am tired and my time is up. Let me be clear—this is not the story of an unsuccessful store hanging on for dear life. This is the intentional stomping out of yet another mom and pop store by predatory real estate weasels. We small businesses are a family. Every store whose light goes out is a small death among us, another cross in the graveyard. There, we are legion."

Helaine's building, 332 E. 9th St., is one of 20 in an East Village portfolio owned by Raphael Toledano, the 27-year-old developer who has been making news for his notorious reputation -- and his recent bankruptcy on the properties.

I spent some time in the shop, talking with Helaine. A native of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, she moved to the East Village in 1973, seeking "like-minded souls," and opened her shop in 1974. She throws pots in the back--or she used to, before the ceiling caved in--and presides over the place from a high stool behind the counter, a spot she calls her "bully pulpit."

"This isn't just about commerce," she says about the small-business crisis in the city, "it's about creating a neighborly society. What kind of society do you want to live in? Where people are meaningful to you? Where you belong to a place? Or do you just want to sit in your apartment?"

She understands that the retail model is changing and many people buy online, but her customers, she says, "want the tactility. There's something moving and connected about clay. It's earth. People are missing that connection." They often tell Helaine, "The only thing I've not bought online is the vase I bought from you." Or the mug, or the plate, or the bowl. "It's got my fingermarks in it. It's got my heart in it."

"A pot has to do its job," she explains, "not just minimally, but fabulously. Sometimes you can solve people's problems with a pot. That's what makes it worthwhile." The best thing a customer ever told her was, "Your mug saved my marriage." (The worst? "Did anybody important make any of this or just you?")

We talk about customers, human behavior good and bad, and the changing East Village, how small shops are being killed off while politicians do nothing.

Helaine wishes the local Community Board would "pick up the hammer" and protect the neighborhood fabric. She's written to the political representatives who talk about saving small businesses--Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and council members Rosie Mendez and Robert Cornegy--but she's never gotten a response from anyone.

"They talk about small businesses just before elections," Helaine says. "Then it's back in the junk drawer. Back in the closet."

A young woman named Katie walks in and greets Helaine. She's been coming to Clayworks for years and stops in every few months to take her time among the wares, picking them up and holding them, before she decides on the just-right item. Ever since she found "the best mug ever," she can't stay away. She joins the conversation about the changing city, worrying what will happen as the glass high-rises--and the rents--continue to rise.

Another customer comes in carrying a plastic bag full of fresh vegetables. Her name is Judith and she's on her way to the opera. She hands the bag to Helaine, whose eyes widen. "What did you bring me this time? Cukes? I love cukes."

"And green beans," Judith says. "From my garden."

As the two women shop and gather their purchases on the counter, Helaine recalls when her mother would join her in the store.

"My mother never wanted me to have a shop," she says. "She wanted me to have a real job, like the women in Bob Newhart with their typewriters and desks. She'd sit by the register here and whenever customers came up to pay, she'd say to them, 'What do you need all that for? Why are you buying so much stuff?' It was never helpful to have my mother here."

Judith selects a serving plate. "I just love it," she says. "It's very tactile. The feeling of it in your hand is so lovely."

Katie keeps on browsing, holding each mug in her hands, looking for the just-right fit as she imagines morning coffees. She talks about the occasional heartbreak of a broken Clayworks mug.

"I can't stand seeing my stuff broken," Helaine says, wincing. "It's like roadkill."

When pots do break, she gives the pieces to Jim Power, the East Village's famed Mosaic Man, and she's glad to know her work is being recycled, decorating the light poles and sidewalks of the neighborhood.

At the end, when the shop is closed for good, and the only pots left are the ones that "should never have seen the light of day," Helaine will take out a hammer. And she will smash.

"It'll be cleansing," she says. "And it's anger management."

Like many small business people forced out, Helaine is angry about losing her shop, the place where she has spent most of her life. She's also grieving.

"It's very hard to give this place up. It's a sacred space," she says with tears in her eyes. "It's not so much me--it has its own life. It exists. Things happen here. It's a place where people feel comfortable. This space is doing what it's meant to do. It has done its best to do good and contribute. It's sad to have that go--and turn into what? When you take these things away, it disrupts the balance of nature."


Cosmo said...

This hurts in so many ways. If the city can't recognize the importance of businesses like this, what hope is there? What kind of city will this end up being with nothing but large corporate chains and empty storefronts? Places like Clayworks are the fabric of not just our little community, but the society at large. Eat away at the foundation and the whole thing topples.

At this point, my only hope is that when all of the small businesses are erased and no one wants to live here any more, and when the national chains can't afford to keep storefronts here, maybe there will be another wave of abandonment that later results in individual entrepreneurs stepping in once again to regenerate a new city. But whether this happens in our lifetimes (assuming it happens at all) is another question.

Chris Angell said...

After seeing this blog post, I visited her store yesterday and ended up purchasing some mugs and a candle holder (for just over $100! the place isn't cheap).

TheBlueMan said...

Good work isn't cheap. You're also helping her pay overhead. I'll take a look inside again. I live across the Hudson and i try to get in as often as possible. It's hard :(
Still gotta visit this and cafe orlin before they close

Chris Angell said...

I visited Clayworks again, on the 14th (for more mugs and candle holders!), and Helaine says she'll be open until the end of the month. It's really sad that she's being forced out.