Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In an uneasy critique of independent stores’ vanishing footprint, this art installation sells toilet paper, tins of fish, and tubs of ice cream, all made out of felt.
In 1961, the artist Claes Oldenburg circumvented the gallery world and set up his own storefront in New York City’s East Village. His direct-to-consumer performance was called, fittingly, “The Store,” and he hawked tweaked versions of the goods on offer at nearby establishments, arranged to evoke their display in those more-traditional outposts. There was, for instance, a slice of blueberry pie molded from plaster and set in a display case next to a banana split midway through the business of melting. Hurtled 50 years into the future, the show would have been an Instagram darling.
Its spiritual offspring is “8 ‘Till Late,” currently on view in a Chelsea storefront loaned by the Standard Hotel. This time around, the British artist Lucy Sparrow does have Instagram at her disposal. The installation relies on a similar gimmick: It’s a makeshift bodega stocked with 9,000 staples, all made out of felt.
The shelves are lined with gigantic tubs of mayonnaise, packets of candy, rolls of toilet paper, and bottles of detergent and shampoo. Tucked into corners of the checkered floor are an ATM and a freezer stuffed with ice cream sandwiches and plastered with CCTV warning signs.
There’s even a deli counter, where visitors can assemble their own (inedible) sandwiches from cold cuts sliced from fabric.
The installation is a real pop-up store: Everything is for sale. Visitors who pick up a two-pack of paper towels will be out $60. Online, at the artist’s website, a bag of plush Fritos is £45; a tin of instant coffee goes for £40, and a pack of Benadryl tablets asks £35. But Sparrow told the New York Times she’s working toward a bigger point, highlighting the “communities being lost as neighborhoods are transformed.”
For proof of that, just wander over to nearby Bleecker Street. This enclave has swung from boom to bust. In the early 2000s, it was the sugar-addled epicenter of the frenzy over Magnolia Bakery’s confections. The bakery, made famous by Sex and the City, helped propel development of a strip of other ultra-luxe shops in the vicinity. In short order, “older businesses balked at rent renewals asking $45,000 a month, and the stretch lost everything from book stores to Thai restaurants to antique shops,” Curbed reported.
Ultimately, the few-block radius was unable to sustain such a glut of high-end shops peddling similar wares. But landlords aren’t eager to lower rents, so many storefronts now sit empty. In a report he assembled on the issue last month, the state senator Brad Hoylman quoted the Columbia Law School economist Tim Wu: “That suggests waiting for Marc Jacobs instead of renting to Jane Jacobs.”
In April, Hoylman’s office canvassed corridors in the city’s 27th Senate district, counting shuttered businesses. In pockets of the West Village and Chelsea—where Sparrow’s installation is on view—they tallied vacancy rates of 18 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. They also tracked year-to-year change in the tenants and found that about 11 percent of the storefronts turned over from one year to the next.
Meanwhile, local shopkeepers are also pinched by the presence of chain stores, which continue to snap up space across the five boroughs. Dunkin Donuts and Subway franchises eat up the most real estate, according to the latest State of the Chains report from the Center for an Urban Future. The report found that while Manhattan still has the highest share of national outfits, the borough-wide total has decreased by about one percent even as it’s ticking up in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
While Sparrow’s schtick tries to draw attention to the plight of the vanishing mom-and-pop retailer, it’s not a balm. You can’t walk away with any of the functional goods that grease the wheels of daily life—just a moderately priced piece of felt that signifies their absence.
As a concept, Sparrow’s project isn’t laying new ground. But it’s inhabiting territory in which those questions about what belongs, and where, are very of the moment.