A kid stands among shelves full of chips, cereal, and bread, all made out of felt.
The installation consists of 9,000 pieces of standard-issue bodega fare, all made out of felt. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

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.

Don’t be fooled: these are made of fabric. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

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.

For all your household needs #8tilllate #lucysparrow #art #feltconveniencestore #newyork

A post shared by Lucy Sparrow (@sewyoursoul) on

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a mural in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    Life

    Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

    In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

  3. A man walks down the Zeedjik.
    Equity

    How a Dutch Housing Agency Rescued an Amsterdam Street From the Drug Trade

    Frustrated by rampant heroin trade, residents of the street Zeedijk forced a public-private real-estate partnership to protect the street while preventing community displacement.

  4. A photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May announcing her government's Brexit deal outside No. 10 Downing Street
    Equity

    Britain Finally Has a Brexit Deal. Everyone Hates It.

    Amid resignations, it's clear the U.K. government massively misjudged how leaving the European Union would play out.

  5. The charred remnants of a building in Paradise, California, destroyed by the Camp Fire.
    Environment

    How California Cities Can Tackle Wildfire Prevention

    Wildfires like Camp and Tubbs are blazing with greater intensity and frequency, due to factors including climate change and urban sprawl. How can cities stay safe?