By Kate Gavino

You’ve probably read the same Times article, the one decrying the death of small businesses, a dozen times or more. They usually frame themselves around the closure of a mom-and-pop establishment, a “dying breed” that went down “fighting the good fight.” Instead of focusing on these stores during their dying days (a worthy subject, don't get me wrong), why not celebrate their heydays? I stumbled upon a book that does just that.

The Un-Super Markets, by Hal Davis, Franchellie Cadwell, and Michael Raab, caught my attention at Book Thug Nation one evening with its tagline: “An insider’s guide to New York’s 100 most fascinating small specialty stores.” Published in 1969, the book has a very stark Amazon page, but it’s rife with ephemera about hidden kite shops, Japanese bakeries, seedy porn bookstores, colonial nut shops, and pickle briners. Of the 100 stores listed in the book, only ten are still open today in their original locations. I visited nine of them (skipping the Strand, which will outlive us all) to see how the book’s cheery descriptions held up.

I began downtown, working my way up from the Lower East Side to the West and East Village. (Stay tuned for Part II: The Upper East Side.)

1. Essex Street Market





Unfortunately, the no “instant, frozen, freeze-dried, or sugar-free” mandate has since been broken. The market has a gourmet feel to it now, despite its warehouse setting. I looked around for an elderly-looking person to bother with questions about the market’s past but was only met with young, fresh faces. I sat down at Shopsins, a small diner situated at the back of the market that has been around since 2007, despite its vintage décor and amiable regulars. The waiter took my order on an iPad.

2. McNulty's Tea & Coffee Company





The store is now run by David Wong and his father, Wing. Wing greeted me as I entered; David was helping a woman who was listing out a litany of flavors (“Columbian-inspired but not acidic, not too bitter…”), hoping for a perfect match. The store’s robust aroma leaves customers a little loopy, and it’s easy to see how you could walk out with a bag of Sri Lankan silvertip tea without realizing it. Wing let me taste a single Mexican coatepec bean, and it left me wired for the rest of the day.

3. Russ & Daughters





A small crowd jutted out the door on Sunday morning, and when I eventually got inside, I received exasperated looks for snapping pictures. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Who wants a tourist getting in the way of their sturgeon order? I was ecstatic to see women with their walkers and rhinestone brooches yelling at yuppies and their kids to move it when the line stalled. I felt like I was in a Nora Ephron movie.

4. Kiehl's





The original East Village location is as hip as its neighborhood, with all of its employees sporting bow ties and Warby Parkers. Gone are the shelves of jarred herbs and minerals, but the store pays homage to its past with displays dedicated to its founder, John Kiehl. As I was snooping around, a security guard asked me what I was up to. I replied, “Just taking pictures,” and he seemed dubious. I ended up buying a tiny bar of soap to placate him.

5. House of Oldies





Yelp reviews of the store decry its high prices, but when you’ve been paying rent in the West Village since 1968 and you’re walking distance from two other great record shops, (Generation Records and Bleeker Street Records), can you blame them for charging $40 for Pet Sounds? When I visited, Bob Abramson, the original owner, helped me find some Christmas music. There were tons of records I had never seen in person; honestly, they were worth the price tags. I walked out with a Supremes holiday album, and Bob gave me his card, for all my “future holiday music emergencies.”

Check back soon for Un-Super Markets Part II: Uptown.