We were saddened to hear of the permanent closing of Gem Spa, a century-old beloved East Village haunt for egg creams that was located on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue. Gem Spa was one of the locations on our Historic East Village Food Tour, led by renown photographers James and Karla Murray who are long-time residents of the neighborhood. Guests tasted delicious specialties from at least 6 different tasting stops, including Gem Spa.
Parul Patel, the daughter of the owner Ray Patel of Gem Spa, released a statement by email and on social media yesterday:
It is with a heavy heart that we announce Gem Spa has poured its last legendary egg cream and closed its doors forever. This has been an extremely difficult decision, and one we are heartbroken to make. Forced to close the store due to New York City & State Covid restrictions implemented six weeks ago in the interest of safety to our customers and staff, we had hoped to reopen once things stabilized. Prior to the crisis, it had become increasingly apparent that the evolving character of the area was no longer able to sustain a corner creation like ours. Coronavirus concerns closed our city, cratered businesses, and ultimately sealed the fate of our (close to) 100-year-old shop.
After careful review and assessment of our options, we have made the heartbreaking but necessary decision to close permanently. We have enjoyed the most incredible love, support, loyalty and friendship from our neighbors, city, and visitors from around the world. We are, and always will be, eternally grateful to the historical artists, musicians, designers and dedicated denizen’s who saw us as much more than a beloved bodega but an iconic East Village institution. Although our physical doors are closing, we will live on through our website where we will be highlighting more of our rich history and the iconic figures that have made us who we are. We will also continue to sell Gem Spa branded merchandise as well as art, books and photographs inspired by our store. The Patel family would like to thank everyone for all the beautiful memories and for the opportunity to serve you. We hope that all of you are staying safe and in good health. Lots of love from all of us to all of you.
Fear of Gem Spa’s closure spurred a grassroots action to save it last fall. As Beatriz Rodriguez, an active member of the group #SaveNYC writes, “Last September, a bunch of us New Yorkers along with #SaveNYC gathered in front of Gem Spa (Home Of NY’s Best Egg Cream) to have delicious egg creams and support this old school, East Village gem. They fought hard against the odds to stay afloat (since the 1920s!). Sadly, with zero legislation in place to protect small, vulnerable, businesses and a city on “pause,” the little corner bodega on St Marks Place was forced to close.”
In honor of Gem Spa, we are republishing below James and Karla’s photographs and their writing about Gem Spa which we originally published in 2016:
Gem Spa was originally called “Gems Spa” and was founded in 1957 by Ruby Silverstein and his partner Harold Shepard. In an interview in 1969 with New York Magazine, Ruby explained that the name “Gems” comes from a combination of the initial letters of Gladys, Etta, Miriam, and Silverstein-Shepard. The three ladies used in deriving the name were his wife, his partner’s ex-wife, and his partner’s current wife. The “Spa” is a word that he says was picked up when he was overseas in the service.
Photo by James and Karla Murray.
Ruby kept Gems Spa open 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week and estimated that “someone comes into the store every 30 seconds, averaged out over 24 hours. Notice that I did not say ‘purchase’ –but someone walks in every 30 seconds.” Gems Spa is where Jack Kerouac and other beat poets got their egg creams in the 1950s and it also became a hangout for many musicians in the 1960s and 1970s, who performed at the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus, which were located on either side of the store. Patti Smith was a long-time customer and the New York Dolls shot their 1973 debut album, New York Dolls back cover in front of Gem Spa. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Ted Berrigan both mentioned Gem Spa in their work and Gem Spa is also the name of one of the major works painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1982.
Before Ruby took over the lease for the space, it had operated as a candy store by another name since 1920 and was run by the Goldfeather family. The current owner, Ray Patel bought the business in 1986, but has only slightly changed the storefront and expanded its outside vending area, selling hats, socks, sunglasses, scarves, gloves and wigs.
Detail of Gem Spa interior soda fountain/egg cream prep area. Photo by James and Karla Murray.
Gem Spa is still famous for its egg creams, a quintessential New York beverage originally served in candy stores throughout the Lower East Side beginning in the 1920s. The egg cream, is said to have been invented at this candy store. Contrary to its name, the egg cream does not contain eggs or cream but is a mixture of very cold milk, seltzer, and flavored syrup. It is believed that the name “egg cream” came from the egg-white-like foam that rose to the top of the glass. Another theory about its unusual name is that the words echt keem, Yiddish for “pure sweetness” were used to describe the drink and the Anglicized form of the words led to “egg cream”. The Gem Spa owners have always kept their milk on ice because one of the keys to making a great egg cream is to use extremely cold milk.
Karla Murray giving a tour in front of Gem Spa. Photo by James and Karla Murray,
It’s also “all in the way you stir it,” Ray Patel told us when interviewing him for our book, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York. Because most of the original soda fountain locations have closed, true egg creams are rapidly disappearing. To this day, Gem Spa continues to make their egg creams using the same recipe and original soda fountain machine from the 1940s. The countermen learned to make egg creams from the previous owner who learned from the previous owner before him. The chocolate, vanilla, and coffee-flavored syrups were once made in the basement by the store’s original owner but Gem Spa now uses the famous Brooklyn-made Fox’s U-Bet flavored syrups. On a typical weekend night, Gem Spa sells about 70 egg creams.
In Lou Reed’s 1996 song “Egg Cream” he sang that, “When I was a young man, no bigger than this / A chocolate egg cream was not to be missed / Some U-Bet’s chocolate syrup, seltzer water mixed with milk / You stir it up into a heady fro, tasted just like silk.” The corner where Gem Spa is located has always been one of the busiest intersections in the East Village and to us it is the “Times Square” of the Village.