12 photos of New York City’s quickly disappearing small businesses

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West 43rd Street near Seventh Avenue (Times Square), 2011.
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

New York is a city of neighborhoods, and perhaps nothing tells the story of a neighborhood’s character better than the small, family-owned businesses that operate there.

However, with skyrocketing rent and a crippling commercial rent tax, many of these business owners are struggling to pay the monthly bills. Many of these small businesses end up closing to make way for the larger chains and big-box retailers who can afford the rent. In 2015, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer argued in an op-ed that since the 1970s, “the mom-and-pop crisis has intensified with a fury.”

No two photographers have zeroed in on the issue quite like James and Karla Murray. Together the couple has made it their mission to document the city’s many unique storefronts and conduct interviews with various business owners.

The resulting work has been compiled into two books: “Store Front: The Disappearing Face Of New York“, and “Store Front II – A History Preserved“. Ahead, a selection from their most recent release.


The Murrays began photographing New York City streets in the mid-1990s. Upon returning to various neighborhoods, they began noticing that multiple businesses had been shuttered in short periods of time, or that shiny, new plastic awnings had replaced old-style signage.

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Hudson Street near Barrow Street (Greenwich Village), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

“We made it our mission to thoroughly document the small, unique ‘mom and pop’ stores of the city when we first began to notice the alarming rate at which these shops were disappearing,” the Murrays told Business Insider.

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Third Avenue at East 86th Street (Upper East Side), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

The storefronts’ hand-painted and neon signs, architectural adornment, and handmade window displays attract the eye.

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Columbus Avenue at West 70th Street (Upper West Side), 2015
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

As they began talking to many of the store’s owners, the Murrays realized that the scope of their project had to grow.

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Orchard Street at Delancey Street (Lower East Side), 2011
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

“The shop owners had fascinating stories to share about the joys and struggles of surviving as a family business in New York City,” they said.

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West 43rd Street near Seventh Avenue (Times Square), 2011
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

“One of the most common things we heard was how [store owner’s] neighborhoods have changed over the years, and how this has affected their business. Gentrification and skyrocketing rents were huge concerns,” they said.

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Third Avenue at East 55th Street (Midtown), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

Owners must also follow city regulations regarding signage and awnings, which can be a huge expense. “Older stores are often forced to comply with these newer regulations and must modernize despite the owners’ wishes,” the Murrays said.

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Broadway near West 89th Street (Upper West Side), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

Some owners voiced concern over the future of their shop’s legacy. “In some cases they had no one in their family who wanted to take over the business when they retire, bringing to an end a long line of family tradition,” the Murrays said.

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West 56th Street near Broadway (Midtown), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

Many of the owners are at the mercy of their landlord and their ever-increasing rent.

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Ninth Avenue near West 54th Street (Hell’s Kitchen), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

Many of the shops they’ve photographed, including this one, have already closed. “Almost two-thirds of the stores we photographed for our first book have already disappeared,” they said. “Even in our latest [book], which was published in November 2015, over 20% of the small businesses we documented have closed.”

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Broadway near West 157th Street (Washington Heights), 2010 – has since closed.
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

The East Village holds a special place in the couple’s heart. Residents of the neighborhood for over 20 years, they’ve grown a special connection to the place and the small business owners there. De Robertis Pasticceria and Caffe, pictured here, closed in December 2014 after more than 110 years in business.

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First Avenue near East 11th Street (East Village), 2010 – has since closed.
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II

“We hope that our project acts as an artistic intervention to help draw attention to and preserve the small shops whose existence is essential to the unique and colorful atmosphere of the city’s streets,” they said.

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Seventh Avenue South at Christopher Street (Greenwich Village), 2010
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James and Karla Murray/Store Fronts II