An Overhaul At An Iconic Address

DSC_0266Carl Guadalupe Physical Graffiti, a vintage clothing store located in a building that was featured on a Led Zeppelin album cover (below) and in a Rolling Stones music video, will soon close and re-open next month as a tea shop.
Physical Graffiti

A lonely pink high heel lay atop a basket of embroidered scarves, its beautiful gold toe pointing away from a box marked “Moving and Storage.”

Outside, on St. Marks Place, it was raining; inside Physical Graffiti, a vintage clothing store, which occupies a landmark site on the block between First Avenue and Avenue A, workers were packing up the contents of the shop.

The clothing store is closing its doors after 16 years because of the bad economy, but will re-open in March as a loose leaf tea shop under a slightly different name – Physical Graffi-tea – and the same management.

“It’s so sad but there is just no market for the clothes,” said Ilana Malka, 45, the store’s owner.

“Teas are affordable,” she said. “People eat and drink anyway even when the economy is bad and there are a lot of people out there who are looking for good fresh loose tea.”

On Wednesday Ms. Malka was busy packing boxes along with Holden Bucy, 24, a seamstress who had worked at the store for the past year. Ms. Malka picked up some of her favorite pieces that were still on display— a yellow taffeta dress and a 1950’s Persian fur coat, as Ms. Bucy filled bags with men’s collared shirts.

“Everyone was concerned that we were closing,” said Ms. Malka, reminiscing as she made her way past boxes holding in her hand the floor plan for the new shop. “But a lot of people are also excited about the teas.”

The East Village has long been a destination for shoppers and especially for those interested in finding vintage and used clothing.

However, many of the shops that sprang up in the 1990’s have closed in recent years, as rental rates have climbed and revenues have not. Last year, for instance, the shop O Mistress Mine, which had operated for decades on East 11th Street, ceased operating.

“We’ve had customers from everywhere,” said Ms. Bucy. “Tourists, musicians, people from Switzerland with their guidebooks telling them to come here.”

Ms. Malka fell in love with the East Village when she moved to New York from Israel, and eventually opened Physical Graffiti in 1994. She said she was drawn to the neighborhood because of her passion for music and when the store first opened she dressed a lot of local musicians.

Mollie King, 39, a musician from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn came to New York from L.A. in 1998 and remembers finding many of the items that are still in her closet at Physical Graffiti – including “really amazing long 70’s evening gowns, a suede patchwork skirt with matching vest and other pieces that she described as “collector’s items.”

Physical Graffiti “wasn’t just a store, it was a gathering place,” Ms. King said. “We would all hang out there and she” – Ms. Malka – “would play our music and we would hand out fliers for our shows. It’s where we hung out when we were on St. Marks.”

A photograph of the building at 96 St. Marks Place was featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 “Physical Graffiti” album.

It also made a cameo  in a 1981 music video for the song Waiting On A Friend by the Rolling Stones, which showed Mick Jagger sitting on the building’s stoop while awaiting the arrival of Keith Richards, who is depicted in cutaway shots strolling past East Village staples of the era, like the International Bar.

Packing boxesRachel Ohm Holden Bucy, left, and Ilana Malka pack boxes of vintage clothing for storage at the Physical Graffiti boutique.

The video was enormously popular and is credited by many with helping to popularize MTV, which launched that year.

“When I opened the store, I was looking for a name and I realized this was the building where Physical Graffiti was done and it just clicked,” said Ms. Malka. “It is so appropriate for vintage clothing.”

She has spent years gathering the collection of clothes from used clothing warehouses and from her travels to places such as New Orleans, Texas and Europe.

“The store was an important part of the East Village,” said Ms.Bucy. “People came in here all the time and would say ‘Oh my god, I used to hang out there all the time when I first came to New York.”

Ms. Malka plans to keep the clothes in storage for now with plans to sell them online, at flea markets or at private parties and Ms. Bucy will be running an online store through which they plan on keeping in touch with their existing client base.

The new tea shop will specialize in loose leaf teas and matcha, a powdered green tea from Japan, that Ms.Malka said is commonly served as a latte.

She plans to redo the interior of the shop, as well as tone-down the multi-colored graffiti outside, but all is not lost of the vintage shop that once was.

That basket of scarves that once held a lonely pink high heel on moving day? It just might be the first piece of furniture customers at the new Physical Graffiti see when they walk into the tea shop.

“I think it would be so fun to look through scarves or handbags or little things,” said Ms. Bucy. “I would love to shop while I have tea.”

This post has been changed to correct an error; an earlier version misstated the cross streets closest to the shop.