The end of an era

I read some sad news today: H&H Bagels is closing its Upper West Side location. Tomorrow.

In case you are not a New Yorker, let me help you understand the magnitude of that statement: What if, overnight, the Grand Canyon zipped back together? Chicago deep-dish so-called pizza ceased to exist? The sun decided not to rise? This, dear readers, would be like H&H Bagels shuttering its doors. Something that always was suddenly no longer is.

The reason for the closure, according to Grub Street New York, is a “rent issue.” This, I can only imagine, is a euphemism for what has happened to so many other businesses in the neighborhood: skyrocketing rents have made it impossible to keep the doors open unless you are a) a major bank b) Starbucks c) Ray’s Pizza d) a fine-dining establishment e) a cell phone store or, best of all for financial security reasons, f) an upscale chain retailer.

Aside from the proliferation of Ray’s Pizza, this is not the Upper West Side I grew up with.

I remember a neighborhood that required the use of the word “character” to describe it, in a city where rent control kept things somewhat reasonable and relatively affordable. One where “coffee shop” meant a diner with the best chocolate milkshakes ever. Where you could walk into a bookshop that sold only mysteries, and where your pharmacist knew more about your family health history than you did. Where you could sink into an Eeyore-shaped bean bag in the children’s bookstore while you and your brother searched for Waldo. Where the homeless man who lived on your corner knew your name—and your dog’s. Where your favorite Chinese takeout place asked, “You sure?” if you changed your regular order. Where you could cool down with a shaved ice on a hot summer day, buy an egg-and-cheese on a kaiser roll at the corner deli, watch a fellow dog owner stand on a park bench and rant about leash laws to a sizable crowd of nodding heads, and strike up a conversation with the guy who made a career out of repairing and reselling discarded air conditioners (easy to spot—always wearing a black trench coat in June, pushing a dolly loaded up with broken window units).

First, Barnes & Noble opened. Eeyore’s, the lovely children’s bookstore, closed. So did the famous bookseller Shakespeare and Co. Then the coffee shops left, replaced by four Starbucks in a ten-block radius. The mystery bookstore moved a bit further uptown, and then closed for good. The two Duane Reades and one CVS within five blocks shut down both local pharmacies. The fish store closed, and soon thereafter, the fish restaurant next door. Delis became shoe stores. Hardware stores turned into fancy hair salons. Multiple businesses got kicked out to make room for the giant Victoria’s Secret, and across the street, a Coach store (because who needs a place to get a spare key made or a prescription filled by someone who knows you when you can purchase an overpriced leather wallet?).

But the one place that you’d never thought would give up—the place that sells nothing but the quintessential New York staple—was H&H. It was a gritty store—sawdust on the floors, lines out the door, bagels stored in subdivided, scratched-up plexiglass tubs. Labels were rudimentary: SALT. PUMPERNICKEL. PLAIN. This was no pristine chain store operation. What it had instead was character—a whole lot of a character and the best damn bagels in the world.

What I’m realizing as I write this, with more than one tear dripping down my cheek, is the reality that I’ve seen unfold in my hometown since I left more than 10 years ago: the New York City that I remember as a kid is gone.