Mom & Pops Suffer Loss of St. Vincent’s

Interview with Caravansary co-owner Bill Johnstone, July 2010 (Continued)

By Kathryn Adisman

Q: What was here before you?

A: Actress Louise Drevers ran a knitting store. It was a very special space. Like many proprietors, she lived above the store. People you did business with lived in your neighborhood.

Q: Do you?

A: Absolutely. But I’m a dying breed. What was wonderful …(giggles) people would come in and knit and discuss all kinds of issues and theater. What always amazed me: There were big burly men that looked like construction workers who would sit there and knit and be part of the picture and be dressed in very masculine kind of stuff. It was a peculiar Village institution.

Q: What was the name of the shop?

A: Drevers Endeavors. Louise decided to give up the store and asked us if we wanted [it]. (They were across the street and wanted more space.) So, we said, ‘Yes.’ The landlord, who was a lawyer with an office on 14th Street, walked over and we negotiated the lease in front of one another. We’d take the rent over there, and he’d come around and ask us how business was.

Q: Do you still have that landlord?

A: No, we have a corporation.

Q: People are attempting to renegotiate their leases.

A: The economic situation has changed… I understand the landlord’s point of view. I may be the only ‘victim’ who understands [it]. If someone’s willing to pay more for the space…

Q: It’s a no-brainer?

A: From the landlord’s point of view. The landlord isn’t particularly interested in context. In the long run, it might be wise to be interested in context…

Q: Why?

A: Because you get a cycle of rents that go up, up, and up, and you get fast foods, junky merchandise…The neighborhood goes down, people no longer want to be there, and the value goes down.

Q: You’re degenerating the very thing that’s bringing in revenue?

A: The thing that makes New York interesting.

Q: Greenwich Avenue has no “nationals” except Starbucks?

A: We used to have a wine shop; a hardware store; a grocer; Nan, who made her own jewelry; a local theater…in other words, the accoutrements of a neighborhood.

Q: Shops catered to residents, not tourists?

A: Tourists liked the ‘bounce’ of the neighborhood.

Q: The true meaning of “neighborhood”?

A: We may be Neanderthals, looking at things this way; people get on the Internet and order groceries and clothing and movies. What we’re talking about is probably not meaningful to younger people.

Q: When people think of the West Village, what is it they’re drawn to?

A: The architecture; the low-rise housing; the fact there are small stores that specialize.

Q: If small businesses are driven out, what replaces them won’t be what attracts people?

A: You’re talking about two different subjects: 1) the idea of neighborhoods and Greenwich Village and context; 2) the economic impact of the hospital leaving, which is difficult for small people who depended on that daily flow.

Q: The ideas are related—the economic impact will determine the context?

A: Perhaps zoning could insist that adjacent stores not be combined, so you have smaller spaces…

After that initial conversation, it became my custom to drop in and run my ideas by Bill, if I was lucky enough to catch him alone in the shop, scrolling on his laptop. He encouraged me to write about Jessie’s and Paper Works; he forgot to mention that another neighborhood place would be disappearing: Caravansary. This was the last Christmas.

Their lease wasn’t up, according to Grace at Time Pieces, when they made their exit from the stage of the street, without fanfare. I bid adieu to unlit Christmas lights strung like a roof above the darkened window; inside: a chandelier, mobiles, a basket teetering on an empty shelf, a glass case displaying nothing. By Easter, the window was bare. A Marshal’s notice was posted on the door. The lights were gone.

Postscript: I googled Louise Drevers. The retired knitting-shop maven died a week before Christmas.

Kathryn Adisman writes about neighborhood places and people. She has lived in the West Village since 1984.

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