Between Skid Row and Starbucks

Category: Misc./General Career News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: June 10, 2007 | Publication: New York Times | Author: DAMON TABOR
Publication/Article Link:New York Times


THE dive bars, pawnshops and flophouses for the misanthropic, misbegotten and mostly down-and-out have disappeared. The rock club CBGB closed in October, Whole Foods opened in March and at least 20 Starbucks outlets are entrenched within a mile radius. The Bowery’s gritty glory days may well be over, pushed out by surging rents and the ever-rising tide of gentrification.

One holdout remains on the corner of Elizabeth and East Houston Streets: Billy’s Antiques and Props, a green circuslike tent whose lineage seems equal parts flea market, carnival midway and antiques shop. On the sidewalk out front, walk past the ram’s skull hanging from the chain-link fence and the waving mannequin by the door.

Pass the owner himself, Billy Leroy, a nattily dressed fellow with a long blond ponytail, tan Chesterfield coat and dark glasses, who generally can be found sitting out front with a cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth and his Rottweiler, Kill-Joy, at his feet.

Inside, a stuffed white coyote mingles with a skeleton in a pink dress hanging from the ceiling by a chain. In a display case in the back are antique metal syringes, a bottle of French cologne from 1870, a meteorite and a subway sign bearing the words “Chambers Street-WTC.”

Above the cramped office in the corner, a fortune teller sits in a glass box with the word “fate” painted on the pedestal. Billy’s is no larger than a spacious Manhattan apartment, but it has drawn the curious from all corners: the actress Catherine Deneuve once dropped by, as did Billy Gibbons of the blues band ZZ Top.

“This is the last vestige of the old New York,” Mr. Leroy said. “My whole idea is that when you walk into my store, it’s like ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It’s the last outpost of the Bowery.”

Mr. Leroy, who is 47 and has been a fixture at the tent for nearly a decade, sees the place as something of an Alamo, capturing the last of the neighborhood’s wild, carnival spirit and the cavalcade of derelicts, drug dealers, artists, thugs and outlaws who once roamed its streets.

Looking wearily at the Whole Foods on the corner, Mr. Leroy noted that the site was once occupied by a parking lot with a bustling drug bazaar. Pointing to a metal hatch in the median on East Houston Street, he recalled that it had once led to a subterranean homeless community.

Mr. Leroy himself experienced what he calls the neighborhood’s “dark side.” One of his employees shot himself in the basement of a nearby bar, and on another occasion two men got into a knife fight in his store.

Today, that sort of thing rarely happens in the neighborhood, if it happens at all.

“It went from skid row to Midwestern mall town,” Mr. Leroy said. “The danger element is gone. Instead of dangerous Spanish gangs, you see massive gangs of frat boys with too much to drink.”

The wheels of progress do seem to have turned. Each day, stroller-pushing mothers brush shoulders with shrewd-eyed bargain hunters. Browsing hipsters and Bowery characters mix on the sidewalk, eyeing the gilded mirrors leaning against the tent’s chain-link fence or the 1950s globe that opens up to double as a bar. An older man wearing khakis, a white sweater and a golf hat inquired about a painting of a French soldier. Looking almost offended at a quoted price of $500, he moved on.

Mr. Leroy was philosophical. “If he was missing his shoe and had a flask of Thunderbird in his back pocket,” he said, “he could be an old Bowery guy.”

Billy’s is not only an antique shop and outpost, but also a village. One sunny Saturday afternoon, the painter Nico Dios strolled by and stopped to chat. Clayton Patterson, a photographer with a long, grizzled goatee and silver-capped teeth, dropped in with the director of a local art gallery. Later, the Hollywood entourage arrived: Gerard Butler, the lead actor from the movie “300,” who came with his friend Elvis Restaino and snapped up $1,600 worth of furniture and curios for Mr. Butler’s new Manhattan apartment.

“That’s spirituality, man,” Mr. Butler said, pointing at a painting of a man holding a dog with bared teeth.

Mr. Restaino, who grew up in the area and works as a Hollywood production designer, said: “I met my first transsexual in this neighborhood. I always make it a point to come here. It’s like the ShopRite of junk.”


Out on the street, a man pushed a shopping cart filled with chandeliers wrapped in plastic. He made eye contact with Mr. Leroy, then kept going — no sale today.
Most of Mr. Leroy’s antiques come from flea markets and auctions, but homeless people can be a good source of furniture and other items. Once someone brought him a $2,500 Coca-Cola sign, and someone else later walked in with an 18th-century French table.

“The way I see it,” he said, “this store is the center of the world. New York’s the center of the world, and this neighborhood is the center of New York.”

If the passers-by are unusual, it may be because the owner himself is equally eccentric. Mr. Leroy speaks French fluently and is given to wearing blue pinstriped shirts with suit vests. He grew up on the Upper East Side, attended boarding schools as a boy, studied painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Boston, and then, he said, plunged into the Lower East Side scene, drinking heavily and dallying briefly with a well-known biker gang.

In 1998, after waking up “fat, middle-aged and broke,” as he put it, in the van where he had been living, Mr. Leroy got a job at the tent on East Houston Street, then known as Lot 76. Taking over the lease from its previous owner, he hung his own sign out front in 2003.

Billy’s has the advantage of sitting atop a large subway ventilation grate, which makes it difficult to build on the site. It is a turn of good fortune that has quite likely saved the place from developers’ dreams of condos, lofts or restaurants.

“This would be a Starbucks if it weren’t harder to build here,” he said. “Then I would be gone. And it would be all ghosts.” Although the landlord recently doubled the rent, Mr. Leroy says, he has no plans to leave any time soon.

As to how long it will be before gentrification takes over, only the fortune teller in the box knows for sure, but the signs are everywhere. Across the street on the corner of Bowery and East Houston Streets, a large poster reading “Retail Space for Rent” hangs on a building that was once a row of flophouses. And early one Saturday afternoon, an elegant, well-groomed older woman wearing a large-brimmed sun hat and a flower-print skirt stepped gingerly from a taxi out in front of the store.

“Need I say more?” Mr. Leroy asked.