Monday, August 28, 2017

Saying goodbye to Clayworks Pottery after 44 years on 9th Street

[Storefront photo from 2009 via Facebook]

Late last week, Helaine Sorgen made official what had been a poorly kept secret among her customers — Clayworks Pottery is closing after 44 years at 332 E. Ninth St. between First Avenue and Second Avenue.

The upcoming closing has nothing to do with, say, a decline in business.

"My building has been bought by a predatory landlord who will not renew my lease," she said. "It's been over a two-year fight, and the time has come to close up shop."

She shared with me a copy of her goodbye letter to the community. (The letter is displayed on the front window of the shop.)

Her last day will be around Sept. 15.


Well, it’s been quite a ride. When Clayworks opened in the EV in Jan, 1974, it was like an outpost of civilization. Empty stores were everywhere. Clayworks was the kind of unique, individual store that helped build this neighborhood into the desirable commodity it is today. Through four decades, I have been able to watch the EV grow and change from my window. It has been the finest front row seat I could ask for.

Clayworks survived everything the mad universe pitched at it — Hurricane Sandy, blizzards, The Great Recession, swastikas painted across the storefront, the front window being intentionally blown out, water main breaks, ceiling caves, the crack epidemic, and of course 9/11, all come to mind, plus the usual personal real-life challenges. Clayworks has always held its own, with great thanks to the support of this neighborhood and my loyal clientele.

That is, until the recent and well documented invasion of the EV by predatory landlords and perfidious financiers. You see, Clayworks now occupies real estate deemed too valuable to allow it to stay. The new building owner and the plethora of shell companies he hides behind wants me out, and this is a war that I cannot win. I have spent the past 2 years fighting. I am tired and my time is up. Let me be clear — this is not the story of an unsuccessful store hanging on for dear life. This is the intentional stomping out of yet another mom and pop store by predatory real estate weasels. We small businesses are a family. Every store whose light goes out is a small death among us, another cross in the graveyard. There, we are legion.

Clayworks is as much a part of the EV as the EV is a part of Clayworks. I live here. My heart lives here. The EV is my neighborhood, my community. I want to see thrive. I know there are 2 camps of thought in the EV currently. There are those who want to keep the wild, fierce, gritty, creative, independent EV spirit. There are others who want less edge and attitude and more sameness — tamer, user friendly stores, plus bars and restaurants that are trendy and cater more to the on-demand desires of a new generation. Why can’t we have a balanced mix here is the question.

I believe, if protected and supported by the City, it would be possible to have both — to support change, and yet maintain the unique identity that many of us treasure. But the Small Business Jobs Survival Act languishes in the purgatory of the City Council. Some form of this legislation, which supports small businesses the way other more enlightened cities do, has been moldering in the CC since Miriam Friedlander’s time. Politicians wave it around to get votes, but as soon as they are elected, it goes back into the junk drawer.

Now, we hear there is a movement to form a small-business-only region, and a protective registry for legacy businesses that have been around for 35 years or more. Well, that would be Clayworks, but, ironically, it’s too late for me.

I am not opposed to change but frankly, what is going on here is full-scale rape and pillage. So folks, it’s up to you. You vote with your ballot and you vote with your dollar. The kind of neighborhood and community you want to see is in your hands. If it matters, and it should, then be mindful. Exercise your right to vote and your right to make some noise.

It has been an incredible privilege to have been able to earn a living being a potter in the EV. I’ve always hoped that in a small way, Clayworks helped to make the world a better place, one mug at a time. I want to thank, sincerely and gratefully, every person who laid down their hard earned bucks to buy my work and support me. In my 44 years here, I have gotten to know many of you personally and my life has been greatly enriched by your company.

Everyone who came into this store, who shared their stories and lives, wove a fabric that connected us together, warp and woof, a tapestry of community and friendship. We made magic happen here. That’s really what it’s all about.

My last day will be sometime around Sept. 15. Whatever work I have left is all that there’s gonna be, so if you’ve been looking at something and can’t make up your mind, don’t wait too long! I will pack and store the rest with the intention of starting an online store (anyone out there who can help me set it up?). Or call me- I’ll meet you at the Veselka, you bring the $$$ and I’ll bring the goods!

With sadness and love,
Helaine Sorgen/Clayworks


A special shout out of love for Santo and Margaret at The Source, who have generously supplied me with great quantities of packing boxes. Also to GOLES, which has helped so many here to organize and fight back. And to Cooper Square, especially SaMi Chester, who works tirelessly for EV tenants, and has been more than generous in sharing support and information and encouragement in my battle, even though commercial tenants are not really his purview.

And to 9th Street, the best little block in the EV and my home for 44 wonderful years!

Previously on EV Grieve:
29-year-old Gallery Vernon is closing on East 9th Street


JQ LLC said...

Another essential business gets devoured by the avarice of the owners, which space will soon see another LLC backed lame ass restaurant or bar.

Perfidious financiers, that's a real good one. That is a great letter and closing statement.

Primary De Faustio and all the do nothing hacks in the Shitty Council, whose only constituents they helped was themselves for raises.

Anonymous said...

Damn. Such a nice lady too.

Anonymous said...

Yup, it isn't that her biz isn't making money. Helene, I hope you'll come to the 9A1 Block Party in September like you did last year!!

See you soon. (At the polling station, if not sooner!)

dwg said...

So sad and destructive. The city is eating it's own. Wonderfully written and thought out letter, unfortunately announcing a lost cause. And so goes this city.

Anonymous said...

Yup. Ive stood in her shoes , i had a shop in the east village for 24 years and could have written that letter. My rent when i started on st marks was $200 a month. I was one of 3 store fronts that had a business, people lived in the other ones. Those days are over.

Anonymous said...

She has said it all; her letter is a brilliantly clear indictment of exactly what is going on in this area.

"Predatory real estate weasels" is precisely the right phrase. These new owners, who, as she notes, hide behind layers of LLC's to obscure their identities (and their heartless behavior), offer nothing useful to REAL residents of this neighborhood; they simply flatten existing businesses and flatten the soul of this community while they're at it.

I wish I could write half as well as Ms. Sorgen has written. I'm sorry for her, for the loss of her SUCCESSFUL business to a predatory weasel, and I wish her the best going forward - and I'm sure someone can help her get a website set up. But it won't be the same, and that's the point. She is so right about the necessary legislation getting "waved around" come election time, then put back, as she also rightly says, in "the junk drawer." It's the reason I despair of my vote making a difference, even though I have voted in every single primary and general election since I moved to this neighborhood 40+ years ago, and will continue to vote. Yet how little good has it done - the City Council mostly sits on their asses collecting fat paychecks and pretending to do things. From where I sit, they do NOTHING, or worse: by their doing nothing, they do ill to this community every day/week/year.

Anonymous said...

Boycott the East Village. Stop visiting and moving into it. Move out of if if you live there. Let these unartistic, uncreative, chain business-loving scum who have no want or need for art and culture live amongst each other only. Call it them winning, I call it them losing because they are losers in every way possible. They lost Clayworks to another dessert shop, Asian fast food restaurant, or high-end boutique most likely.

Anonymous said...

These fat cat landlords are turning neighborhoods into districts. They will be sorry when they can not rent out their spaces.

Gojira said...

I think weasels would take grave exception to being compared to some of the landlord scum ravaging the EV, and rightfully so; weasel ferocity is necessary for the creature to survive, while the same cannot be said of the heartlessness of the LLC plague devastating the entire city.

I bought pieces from Ms. Sorgen when I first moved here in the late 70s; a few managed to evade my cats and survive to this day. Her letter hit the nail on the head, and from now on, every time I read some whinging comment on here about how all this change is natural, NY is always evolving, get over it, move someplace else, blah blah, I am going to cut and paste this letter in response. Because she has said it all.

Good luck wherever you go, and thanks for many years of both shopping and window-shopping.

cmarrtyy said...

It's one party rule. And then the elected officials are expected to tow the line if they want to keep their jobs. It's the worst kind of situation to be in for both residents and businesses. As Sorgen says: VOTE. Vote them all out of office. Term limits was supposed to help but it failed. Same party votes just a different face voting.

The other reality is ebay... Amazon... furniture... food... whatever... online. My small building gets on average 5 packages a day. And most of it free delivery.

Landlords are 1 enemy but online shopping is the real death knell of small business.

Good luck and much love Helaine...

Anonymous said...

Capitalism is a disease: with ALL the empty retail space all over the city, you'd think they'd take heed and try to keep a tenant who's clearly reliable and going to stick around.

Anonymous said...

Well said..sad to loose Clayworks.

sophocles said...

As a lawyer I am trying to push back against the liquor licensing free-for-all and the backyards that have magically disappeared. If anyone is interested please contact me: rnh141 at

Anonymous said...

But the city is catering to these weasel landlords, with tax breaks and easements. They have nothing to worry about. In the meantime we have an autocrat mayor who cleared the deck of potential candidates who might actually have done something.

Talk about sheep. They all fell in line. Now if Trump could have such a line up of straw men and women he'd be set like DeBlasio.

Scuba Diva said...

JQ LLC said:

Another essential business gets devoured by the avarice of the owners, which space will soon see another LLC backed lame ass restaurant or bar.

Or nail salon; I don't know if this block has enough nail salons.

JQ LLC said...

That letter should be published on paper. I suggest mass-emailing the Daily News and New York Times to published that letter as an op-ed.

It's the small business manifesto.

Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite streets in the neighborhood & it makes me so angry to see it destroyed by ASSHAT landlords.

Anonymous said...

@7:16pm: EXCELLENT suggestion! I would hope one or both newspapers would print it. She writes so well & lays out the situation with great clarity. More people need to read what she wrote.

Lorcan Otway said...

I agree with all that Helaine says here, other than it is a privilege to have a shop on the Lower East Side. No, it is not a privilege, it is a right. It is a right because WE built this neighborhood and WE built this city. Unfortunately, voters who have not cared enough to learn about this place and how it works, voted in a government, of both parties, which had the attitude that it is a right to stay in the place we built. We have lost a war against our home, our nation and our communities. This war has taken from the people of the Lower East Side, from the people of the United States, the businesses and lives we built and gave it to developers who have turned a vibrant community of artisans, artists and craftspeople into an overpriced Midwestern style mall. I say it again and again, instead of grieving, what are we to do. My wife and I ... in spite of virtually no donations from a community who constantly say they love us and appreciate the help we give this community, in spite of a lot of expressions of grief and almost no helping hands, WE continue to fight to stay... working seven days a week for a decade without a single day off... and what do we see? A community handing over all we have built, in my case, over the past 52 years of working to make Theatre 80 go. So... I don't want to see handkerchiefs and sad faces, I want to see a community contributing both economically and politically to stay and to rebuild this place. In 1964, we built an arts community one theater, one building at a time. We need to save this community in the same way. My wife took classes at the pottery and this community will be poorer without this shop and this resource. Organize to stop the murder of this city... now.

~evilsugar25 said...

I lived two doors down for 10 years; my ex is still in our apt. This WAS the best block in all of the EV, but the nail salons and other bullshit are creeping in. It was only a matter of time for this throwback to all that we loved about the East Village. I still live in the hood but its gone, baby, gone.