Friday, May 10, 2019

A visit to Gem Spa

Photos and interview by Stacie Joy

Updated: Since this post, Zoltar has been removed from the shop's front. Gem Spa has also reduced hours and discontinued newspaper sales.

Parul Patel is running a few minutes late for our appointment and she calls to say she’s on her way. So I use the time to take in Gem Spa, the iconic corner shop and newsstand at 131 Second Ave. and St. Mark’s Place that has a long history in the neighborhood — and not just for its signature egg creams. (Look at the Gem Spa Wikipedia entry for its sprawling legend.)

Patel, whose 76-year-old father Ray owns the shop, soon arrives, issuing a flurry of instructions to employees as she sets up the house special chocolate egg cream (seen below with pretzel stick and chocolate-covered jelly ring).

As her father’s in declining health, Parul has been handling the store’s management. The Patel family has owned the store since 1986.

Parul says the egg cream has been made for almost 100 years at this address. While chocolate is the current best-selling flavor, she also offers vanilla, strawberry, orange creamsicle, and black-and-white.

She plans to debut some new flavors soon – and scoop! – I saw the creation of the first-ever cookies and cream version.

Future flavors also include mocha and hazelnut or Nutella flavor. Upcoming offerings may include ice cream and milkshakes, and new flavors of e-cigs, as well as adding jewelry and handbags to the hats and accessories already being sold outside the shop.

Last month, Gem Spa lost its license to sell lottery and tobacco products (with the exception of e-cigs) due to an employee twice selling cigarettes to an undercover underage buyer. The state has suspended the store’s license for six months and also leaves them unable to apply for a license to sell beer.

Neighborhood icon (and EVG favorite!) Zoltar arrived in 2011, when the machine’s owner offered to license it to Gem Spa. (They keep 50% of the profits.) Zoltar seems to be busiest at night although he gets to pose with tourists often during the day.

The store recently joined Instagram — you can follow it here.

Gem Spa has also been enjoying some media exposure of late, including a deep dive on the shop's history at Gothamist... and a visit by NY1's affable Roger Clark.

“Gem Spa serves and loves its locals, tourists, and eccentrics,” Parul tells me, before sending me on my way with a chocolate-covered jelly-topped graham cracker and a smile.

Visit our previous A Visit To features here.


noble neolani said...

Thanks EVG for that story.

Anonymous said...

Love Stacy's portraits of local business!

Eden Bee said...


cmarrtyy said...

What I like about the Gem is that it's just a business. It's there. It supplies products and you either buy or don't buy .Modern businesses give you the feeling that it's about something else... that as a customer you are being manipulated by a study on shopping tendencies. Ok, maybe I just like walking in store that's not that clean. That you look around ... find what you want behind something you don't want or never even knew existed and you pay a guy at the register who might not even know you're in the store... or care. WOW!Gem Spa Forever!

2ndAveSilverPanther said...

Zoltar arrived in 2011? I've lived across 2nd Avenue from Gem Spa since the 70's, and I thought Zoltar had been there far longer than 8 years. If I'm wrong, it's not the first time. Other longtime residents, what say you?

Anonymous said...

A REAL store serving the neighborhood for all these years, AND they know how to make a real egg cream! I love Gem Spa!

Great article!

Anonymous said...

Back in the '60's the sign read...GEMS SPA. They lost an S somewhere in time.

rubygirl said...

The only shop that still smells like a candy store and sells jelly grahams and rings at the front counter... egg creams in glasses? Brilliant! Thanks Stacie!

Anonymous said...

Sorry gang of GEM lovers including me too! Just not what it was although I hope it may recover. The "wizard of Zoltar" has been over since when? Nostalgia lasts too long. No cigs, no lotto, no scratchy-offs, barely a paper so come over to leftover pretzels and jelly rings. What's the point when you still want a real corner candy store everyday?

Elliott said...

Indeed, I am also a patron of Gem Spa. However, the egg creams can be accurately described as "average" compared to the egg creams that were made in all of the boroughs 50 years ago. And for $4.25 one would expect a somewhat creamier version of Gem Spa's egg creams.
Nonetheless, as perhaps, the "only game in town" for egg creams and a lost generation of those that remember the true masters of the art of making egg creams Gem Spa will do just fine.
No doubt, the passionate debate about egg creams even among academic scholars and intellects of different fields is a true testament to the love and craving of this unique beverage.
Since this is a generation of "pass/fail", rather than actual grades, I reluctantly give Gem Spa a PASS and find it hard to walk by without asking for an egg cream.

Anonymous said...

rays also make a good egg cream

LFA Architects said...