Occasionally one comes across tiny shops along the roadside when traveling across country; a coffee kiosk, a fresh fish vendor near the seaside selling out of a trailer, food carts providing warm fresh diversified, often ethnic, ready to-eat-food, and all kinds of purveyors of organic and specialty comestibles at stands at farmers’ markets.
However, you will seldom find retail establishments that are 3-4 feet wide and 12 feet deep, squeezed in-between other buildings in the middle of urban streets.
Given the extraordinary cost of retail rents in Manhattan, some landlords have squeezed out every square inch of space, much of it in alleyways between buildings. These shops are so narrow that they only accommodate the width of one customer at a time. The monthly rent for these minuscule shops is upwards of $2,000 per month!
Where are These Skinny Shops Located?
There are at least three such shops on Columbus Avenue, a well trafficked commercial street on the Upper West Side in New York City. One is a “smoke shop”, which sells a huge assortment of magazines and newspapers, domestic as well as foreign, along with cigarettes, cigars and smoking apparatus; another is a locksmith who will makes all types of special keys and will install locks; and the third is an old fashioned shoemaker, who actually glues, sews and repairs shoes and handbags with his work station crammed into the back of his mini store.
On West 72nd, off Columbus, there is also a 5 foot wide eatery, where people squeeze past each other to buy their food which they either take away or eat at an extremely narrow bar.
The small business people who own and operate these establishments have several things in common. They are all immigrants, very hardworking people who came to this country in the past few decades from places like Greece, Mexico and the Near East. Often the whole family shares the labor, working in shifts. The other area of commonality is that they all provide very useful services to the community, in a friendly and accommodating fashion.
So What Were These Spaces Before They Became Skinny Shops?
These skinny shops, narrow, low structures are sometimes referred to as “alley corks” because they consist of one low floor shed-like structure, sandwiched between two multi-tiered edifices. At one time, these little pieces of real estate were most likely alleyways, used for deliveries. That use became obsolete over the years, as deliveries were made more frequently through the front doors of buildings.
Another former use of these narrow corridors was as a “horse walk”. Since most goods were transported by horse pulled wagons, prior to use of combustion engine lorries at the beginning of the 20th Century, these draft horses had to be housed somewhere at the end of the day. It was common practice to have them bedded down in a wooden barn behind a dwelling that faced onto the street. The horses were then led through the horse walks to these stalls in the courtyard.
New Yorkers being an extremely innovative crowd, created these little commercial establishments to fill the void.