"The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
I recently learned that the longest standing retail store on my old block of State Street has closed. Quite a surprise as I considered it to be in the “Cockroach” family of businesses. Not one that I have a direct problem with, but one that is nearly impossible to get rid of and has lasted as long as humanity (for the record, anything in the sex trade or tax collection business, are in the genus of “cockroach business”, perhaps I will continue to develop this principle and assign it a species and differentia as well).
This started me thinking about the old neighborhood and it’s specific oddities rather than any individual odd incident..
“State Street Book and Novelty” was the adult book store that closed and it is an important change to the area. I learned (not by experience) that the appeal in the early years was the private viewing booths that were lined up along one wall with with waist high holes that connected one to the next. The city has banned these types of businesses in the downtown district and was successful at restricting these viewing booths more recently. There were numerous raids by local and federal police over the years on this business. The owner was even arrested on pornography charges after he financed and produced a movie designed for his retail establishment. All these efforts failed and eventually all the governing bodies just left the place alone. “Grandfathered In” was the term, but I am not sure there is any legality to that phrase.
State Street Book and Novelty had survived many new attempts by younger generations of government officials and changes in how we access our vice. The place paid its taxes; only a few people were complaining about it anymore; and it has survived through many business cycles. Frankly, you could just ignore the place if it bothered you too much, and they just let it be. Kind of like most curmudgeonly old “Grandfathers”.
For the rest of the block the location of the book store was a concern. It was the first building in the State Street historic section. It is the “last continuous row of 19th century masonry buildings inside the inner loop” according to someone’s Wikipedia post.
The buildings begin one large block north of the main intersection of Rochester, what we locals call the “Four Corners”. Eastman Kodak, the one time king of Rochester, has its world headquarters on the other side of our historic section. All the city hotels resided on one side of this set of buildings and Kodak on the other. Avoiding the adult book store wasn't an option for hotel guests with business at Kodak.
Each building fronted State Street and backed up to Pindle Alley. It really was an alley at some points, but It opened up to a parking lot for city hall after a few buildings. The other oddity was the architectural line of the spaces. There was about a 30 degree shift of the property lines at the third building that caused the rest of the storefronts to be obscured from view and to decrease in size because Pindle Alley didn’t follow the same path. As a pedestrian approached, they first encountered the adult book store, and could not tell if they were walking into a red-light district, off the edge of earth or into Eden. I often saw pedestrians stop at that point and consider their options as if they were in an “Indiana Jones” movie.
Even if you were aware of what lie on the other side and intended on going there, you still had to walk past this place and risk seeing your boss or coworker exiting. So the bookends of our business row started with the porn store and ended with my bagel shop (I know there is a funny metaphor there somewhere, but I think I’m going to avoid that road).
The street in front of the buildings was lined with parking meters and there were a few additional spots across the street. Other than the adult bookstore staff and patrons, which was open 24 hours - seven days a week, I was the first to arrive each morning. For several years a gay bar was located adjacent to the bookstore and had a reputation that mimicked the old Front street of Rochester (you should look that up), but limited to the gay community.
Not the type of gay bar that proudly displayed the rainbow flag, and was a home base for protesters and paraders, but rather a “check your hetero self at the door, leather wielding, dance on the bar”, kind of place. Not that you could walk in their in the early evening and see this, but when the city emptied out, the behavior escalated.
When I pulled up each morning (evening for many of the patrons and auxiliary traffic), I was often espied by a few lurkers outside these two establishments. Partly because my path to work included a U-turn after passing the onlookers and parking in front of my store. For those you who might want to know, this seems to be a sign of interest to those loitering on the street at 5 a.m. The first time I was approached I let them speak, not knowing the exact nature of their potential inquiry. But no one got the first word in after that. There is something unnerving about being propositioned by a young man for sex at that hour, especially before I have had my coffee.
I learned later those loiterers thought I was a “Chicken-Hawk”. A man looking for sex from another man. The bookstore and gay bar were prime hunting ground for these tireless workers. I was able to assert my position on their offers rather quickly but I also knew that they spent more hours after dark (and before dawn) in front of my all glass window storefront than anyone else. Somehow I had to make my point without pissing off the oft crack infused male prostitutes. I wasn't always successful, as the 21 break-ins over the years would indicate.
In the early years there was a “head shop” adjacent to the gay bar that starting selling cigars just as the trend was picking up. The owner (Big Joe from a previous piece) moved to a vacant storefront a few years later, closer to my end of the block. This place used to house a strip joint with women dancing during the week and men on the weekend. The storefront was bricked over with a what looked like a peep show window on the street and a speakeasy door that was recessed and and curved into the space. The building looked like it was hiding something inside and was daring the pedestrian to try and find out.
Part of the move for the smoke shop was to expand its offerings. The block now had a pawn shop that specialized in cigars and guns. That’s right, a cigar and gun shop. If that wasn’t odd enough, a 2 story vertical sign was erected perpendicular to the building that read, “CIGARS and GUNS”.
His long time employee “Bearded Steve”, made the move with him (also in previous posts). I want to be sure that I make this point clear. I consider both Joe and Steve friends. Not only did their business add character to the street, their personas did a lot for the color of the area. Not to mention, they were among the few of us on the block that self patrolled the neighborhood.
I remember a story they told me about a particular incident at the new store. I did not witness it, but have no doubts to it’s validity. A member of the ATF visited and warned the boys of a recent string of gun stores robberies in the area. They were described as “smash and grab” style thefts. The assailants would charge the door, smash the cases, grab the guns and run out. The store was large and had display cases on two side of a square layout. Guns on one side and cigars and pawn items on the other. Joe and Steve each manned one side of the place and the customer was always surrounded.
One day soon after the warning, three young men entered the store rather quickly, one holding a baseball bat. Before any announcement could be made about the interest of the young men, the proprietor and his second had pulled their legal firearms and were taking aim. Steve had taken to packing a double shoulder holster, especially after the warning. Like Dirty Harry, he had a gun in each hand pointing at the patrons while the his partner did the same from the other counter. I am certain there was some profanities projected, along with warning or two.
The three visitors exited quickly. The police were called. And not much trouble happened there after that incident. Now, it could be that these three men just wanted to pawn a very special baseball bat and no real concerns existed. You know, one signed by the “Babe” himself perhaps, but now we will never know. If you thought those guys from Pawn Stars were interesting, you never visited “Cigars and Guns” on State street.
Our little city block was really developing over the years, but something was still missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it until the day I heard the news of a new tenant that had purchased one of the vacant buildings in the middle of our historic row. Off Track Betting was coming to State Street and they were going to rehab a building and clean up the block. Ahhh. . . Now the place felt complete. We have packed in as many vices as possible on the street and the hole felt plugged. (And no, I am not including the sexual orientation of the bar as a vice, so keep your right wing granny panties covering your woman’s thong adjusted.)
The upper 3 floors of a few buildings were connected and contained different forms of housing over the years. My first few years it was a flop house, and it eventually made transitions to the current VOA housing for parolees. This was a great improvement from the previous years, noting all the rules and regulations the VOA had in place for their tenants.
The neighborhood wasn’t all sin over the years. The “Bangkok” Thai restaurant anchored the block when I first started but it quickly split into two places and moved locations (The King and I, and Esan - shameless plug for the post). There was a family accountant business that had three generations working in one building, and numerous private practice attorneys with varying specialties. Perhaps they liked the easy pickings in the neighborhood for clients.
A whole host of different retail and office businesses came and went over the years and at some point it all gets a little blurry. Most were good people with varying degrees of quality ideas, but statistics is a bastard to contend with.
It’s hard for me to understand why I ever wanted to open a bagel shop on this modern day “Front Street” of Rochester, and even more difficult to comprehend why I stayed. Ignorance; youthful exuberance; too arrogant to know better; “twenty-something-itis”; could have been any or all of these. Why I stayed is harder to defend. I was always looking for the next step but some life event always stalled my efforts.
Next post, “The Good” . . .