Living Above the Store

A once common arrangement that can help or strain work-life balance is being sustained by a new generation of New Yorkers.

A woman and a cat poke their heads out of a second-floor window of a tenement building painted sky blue with a darker blue store front emblazoned with the words, Poseidon Bakery, Handmade in Hell’s Kitchen. Directly above the woman and her cat, a man pokes his head out of a third-floor window. On the sidewalk, a man dressed warmly in a knit hat, red and black plaid shirt and a thermal vest walks in front of the store.
Lili Fable and her son Paul Fable live in apartments above their store, the Poseidon Greek Bakery in Hell’s Kitchen. Someone in the family has lived above the bakery since 1950.Credit...George Etheredge for The New York Times

Paul Longo was pretty sure that the landlord for a vacant apartment above Ida’s Nearabout, a bar in Sunnyside, Queens, would have trouble finding a tenant. Valiantly, he signed on.

Living above a business that has very long hours and very loud patrons is not for everyone, but Mr. Longo, now 38, was up to the challenge. After all, he’s a co-owner of Ida’s, a six-year-old neighborhood hangout with a version of an “in and out burger” on the menu and a stuffed wolf named Ida mounted behind the bar.

Who could be more inured to the sound of late-night merrymakers than a guy who runs a bar? And if, four years on, the din sometimes gets to be a bit much — OK, OK, maybe more than a bit — what are the odds that Mr. Longo is going to make an irate phone call at 3 a.m. to complain?

He’s among New Yorkers who are reinvigorating the old but now largely abandoned custom of living above the store.

“For centuries, in rural and urban settings it was the common thing around the world for people to live and work in the same place,” said Howard Davis, a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon and the author of the book “Living Over the Store: Architecture and Local Urban Life.”

The Industrial Revolution was the change agent both abroad and in the United States. As people began hiring on at factories, “the split between work and private life started to take place in earnest,” Mr. Davis continued. The possession of separate home and work addresses was a mark of financial and social success, and the people who lived where they worked were generally of limited means, including those who were recent arrivals to the country.

“This arrangement was typical in immigrant neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University.

The shift to store owners moving outside the neighborhood or outside the city came in the late 1940s, said Kat Lloyd, the vice president of programs and interpretations at the Tenement Museum, which explores issues of immigration and migration.

“By the ’50s, many of them lived elsewhere and traveled back to the city to run their store.”

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Family photos and mementos fill the inside of the bakery.Credit...George Etheredge for The New York Times

In 1950, Michael and Menina Anagnostou bought a five-story tenement on Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen for the Poseidon Greek Bakery, a business founded by Michael’s father, Demetrios, in 1923, and long celebrated for its baklava, spanakopita, and tiropita (cheese filled phyllo triangles), among other treats. Michael, Menina and Menina’s three children from a previous marriage lived on the third floor and served as landlords to a handful of tenants.

Then in 1960, Michael’s stepson, Anthony Fable, married Lili Cornella, and the newlyweds settled into an apartment on the second floor.

A few years later, when the last of the tenants left the building, the family was able to spread out. Mrs. Fable, now a widow, has the second and third floor. Her son Paul, the only one of her three children to join the business, lives on the top two floors with his wife and two children.

“We once looked at buying a house in New Jersey, but then we said, ‘No, we don’t want this.’ It just wasn’t in our interest to move,” Mrs. Fable said.

As a child, Paul likely viewed the matter differently. When, at the age of 7, he was finally given clearance to walk to school by himself, he crossed the street against the light. A neighbor took note of the infraction, “and called me to tell me that a cab had almost hit him,” recalled Mrs. Fable. When he got home that day, Mrs. Fable recalled, “I dressed him down and said ‘Well, I guess I have to keep walking you to school,’ and he asked, ‘Do you have spies on me?’”

It seems that she did.

“Everybody knew us because we lived above the bakery,” Mrs. Fable said. “It would have been different if we lived somewhere else.”

Soon after Helene Golay and Ray Sherman married in 1976, they were told that their apartment building on East 88th Street was scheduled for demolition, so they began the task of finding a new home.

“A friend told us it was time to buy. He said they were giving New York away,” recalled Ms. Golay, now 82 and known as Lenny. She was working as a textbook publishers’ representative to American schools in the Middle East.

She and Mr. Sherman, a sculptor and model maker for architects, learned that a brownstone on the southeast corner of Madison and 93rd St with a storefront pharmacy was for sale and they made an offer, prevailing at $64,000. The couple’s intention was simply to live in one of the apartments in the building and continue with their established careers.

But the pharmacy went belly-up in 1977, and the only businesses that expressed interest in taking over the space were fast food restaurants. “They would have ruined the architectural features of the place,” said Ms. Golay, mentioning the terrazzo floor, the oak woodwork, and the tin ceiling.

“I had been in publishing all my life, and Ray had the idea that because it was a residential area and there was no competition, a book shop would be a good thing,” she said. In 1978, the Corner Bookstore opened.

Several years ago, Ms. Golay, who has been a widow since 2018, turned over day-to-day management of the business to two senior staff members.

“I have mobility issues now so I’m not in the store as much as I used to be,” she said, “but when I was there all the time, I got to meet the entire neighborhood, and it was wonderful.”

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Maya Joseph, an owner of the Sullivan Street Bakery, moved into an apartment above the business in 2011. Now she and her husband, Jim Lahey, who founded the bakery, live there with their three children, a dog and a snake.Credit...George Etheredge for The New York Times

In 1999, Jim Lahey, the founder of Sullivan Street Bakery (and the creator of one of the most popular recipes published by The New York Times), shifted operations from Lower Manhattan to a leased space on the ground floor of a building in Hell’s Kitchen that now includes a cafe.

When, in 2009, the building’s owners decided to sell the property, the bakery bought it, and Mr. Lahey moved in upstairs. His girlfriend, Maya Joseph, joined him there in 2011, and they married in 2015. The couple now share the five-bedroom space with their three children, a dog and a snake.

“Some days,” she said, “it really feels as if we live in a little village. We know the mail lady and the UPS guy. And people definitely know who to complain to: They stop us and ask when we’re going to start serving soup again.”

“People always know where we are,” said Ms. Joseph, 44. “It’s hard to distance ourselves from work. We have to leave town or leave the state.”

But if there’s a problem related to the store, it’s good to be near at hand. “A lot of bakery crises happen at night,” said Ms. Joseph, who is well-versed in the rhythms of the kitchen and who knows when the rhythms are off — and whose bedroom is right above the bakery’s ovens. “If I hear loud music that’s a good thing because it means that the workers are happy and in their groove,” she said. “That music is like a lullaby.”

But hearing an oven alarm, which means the bread should have been removed from the oven, is a wake-up call. “It makes me wonder what is preventing our bakers from getting the bread out,” Ms. Joseph said. “If I don’t smell bread at night, which is when we do our baking, I know something is wrong.”

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Maria Gonzalez saved up to open her own restaurant and found the perfect location below her apartment in East Harlem.Credit...George Etheredge for The New York Times

When Maria Gonzalez moved to Manhattan from Mexico City at the age of 19, she had two goals: to make a little money, then make her way to Europe. Though she knew nothing about mixing drinks, she got a job as a bartender and then as a server before wearying of the hospitality business and becoming a florist.

In 2008, Ms. Gonzalez moved from Chelsea to East Harlem where the rents were more manageable. Through the friend of a friend, she lucked into a loft sublet, subsequently, taking over the lease.

When she sold the flower shop she owned on Third Avenue and 31st Street, her thoughts turned back to the food service business. She had always cooked for friends on her days off, “so opening a restaurant was what I thought I could do,” said Ms. Gonzalez, now 60.

After working as a server for a decade to raise the capital to open her own place, she found the perfect location: the storefront below the loft she shares with her partner, Lou Martins.

Bistro Casa Azul, which serves what Ms. Gonzalez calls “elevated Mexican food,” opened four years ago.

“The space had been a social club. It was rundown and didn’t have a good reputation and we made it beautiful,” said Ms. Gonzalez.

“When I first came to the neighborhood, people helped me carry my stuff upstairs,” Ms. Gonzalez said. “I felt welcome here even before I opened the restaurant. I feel a closeness, and not to sound silly, a love. And I had never before felt that with neighbors in all the years I’ve lived in New York. I would feel that way even if I didn’t live above my business. I just think it’s more intense because I do.”

Early one evening this past May, Michael Barton was cooking dinner for half a dozen guests at Table d’Hôte, the Upper East Side restaurant he bought in 2020. He was hit with a grand mal seizure, a consequence of an undiagnosed brain tumor, and ended up in a coma at Lenox Hill Hospital.

After treatment and recovery, “I thought there was one thing I could control: the time it took me to get to work,” said Mr. Barton, 35, who had been going back and forth between the restaurant and his one-bedroom co-op in Washington Heights.

A studio apartment with a terrace right above Table d’Hôte was available. It had outdoor space and he’s envisioning the tomatoes, squash and herbs he’ll grow for next summer’s menus. He had also longed for a dog but, because of his longs shifts in the kitchen, had never acted on the desire.

“Now that I live right upstairs, I decided it was a good idea,” said Mr. Barton who recently acquired a beagle-hound mix named Louis.

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“People only want to escape when they have work lives they don’t enjoy,” said Daniel Nardicio, who lives above his coffee shop in Hell’s Kitchen.Credit...George Etheredge for The New York Times

Daniel Nardicio, a night life promoter, also wanted to shorten his commute. When, from 2019 to 2021, he was an owner of Club Cumming, a gay bar in the East Village, he lived in Chelsea. “Any time I wanted to check on things I had to take a bus or a 20-minute cab ride, so it was a real commitment,” said Mr. Nardicio, 56.

When he began his new venture, Red Eye NY, a gay coffee bar and nightclub that is slated to open in early December in Hell’s Kitchen, he was determined to be more hands-on and less dependent on taxi meters and unreliable public transit. This past June, he rented the second floor and divided it into studio apartments for himself and two of his business partners. “It’s like being a middle-aged college student,” Mr. Nardicio said.

Some friends warned him that he would find the arrangement something of a straitjacket with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. His friends just don’t get it. “People only want to escape when they have work lives they don’t enjoy,” Mr. Nardicio said. “It’s a coffee bar. I love coffee. I can come downstairs and go from table to table and act like a maître d’.”

“And then I can go upstairs to watch something on Netflix. If it gets to be too much, I’ll go to Mexico for a week,” he said.

Chris Wink, one of the three founding members of the performance art company Blue Man Group, lives above the Astor Place Theater, the Off Broadway venue that has billeted the company since 1991.

“When we first started the show, we all lived in different places — the Upper West Side, Washington Heights,” said Mr. Wink, now 61. In the group’s first three years, they performed eight shows a week with no breaks and no understudies. The commute was rough.

The solution, finally arrived at in the mid-1990s, was living above the theater. “The landlord would let us take over units in the building as they became available,” Mr. Wink said.

A while later, the owner of the building died, and his partner didn’t want to stay in the landlord business. “When he said he was going to sell the building, he said, ‘Why don’t you guys consider getting a mortgage and buy the building?’” recalled Mr. Wink. He now has a duplex there.

For a good long while, after he left Blue Man, Mr. Wink enjoyed popping in on the show. “But I reached a point where I felt like I was sort of running a business rather than being an artist, and it was very important to get back to being an artist.”

In 2017, Mr. Wink made a full break with Blue Man Group, and turned his attention to the creation of Wink World: psychedelic immersive installations. His apartment became something of a lab; during the pandemic he turned the bathroom into an infinity mirror room, embedded found objects and motorized neon coils into the ceiling.

“It warms my heart to see a line of people out on the street who are excited to see Blue Man Group, but I’m increasingly able to look at it as an outsider,” said Mr. Wink, who is now thinking he’d really like to be an outsider: “I do think,” he said, “that I would like to live somewhere else.”