Drawing by Gerald Ranson.

By Michelle Standley

I am doing research for an illustrated book, “Squeezing Out a Living in New York City,” about dozens of tiny little shops, many of which were located on the Upper West Side, and the intrepid owners behind them. “Squeezing Out a Living” is based on a series of whimsical pen-and-ink line drawings that British-born illustrator and longtime Upper West Side resident Gerald Ranson did back in the 1990s. Most of the shops have since closed, and their owners have moved to Queens or New Jersey.

For nearly two years I have been searching for the shops and for their owners in order to record their stories. I’m hoping that West Side Rag readers might be able to help.

What the shops that Gerry sketched all had in common was that they inhabited extremely narrow spaces between two much taller buildings. What the owners had in common, as I have discovered from those I have interviewed, is that they too were carving out a space for themselves in the city. Almost all of them came from far-flung places like Cameroon, South Korea, Turkey, India, and Uzbekistan. They were also the sort of people who arrived ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard, sacrifice, scrimp and save—to do, in short, whatever they needed to make their way in their new home. Whether or not their shop succeeded, every shop owner I have talked to has expressed a love for New York and gratitude toward the United States.

So far I have identified 38 of the 42 shops that Gerry sketched but have been able to locate only 13 of the former owners. I would like to find them all!

Perhaps you remember one of these shops? Or maybe you have a tip about the whereabouts of the former owner or memories of them that you could share with me? The easiest way to do this would be to go to the website,, and peruse the list of businesses and click on any shop names that you recognize.

So much has changed in New York, and in the world, since Gerry did his sketches. I want to tell the stories of the lives behind these tiny shops both to preserve a piece of the recent past and to capture a part of what has made this city, and country, great: they have been places where newcomers and native-born alike cannot only live side by side but flourish.

Below, check out the drawings of local shops with photos of what they looked like more recently.

Skimpy Heaven:

Johnny’s Books:

(Editor’s note: Johnny of Johnny’s Books recently passed away.)

Syed Candy Store (on the Upper East Side):

    1. Fabulously intriguing project. Love the drawings and look forward to the stories.

      Before the scaffolding scourge. Good luck!

    2. Rebecca says:

      I would like to buy this book.
      Kindly add me to your email list of sorts, for when this book becomes available. It looks very interesting. Good luck with the identifying the various businesses!

    3. D-Rex says:

      The gerryproject address is a .org (rather than .com)

    4. Oona says:

      A Street Is Remade, but a Bond Endures – The New York Times – landlords greed really killed this fellow who was the solid fixture when are neighborhood and it’seems streets were unsafe. After he he helped solidify it…

      • Oona says:

        A Street Is Remade, but a Bond Endures – The New York Times – Landlord greed really put an end to this fellow who did so much to solidify our neighborhood at a time when the upper west side streets were unsafe for anyone who is vulnerable, especially kids

    5. Judy Harris says:

      I remember that little space with the paperback books on Columbus b/t 86th and 85th. He also sold knit hats in winter and pantyhose all year round. The laundromat next door is gone and is now a bagel place, I think. When I first moved to NY, the little market was called Fantastic Juan’s; the owner Juan was from Puerto Rico. I think it is Korean-owned now. No help to you, but fond memories for me.

    6. UWS resident says:

      I looked at the Gerry Project Website. It would be good if you could make a hyperlink to the website on your post. For one of the drawings – the location of J.Par Travel Service is easy to locate since all you have to do is google Mayra’s Beauty Salon – which still exists. It is at 608 Amsterdam Ave. The current business in the location of J. Par is Spice Restaurant at 610 Amsterdam. This is the block between W 89 and W 90. I hope this is helpful to you.

    7. yoyomama43 says:

      That Skimpy Heaven was Dr. Squeeze (a juice place) and Norwegian Wood (wood paneling) before that. Are you looking only for the managers of the shops drawn by that illustrator – or are you more interested in the history/various incarnations of those narrow spaces?

      As for Rooster Flowers- you might try asking its old neighbor and owner/mgr of The Super Runner’s Shop. It’s Gary Muhrke (former NY firefighter and NYC Marathon winner). He might know. Fwiw, the flower shop wasn’t particularly narrow, but oh well.

      Good luck! I love NYC history projects!

    8. EricaC says:

      Johnny’s Books only disappeared a year or two ago. I was astonished to see, through a crack in the door, stairs underneath what had been the store. I’ve been curious whether I really saw that – was his store sitting on top of the fire exit from one of the. Holdings? That couldn’t have been it, could it?

    9. Donna says:

      There is a store in the East Village called Katinka. 9th Street just east of 2nd Ave north side of the street. They sell clothing and accessories from India. It is owned and operated by a wonderful couple. they don’t open til 430pm. It is tiny and filled with goodies.

    10. S March says:

      Skimpy heaven on Columbus Ave at one time also sold buffalo hot dogs out of its minuscule location.

    11. Wijmlet says:

      Is there a list of these shops? That would help us help you.

    12. Leslie says:

      Wonderful project! Would buy this book. My email if you are getting list together.

    13. kindly dr dave says:

      Love the project idea. Couldn’t leave note on website for my fave: The First Bardo, in a tiny eclipse on the West side of Broadway, between 112 and 113. Manager was Lisa (?). A welcome respite from the pressures of the nearby colleges…