Back before SoHo was gentrified beyond all semblance of recognition and all my favorite places were brutally chased away with coffers-syphoned and orifices bleeding, there was actually a lot of cool stuff to be found down there for a guy with my tastes.
Along with several great bars (some of which are even still there), there were record and disc shops like Lunch for Your Ears and Rocks In Your Head (both of which I’ve waxed rhapsodic about several times on this blog). There were, of course, several cool galleries and book stores (I used to love A Photographer’s Place, which was a great book shop devoted to – wait for it – photography on Mercer Street). If you were looking for camo gear or bullet-belts or, hell, even actual weapons, there was The Trader on Canal, just around the corner from West Broadway. For more conventional duds, there was the ever-reliable Canal Jeans Co. Neat-o stuff was all over the place.
Of course, in 2013, just about all of those businesses are gone, replaced by bigger, brighter, shinier, more pointedly populist and expensive ventures. And unless you enjoy wading through battalions of shoppers and tourists, there’s really precious little reason to walk into SoHo these days. If you’re looking for the gritty, bohemian, street-art-slathered SoHo of old, you’re better off Netflixin’ “Downtown `81” or “After Hours,” `cos that incarnation is long, long gone.
But there was another joint in SoHo that I used to frequent back in the day that I think I’ve fleetingly mentioned here on occasion. Compared to today, West Broadway between Canal Street and Grand Street used to be pretty desolate. There was a large, fenced-in gravel lot (where the SoHo Grand sits today) on the west side, and a parking lot on the east. Down towards the end of the block, there was Scrap Yard (which, I want to say, used to be called Bomb the System), a graffiti emporium that is amazingly –- last I checked, anyway -– still there. Across the way from that, however, there was SoHoZat.
SoHoZat was this freaky comic and magazine space that had all sorts of bizarre stuff. I used to procure underground comics, zines and British music periodicals there, along with weird strains of other, anything-goes type of crap. Don’t bother looking for it today. In 2013, the space that SoHoZat formerly occupied is now a deli, if memory serves.
In any case, for the longest time, the only record of SoHoZat’s existence I could ever find was this post on the excellent Ephemeral New York (which is where the ad above comes from). But earlier this week, I stumbled upon this longer article which tells the back history. If you’re interested in reading the whole piece, you can click here, but here’s the bit about SoHoZat…
The comics – and underground comix – inventory at Monkeys Retreat was influenced in no small part by Bobrof and Darryl Mendelson’s store, SohoZat, which opened in 1978 in Manhattan’s then authentically bohemian SoHo district. While in New York for a boutique merchandise show, Bobrof and Mendelson found some retail space on the cheap and decided to start another business.
SohoZat specialized in reading material, especially underground and foreign newspapers and mainstream comics and underground comix.
The store’s location in the heart of New York’s artists’ district made it a go-to place for an up-and-coming artistic elite. Neil Martinson, co-producer of San Francisco’s Mission Creek Music Festival and publisher of the online magazine PROOF worked (underage) at SohoZat in the late 1970s and recalls rubbing shoulders there with the likes of the now legendary John Belushi and Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. Martinson also remembers the day Spiegelman hand-delivered the first issue of his radical graphics magazine Raw to SohoZat, which became the first place to sell it.
“It was a magical experience to find this store, because it was kind of a dream store for me,” Martinson said. “You walk in and right away there’s the biggest offering of international and domestic and local magazines and newspapers that was available in the city. And to be in an environment where I was constantly meeting cool people. My friends would work in their mom’s office or they’d work in a deli, but this was like a cultural hub. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s SohoZat was probably the hippest store in the history of the world. Everybody went there.
SohoZat’s rent hit $6,000 in 1992, and they were forced to close up shop. Below is a shot of the guys circa 1978.