All text and photos by Whitney Browne
Perseverance is best served cold, in a cone, with rainbow sprinkles on top.
Ray’s Candy Store has been serving up this East Village specialty since 1974. My first encounters with Ray were over chocolate egg creams and french fries. I would come to Ray’s, get my treats, and sit atop the highest point on the lawn in Tompkins Square Park. It was part of my East Village experience: being broke and going to Ray’s for the deal on sweets. This occurred over the course of 8 years, but one day in 2013, I went in and Ray invited me behind the counter to make my own egg cream. When customers started to come in, Ray taught me how to make fries and beignets.
Many nights I could not sleep and would find myself walking to Ray’s as I knew he too would be awake and open. I began helping Ray out behind the counter. I listened to Ray tell the stories of his life; how he first came to the U.S. by swimming to the shores of this country from an Iranian Navy ship, lived in Miami, came to New York, and worked for 10 years scrubbing dishes before he bought the candy shop for $30,000 in 1974. I was fascinated by Ray’s accounts of working in the boiler room on the Navy ship, a room that was dangerously hot, necessary for survival, and required relentless labor in tight quarters. These stories made me look at Ray working in his shop as his ultimate identity. He created the labor of his life in a small quartered icy levered storefront.
Coming to Ray’s became my bliss. I started bringing my 120 film camera with me. The Hasselblad is an old funny looking camera, which fit in with the old fashioned aesthetic of the shop perfectly. Ray and his regulars were my subjects.
Ray is now 81 years old and has owned his own shop in the village for over 40 years. Working 24/7 seven days a week. He hasn’t ever had a vacation. He is dealing deeply with health and financial issues, like so many older small businesses owners do. I wonder, where will Ray go from here? Where does he have to go? The shop is his life. He’s lived in the tiny apartment above the shop since he first bought it. Ray will most likely not go anywhere else. I do not see another great shore to swim to on his horizon. Ray is a legend in the neighborhood and he is the few legends still with us. He has seen multiple generations of kids grow up in the neighborhood, people from the outer boroughs travel down to Ray’s for deep fried Oreos and a malted.
But the village is undeniably a changed village than when Ray’s began. Change is inevitable. But does that mean that perhaps running a business for years and years is no longer sustainable against such rapid change? Do we like the way the village is changing? It’s debatable.
The truth is that Ray will probably find some way to persevere through his yearly rent increase and declining health for all long as he can, until his engine loses steam and he goes down with the ship. In the meantime, go buy an ice cream at Rays, enjoy a piece of NYC nostalgia while there is still one to be had on 7th St. and Avenue A. Ray will be there, busy working away.
To be continued.
Whitney Browne is a photographer living in the East Village with a focus on portraits and street scenes. http://www.whitneybrowne.com