A block from the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, a guy in a beanie pauses at a newsstand where copies of Us Weekly have been replaced by limited edition publications and hand drawn booklets. He nods in approval. "Zines and shit—that’s cool." His eyes move toward the unbranded bags of popcorn propped up in front of the newsstand window, where the proprietor, artist Anne Libby, stands guard: the gatekeeper of this phantom tollbooth.
"What’s that popcorn about?" he asks.
"It’s just popcorn," she replies. "It’s spicy."
"Is this, like, a DIY newsstand here?"
Basically. The project, called Petrella’s Imports, is a two-and-a-half month-long experiment by Libby and collaborators Elise McMahon and Sophie Stone, to revive one of New York’s more idiosyncratic newsstands, Petrella’s Point, which stood on this same corner of Bowery and Canal for 30 years, before closing in 2004.
"We wanted to keep everything sort of functional for the average passerby," Libby explains, who can buy stuff like lighters, snacks, bottled water with a custom imprint, and postcards of scenes from Google Earth, in addition to an eclectic mix of publications either commissioned or curated for the project.
It’s the first time the kiosk has been in operation in nine years, when Petrella’s iconic fire engine red hut was replaced by a metal, prefab unit, as part of a sweeping change to the newsstand landscape starting under the Giulianni administration. The former mayor "thought that newsstands cluttered streets and were incongruous with the sort of tourist-clean streets that he wanted to have," Libby says. So in 1997 the city began transitioning to a new system, first by raising prices on fees operators had to pay, then by contracting with the Spanish operating company Cemusa to streamline the city’s hodgepodge of uniquely-decorated newsstands with a standardized design that could bring in revenue for the city via ads. They began replacing the physical newsstands in the late 2000s.
Petrella’s Imports uniqueness is a throwback to the original Petrella’s stand, whose owner Adam Petrella, would pass out drawings of Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee. "'Essex Street, Where Jewish People Used to Be—Seven Blocks East. Little Italy, Where Italians Used to Be—Two Blocks North,’" read hand-painted notes on the kiosk’s exterior, according to the New York Times. "He was sort of a neighborhood fixture," adds Libby. (Petrella passed away in 2006.)
Her partner McMahon had gotten interested in the history of Petrella’s stand, which is still licensed to Adam’s nephew Frank Petrella, and had reached out about doing a pop-up that could pay homage to the stand’s historical funkiness, while making it relevant for the digital age.
Once an important access point for information, newsstands have clearly faded in relevance with the rise of the web and the proliferation of free content. "Because they’re sort of becoming more outmoded structure, they’re becoming these placeholders for advertising," says Libby, "which I feel relates to how the web is functioning now," with magazine websites and blogs—like newsstands—serving as shells for ads, using free or cheap content as bait to lure eyeballs.
Thus, Petrella’s Imports is conceived as a physical outpost of Internet culture. Art blogs, like the aptly named Art Blog Art Blog, created print versions for sale. Other URL enterprises contributed IRL objects, like wet wipes by the blog Ah Hole Ah Hole. And like a blog, the kiosk itself is refreshed daily with new content.
The project is meant to explore ideas about public space and information, in a time where human interaction or the discovery of new ideas is more likely to happen on the web than on the street. Accordingly, one goal of the project is to showcase publications that look at public space and Internet culture. Another was to bring back some of Petrella’s Point’s historical kookiness to this location, which they seem to have accomplished.
Taking a break from a bike tour of the five boroughs, artist Izzy Galindo arrives and gives an informal demo of his "anti-product," the Tommy Knocker, that’s displayed on the stand. It’s a 1976 issue of the magazine American Rifleman with a doorknocker tacked on the corner. When rolled up, it becomes a blunt-edged weapon, which he gleefully bangs on the bike-helmet clad head of his sister Miranda.
"My friend Tommy was assaulted walking home from a party, so I named it after him." he says. The Knocker was born as a satirical response to a design contest that asked designers to create weapons. "I don’t think design and creative energy should go into thinking hard about hurting people," he explains, thinking for a moment before adding, "I’m super West Coast."
Interactions like these are fostered by the stand’s disruptive presence to lower Manhattan’s increasingly corporatized urban fabric. Libby says that pedestrians are constantly stopping by to ask questions or talk about the publications. "So many people just live so much of their lives in the public realm here," says Libby, the newsstand can serve as a touchpoint for more than just commerce, but for pausing for a moment to appreciate the city’s public space. It’s "so literally on the street."
Petrella’s Imports is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5:30, until the end of June.