When I was a little kid, visiting Times Square was never something my family approved of. Frankly, it wasn’t really a place for a little kid to be. Then I left New York for a few years; when I returned it was as if Disney had sent some deep-pocketed fairies to fly over the area and pixie-dust the grittiness right out of the place.
For me, it was a bittersweet transformation of one of the most visited destinations in New York City. The truth is that the Times Square that exists today is very different from the Times Square I knew for most of my life.
The olden days were amazing. Some people say that Times Square used to be nothing more than a place for prostitution, drugs, and neon-lit peep shows. But if you were a musician, you spent most of your time in the studios, music shops, and venues along 48th street, also known as Music Row. Musicians such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix hung out here, though you didn’t have to be famous to be among them.
And though most of the famed theaters were closed, there were still a few that theater-lovers would frequent; places such as The Majestic, The Palace Theatre, and the Winter Garden Theatre, home to Cats the Musical for the longest time ever.
The lights of Broadway never stopped shining
There were other standouts in the Times Square of my youth. In terms of hotels, The Algonquin, which has been operating since 1902 and is a pretty luxurious stay (if you don’t mind the ghosts), has managed to persevere. But my absolute favorite places to visit were the small mom-and-pop stores that made shopping trips into Times Square worth it for those of us who were not intimidated by the flashers and hobos.
Despite the sad reality that many of these shops have been consumed by larger corporations, a few still remain. Here’s a look at some of my favorites of the bunch.
It makes sense that the home of the Great White Way also would be home to The Drama Book Shop. Though this beloved store has moved around the neighborhood in trying to avoid increasing rents, the current family owners have run the shop since 1958. The store has such strong support in the theater community that it won an honorary Tony Award. Celebrities come in and out often, however, like any good New Yorker you let them go about their business undisturbed (unless you come for a book signing or another special event). What’s on the shelves? Insider industry stuff, including instructional acting material, plays, and even agent listings.
For the comics and vinyl toys collector
Midtown Comics is “new” by New York standards (it opened in 1997) but it has outlasted some local favorites even as Times Square continues to transition. My husband and kids go nuts here. They have a great collection of old and new comic books, as well as collectibles and toys. The growing popularity of Comic-Con certainly doesn’t hurt the place’s business; as the New York sponsors, Midtown Comics has grown the local fan base in a way that has made up for the fact that the store isn’t visible to those walking by below. (That’s a hint to look up when trying to find them on 40th Street and 7th Avenue!)
Viewfinder Tip: If you’re trying to get through Times Square quickly, your best bet is to walk over to 8th or 9th Avenue.
For the musician
I purchased my first guitar during my late 20s from Rudy’s Music on 48th Street. The shop has been in business for more than 30 years, selling new and vintage instruments and a whole lot of sheet music. Rudy’s has a fancy-shmancy store in SoHo now, but my heart is true to the Times Square location for its history and unpretentious vibe. Getting a guitar from Rudy’s is like buying a piece of history; though I am not the most kick-ass guitarist, I sure love to be around them and this is the place for that.
To be clear: I like the new Times Square. I like that I can bring my kids here and that it is such a highlight for first-time visitors to New York. But I do miss a lot of what gave the area its personality and flavor. That grittiness locals remember wasn’t all that bad or scary. I can only hope that those shopping gems that have survived this long will remain long enough for my own children to enjoy.
What are some of your favorite hidden gems in New York?