Gem Spa

Gem Spa

131 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003

Hangout Retail

Gem Spa was a newsstand located on St. Mark’s Place that sold chocolate egg creams for a quarter and was a popular hangout frequented by everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Patti Smith.


Patti Smith Moves to New York City


New Jersey native Patti Smith lived in a dream world filled with poetry and rock ’n’ roll. She had fallen for Little Richard when she was a young girl, and at the age of sixteen came across a copy of Illuminations by nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. By spring 1967, she had had a child and given it up for adoption, and was doing temp work at a textbook factory in Philadelphia. Smith plotted her escape to New York, where at first she was homeless and had to sleep in Central Park. “I walked for hours from park to park,” Smith recalled in her memoir Just Kids. “In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young. This open atmosphere was something I had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem to be oppressive to anyone.” She finally landed a job at Brentano’s bookshop, where she met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. During their first evening together they wandered through downtown, taking in the scene at St. Mark’s Place and buying a cheap egg cream at Gem Spa. Mapplethorpe took a job at the Fillmore East just after it opened in early March 1968, reporting to work in an orange jumpsuit. They were too broke to pay to see concerts, but Mapplethorpe was able to get Smith a pass to see the Doors play—another turning point in her creative life. “I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit.”

From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore