Exit 9

Avenue A in the late afternoon on Friday echoes with the sounds of ecstatic school children looking forward to the weekend. Passing an elementary school, I see young children with their tiny backpacks greeting parents waiting at the stairs with big grins. The streets seem to be overrun with these children running and playing games, their shrill laughter wafting through the air. It is a picturesque Friday afternoon with the bright sun’s rays and the gentle breeze shielding me from the heat. I watch as a group of children run across the street, the blinking light informing them that time is running out. The light becomes a steady red as squeals of laughter and the patter of small running feet hangs in the air. Breathless they reach the curb I am standing at and begin once again their race to nowhere in particular. It is nestled in this scene of wide eyed fun that Exit 9 Gift Emporium is open for business.


Walking to the storefront, I am welcomed by the colorful windows filled with everything you can think of and more. Standing under the great green banner, I look through the windows to the display inside. Lying in a bed of paper flowers under a giant cardboard rainbow there stand unicorn horns, heads, figurines, stuffed animals, and coloring books. In the other window, a blue paper sky with cotton clouds and an all encompassing sun that reflects the light of Avenue A. Advertised in this tranquil scene are hats, handbags, scarves, wallets, and notebooks. Moving onto the store’s entrance, I see an employee drawing on the large blackboard, chalk dust floating lazily in the air. He is putting the finishing touches on an image depicting a hipster rabbit and chicken. Two small wooden benches border the glass door that stands open welcoming in customers.


I walk under the archway of twinkling strings of lights through that large glass door and am greeted by items that one could spend the day admiring. Walking around the store, I chuckled at the witty sayings on anything from coffee mugs to pocket sized notebooks. Smiling employees busy themselves with shelving merchandise and helping the many customers. Sifting through the merchandise one can find anything under the sun from sunglasses to books to stuffed animals to postcards, backpacks, temporary tattoos, and soap. The owners and employees rush around in a bustle talking to customers in person or on the phone, manning the cash register, or fixing displays. Pinning down the owners, I obtain an interview with Charles Branstool who takes the time to sit down and talk with me.

Meet Charles Branstool

Mr. Branstool tells me about how he became interested in his work. He has lived in Brooklyn for four years, but originally from Ohio, his interest in marketing began during his college years there. In college Mr. Branstool had a job making wooden objects, this in addition to his involvement in markets there is what piqued his interest in products and design. He went on to tell me the origins of Exit 9. When he moved to New York in 1993, Mr. Branstool was unemployed living in the East Village. Fortune smiled on him in the form of some money and a small storefront near his residence. This storefront was just across the street from Exit 9’s current location. When his lease was up, Mr. Branstool decided against renewing as his relationship with the landlord was not a good one.

Once a lease is up, rent increases to the point that most of the profit goes to rent and the owner has no choice but to close.

Over the years, Mr. Branstool and co-owner Christy Davis have opened three locations with two in current operation. First in late 1995, second in 2007, and most recently in Brooklyn in 2011. They now have a total of nine employees and can boast a very successful business. Mr. Branstool reflects on what made him a successful business owner and concludes that when he was starting out, he did not have a business background that would give him the caution many have when starting their own venture and it was this lack of inhibition that allowed him to take the risks he did and to reap their benefits. Now as a long time store owner, Mr. Branstool likes the independence it gives him. He enjoys the mechanics of working in a city. Mr. Branstool loves approaching and partnering with other businesses in ventures that work to build up the community, and his daily interactions with employees and customers. However, Mr. Branstool remarks, he has his worries that his store is contributing to the materialism of our society. He goes on to describe his merchandise, mentioning that the items that do best change with the seasons and that the key is to keep up with trends, such as adult coloring books. Mr. Branstool’s favorite item from the store is the Yoga Joes toy, that takes the Army Men toys and puts them in yoga positions, He enjoys the fact that it turns a violent toy into a peaceful one.


Mr. Branstool’s concern for the community does not end with promoting peace-loving toys, he contributes time and money to his community in many ways. Through his thriving business ventures, Mr. Branstool supports various charities and organizations such as public schools in the neighborhood and Brooklyn Pride with events where a portion of proceeds will go to one such charity. Of Avenue A and its residents, Mr. Branstool says he likes the community feeling and the down to earth people. However, Mr. Branstool has concerns over the way the neighborhood has been changing. He describes the building of condos, influx of wealthy residents, lowering crime rate and overall gentrification of the neighborhood that began around 2007. Mr. Branstool expresses his concern for businesses, he worries that landlords and large corporations will corner small business owners, pushing them out to make room for more condos. He states that once a lease is up, rent increases to the point that most of the profit goes to rent and the owner has no choice but to close.

Even in this tumultuous time of battle between the faceless corporation and small business, hope still remains for the small business owner in the form of the East Village Independent Merchants Association, or EVIMA. Through EVIMA, of which Mr. Branstool sits on the board, merchants are able to come together to affect change that benefits them all. EVIMA allows store owners to reach out to one another, and anyone with a storefront can become a member. In addition to protecting businesses from being evicted, EVIMA provides small business owners much valued PR including community Christmas lights and discounts to draw new people to the stores and keep residents shopping local.


I look back to the scene in front of me of customers entering and browsing all of the interesting items and see the positive effect of EVIMA, of the people who care what happens to the struggling small businesses. Mr. Branstool is in deep conversation on the phone now and employees rush to assist the newcomers. As Exit 9 begins to fill with schoolchildren and their parents in tow, I take one last look around the store and walk out the glass doors to the bustling street waiting to greet me.

The History

Avenue A in downtown Manhattan has historically been a place of diversity with many different cultures calling it home, reflected in the arrangement of stores that reside on it. Walking along Avenue A now paints a very different picture. Looking down the street, one can see construction sites on almost every block and billboards for the anticipated luxury high-rises. Whole blocks of stores are boarded up, closed to the bustle that they once saw, graffiti covering the walls where one could imagine a shop keep once stood. Of the stores that were not closed or bulldozed in the name of progress, many are high-end boutiques, hair salons, or shiny new bookstores. The majority of storefronts are glossy and new, appealing to the steady influx of the new Avenue A population. Avenue A seems like the poster child of gentrification.


Neighborhoods are fluid. What was once may not be still, and what is now may not be later. Overtime, areas change from the income to the cost of living to the very people found in them. Avenue A, or more generally the Lower East Side, is no exception. Avenue A is undergoing a radical change from an enclave of German and Ukrainian immigrants to the gentrified neighborhood it is becoming. Mr. Charles Branstool of Exit 9 Gift Emporium is well aware of the change the neighborhood is experiencing. His store being on Avenue A since 1995 and living there himself as early as 1993, Mr. Branstool was witness to the drastically changing demographics. He stated that when he first moved to Avenue A, the crime rates were high and the neighborhood was plagued with drugs. Overtime, he said, along with the high rises and Wholefoods’, the neighborhood has become safer. Safety, but at what expense? The boarded up storefronts, construction sights as far as the eye can see, and looming billboards demanding you to call a number to move into your luxury condo represent the loss of the core of the Lower East Side, the loss of culture and community.



Median Income


Housing Values

The data paints a more complete picture of the changing tides of the Lower East Side. Comparing data on Social Explorer from the 1990s and 2000s to 2014, the trends support what is already clear to the eye, Avenue A is changing. The two sets of data that make this fact painfully clear are the median income and the housing values. The median income was measured at $25,311 in 1990, now, the median income, taking into account inflation, has increased by $42,007. The change in housing values is even more drastic. In the year 2000, there were almost 25% of homes valued at $300,000 or over, while currently almost 80% of homes are valued at $300,000 or higher. Both comparisons prove that there is an influx of wealth in the neighborhood driving the prices of real estate up exponentially. The usual inferences can then be made, namely that the gentrification drives out long time residents as well as small businesses.


It is refreshing to see, however, that some things stand the test of time. The building the Exit 9 storefront is in is one such example. 51 Avenue A. Compare a picture of this building from the records of the New York City Department of Finance from 1983-1988 to a more recent Google street view image and you will find two almost identical pictures. The only telling sign is in the background where, in the most recent photo, you can see sleek new high rises protruding into the landscape. According to the Department of Finance, the building was constructed in 1929. It is nice to see in an era where new is synonymous with better that there is some history left to hold onto.


Searching further into the history of 51 Avenue A, I found two intriguing articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. One article, dating back to 1946, concerns a notorious gang that plagued the neighborhood called the Imperial Lords. According to the article, infamous gang leader Earl Livingston, also known as King Beggar, was arrested and charged with extortion after shaking down a local luncheonette owner whose storefront was located at 51 Avenue A. A patrolman was beaten by the gang in the luncheonette, fought them off, and shot one of the gang members. Reading this story that seemed to be straight out of the Godfather, I was fascinated with the colorful history of the building, not to mention the neighborhood.

Another article from 1904 mentioned a person, named Gradiel Braucke, who resided in 51 Avenue A. The headline in big bold print claimed the article as the, “Revised List of Identified Dead of Slocum Disaster.”


The article consisted of a list of names along with their corresponding addresses. Researching the Slocum Disaster, I found an article from the New York Public Library, “The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904.” The article compared the General Slocum Disaster in tragedy to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the sinking of the Titanic although less publically recognized because of it occurring very near the other two attention grabbing events. The S.S. Slocum was a side-wheel passenger ship that was hired for the day to ferry a large group of mostly German-American people residing in the Lower East Side. A quickly spreading fire started on the ship resulting in the deaths of all but 321 of the 1,358 passengers.

The Burning S.S. Slocum

The article goes on to state that this tragedy dealt a severe blow to the German-American community of the Lower East Side as the depression and suicide rates among the remaining members of the community skyrocketed following the loss of so many of their loved ones.

Learning more about the history of 51 Avenue A, the Lower East Side, and the people in it, I saw a melding of past and present. The similarity of pictures over the years, the data marking the progressively changing demographics of the neighborhood, and the stories of the daring and the dangerous created a complete history that cannot be seen simply walking down the streets of Avenue A.


“Ave A Housing Values, 2000/2014.” Social Explorer. Web. May 1 2016.

“Ave A Income, 1990/2014.”Social Explorer. Web. May 1 2016.

Dof_1_00431_0025. 1983-1988. NYC Department of Finance, New York. NYC Department of Records. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web.

“General Slocum Burning.” Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Harper’s, 15 Feb. 2005. Web.

Google Maps. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Held on Shakedown Charge.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [New York] 28 Jan. 1946: 1-2. Brooklyn Public Library Historical Newspaper Archives. Web.

Manners, Samantha. “A Good Deal.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Among the Clouds.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Avenue A.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Closed Down Storefronts.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Highrise Construction” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Lining the Walls.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Shoes on a Lamppost.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Store Owners.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Storefront.” 2016.

Manners, Samantha. “Storefront Display.” 2016.

“Revised List of Identified Dead of Slocum Disaster.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [New York] 17 June 1904: 3. Brooklyn Public Library Historical Newspaper Archives. Web.

“SS General Slocum.” Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. The National Archives General Slocum Disaster, 8 Nov. 2009. Web.

Wingfield, Valerie. “The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904.” The New York Public Library. N.p., 13 June 2011. Web.

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