Alan’s Alley is a Ninth Avenue Original
BY FRANK MEADE | Perhaps the most important part of Alan’s Alley is the “human touch.” I’m a fourth-generation Chelsea resident and a second-generation customer of Alan’s — but I’ve never felt like a “customer” having a “video rental experience” or a “photocopying experience” when I’ve walked into the store. No matter who is working, there is an old-fashioned “hello,” “thank you” and “take it easy” offered.
I’ve seen this neighborhood change from a good-but-tough working man’s district to a tough, bad area with drugs, prostitution and general mayhem where one would think twice about going out after dark (even the police were leery of going into certain buildings without at least two additional cars for backup).
There were great small, family-owned restaurants and bars: Maison Blanc, Crane Inn, Chelsea Steak and Chop House, Nautilus and Cavanaugh’s, Dowd’s and the old, working-man’s lunch counter at the Empire Diner, the Holland and American bars among others. These were places where locals would have dinner without breaking the bank. The portions were generous, the waiters and owners knew the customers by name, drink and table preference — and diners could enjoy a meal without being pressured to pay the tab and get out.
There were also restaurants and lunch counters on Eighth Avenue, and the 1950s and 60s equivalent of fast food at Lamston’s (or maybe it was Woolworth’s), on 23rd and Eighth, under the bowling alley. In the 1950s and 60s, Eighth Avenue was a place where you wouldn’t necessarily want to tarry after dark, but were never really “afraid.” The entire neighborhood, in fact, was a place where one felt safe — in large part because most faces were recognized even if the associated names remained fuzzy or even unknown. You knew that you were pretty much safe, simply because everyone in Chelsea looked out for everyone else. Children from London Terrace played on Little League teams at Chelsea Park with no concept of difference from their Elliott-Chelsea teammates, and their parents were guests in each other’s homes.
Unfortunately, if you didn’t grow up in a neighborhood with a lot of very different customs, languages and a broad working class (truck drivers, furriers, longshoremen, secretaries, elevator men, doctors, merchant mariners, firemen, teachers, lawyers, dentists and stockbrokers) — what today would be called multi-ethnic, polyglot and mixed socio-economic — you won’t understand the depth of those issues which, usually, were overlooked so everyone could get along with everyone else minus the introduction of artificial barriers.
A great deal of ink has lately been devoted to the commercial rent increases, which are forcing businesses on Eighth Avenue to move or permanently close. As much as I support small enterprise, I can’t help recalling that these stores (and their predecessors) were responsible for landlords raising the rents on their Spanish forerunners to unconscionable levels so the “new” Chelsea could move north from the Village, where landlords had forced them to move or die.
And now, back to Alan’s.
About twenty years ago, I told Alan that I was looking for a PBS series from ten years prior about a World War II British Army unit that dealt with unexploded bombs. I couldn’t remember the name of the series or any of the actors but Alan told me — without missing a beat — that I wanted “Danger UXB.”
That’s the difference. Alan is a professional who loves his work. In fact, it isn’t “work,” but an enjoyment that so many people, perhaps most notably the real estate interests, can’t conceive of today. He’s in business not only to make a buck and increase revenue every quarter but — how quaint can you get — to share his enjoyment and deep knowledge of an honored art form that will soon be overshadowed and then eclipsed and destroyed by unrelenting technology.
Just for the fun of it, I queried Netflix with the same question I had asked Alan.
They didn’t have a clue.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In an April 3 phone conversation, proprietor Alan Sklar told Chelsea Now that after 25 years, Alan’s Alley is “still cookin’, and we still have over 30,000 movies.” Sklar does, however, plan to close as soon as the landlord finds a new tenant. Asked if he’ll relocate, Skalr said, “Hopefully, but it might be difficult to find a place in Chelsea, which is where we’d like to be.” For the time being, you can find Alan’s Alley Video at 207 Ninth Ave., between 22nd and 23rd Streets.