For the last 25 years, a massive canvas tent has stood on the north side of East Houston Street between Bowery and Elizabeth. For the last 10, that tent has housed Billy’s Antiques and Props, an antique store that specializes in obscure objects. Owned by Billy Leroy, the store is one of the last remnants of the “old Bowery.”
This winter, however, as reported by the New York Times, the tent will come down for good and be replaced by a two-story building, part of which will include Billy’s. In keeping with the store’s current, slightly sinister atmosphere, the tent will be buried beneath the new building as a way of celebrating its importance to the history of both the store and the Bowery, which was once heavily populated with tent shops.
“It is the last of the 150-year-old tradition of resellers in this style on the Bowery. Back in the day, there were just tons of reselling shops, crazy shops where you could get cool stuff. But [the new store] is going to be in the same vein — a kind of dark and unsettling vibe, which I like,” said Leroy.
Billy’s will reopen in the fall of next year, but before it closes for construction, tribute will be paid to its current iteration. “We had this idea to do a week-long event of music and really invite all of New York to come to pay their respects to the tent and to the old Bowery. I think it will really be a positive way to bring closure,” said Leroy of the plans for the tent’s final days. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, the tent is closing! Sniff, sniff.’ But try sitting in here in winter. The conditions are rough, and I think it will be nice to have heat, maybe air conditioning. But will it be a tent with everything splattered on the sidewalk? No.”
While moving the shop inside and adding solid walls and a roof has some benefits, it also signals the end of the Bowery as it existed when Billy’s first opened. “It’s a beautiful thing, the sidewalk scene. It really is. I feel sad about that; I don’t feel joyous,” Leroy said, motioning to the rows of antique furniture and jewelry-covered tables that line the sidewalk in front of the tent.
The inside of the tent is small, made even smaller by the vast collection of objects layered five-deep around the perimeter and stacked high above customers’ heads. This atmosphere was once the norm, but over the last 10 years, Leroy has seen a clear shift in the stores that line the streets and the people who shop there. “The people who come here on the weekends have mom jeans and come here from suburbs. It’s turned into a tourist destination spot. There’s no question about that. But there are still a lot of cool New Yorkers out there.”
Despite his optimism about the store’s post-tent life, Leroy is shameless about his distaste for what the Bowery has become: “I hate it. I hate the way the neighborhood has changed. I hate the mom jeans; I hate the flip-flops. The edge of New York is what makes it such a great thing. Move to Minneapolis if you want. I think there are a lot of pretentious people here. I think there are a lot of rich people who are entitled, and boy do they get a rude awakening when they walk in here.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 5, 2011