Casa Magazines Has Seen It All

The West Village has changed a lot since the ’90s, but this palace of printed matter has remained a pillar of the neighborhood.,

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One afternoon in July 2017, Malcolm Gladwell stopped at Casa Magazines in the West Village to purchase a copy of The New York Review of Books. He started chatting with the store’s owner, Mohammed Ahmed, which led to a longer conversation about print.

Mr. Ahmed bought the store in 1994. In the early aughts, he routinely sold 300 copies of The New York Times each Sunday. Those days were long gone. On a good weekend, he was selling 200 copies.

Listening in was Happy David, a creative consultant and friend of Mr. Ahmed’s. She wondered, in light of the dwindling sales, if the owner had considered starting an Instagram account to promote his business. Within a day, she’d set up @casamagazinesnyc and posted its first photo: Mr. Gladwell at the counter with Mr. Ahmed.

Since then, the account has helped turn the shop — an old-school holdout in a city overtaken by hashtagable “experiences” — into a destination for people who long for the analog.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, nearby residents gather at the store for their morning paper and a coffee from La Bonbonniere, the cash-only diner down the block. “If I didn’t show up, they would call me and be like, ‘Where are you?'” said Alison Benson, a television producer who keeps a spare set of keys at Casa.

Twenty years ago, when she was starting her career, she said, “I would go into the shop, and they would be like, ‘Oh, this is Alison, she’s working in TV and film. Alison, you should meet Sheila, she’s a big producer.’ They were like the ultimate connectors on all things.” (Now, Mr. Ahmed and his assistant manager, Syed Khalid Wasim, known as Ali, refer 20-somethings to Ms. Benson.)

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Mr. Wasim and Mr. Ahmed are fixtures of the neighborhood.Credit…Tim Barber for The New York Times

Ms. David attested to the familiarity between the shop’s managers and its patrons. “It’s like a confessional box,” she said. “I’ve seen people tell Mohammed all these secrets. The secrets of the Village!”

Luis Lopez, a driver on the M12 bus route, which starts outside the store, often pals around with Mr. Wasim between loops. “We do skits all the time,” Mr. Lopez said.

“It feels like a grown-up Sesame Street,” said Nicolas Heller, a documentarian who shares stories about the city on his Instagram account @newyorknico.

William Grand, a D.J. who manufactures Casa’s merchandise through his company Neighborhood Spot, described Mr. Ahmed using a laser pointer to help shoppers navigate the inventory from his perch behind the counter. “They have over 2,000 titles, but he knows exactly where stuff is,” he said.

Julianne Moore would bring her children to browse every week while they were growing up. “Ali in particular was always giving my kids candy,” the Oscar-winning actress said, adding that the managers “always remember you.”

“Also,” Ms. Moore noted, “as an actor, if you end up on the cover of something and you’re a local, they’ll put 15 of those magazines in the window. It’s really sweet.”

When brands started reaching out to Ms. David to “take over” those same display windows to promote their products, she initially hesitated. “I feel like it’s a risk because Casa is an institution,” she said. But partnerships could also be a new source of revenue, especially during the pandemic. “You have to really think, ‘Does this align?’ ‘Is it responsible?'”

In 2019, Pat McGrath hosted a beauty pop-up inside Casa, calling it her “favorite store in the world.” The following year, Valentino’s American publicists — both longtime customers — asked if Mr. Ahmed would be interested in promoting the label’s first coffee table book, which featured the work of 26 independent magazines.

“I think that really raised the profile,” Ms. David said.

This fall, Searchlight Pictures enlisted Casa to boost “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s own ode to print magazines, by distributing issues of the fictional magazine at its center. As soon as the partnership was announced, Ms. David said, people all over the world started messaging her in hopes of obtaining a copy. Raymond Ang, the editorial operations manager of GQ, arrived too late to collect a magazine and fresh baguette. “By the time I got there, all the bread was gone,” he said. “And then Mohammed was like, ‘Oh, I actually hid some for you.'”

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Searchlight Pictures enlisted Casa to help promote “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s own ode to print magazines, by distributing issues of the fictional magazine at its center.Credit…Tim Barber for The New York Times

Now, Ms. David has the luxury of being selective. “November 2021 has been the most-requested month ever,” she said. “We deliberately also wanted breathing space. I don’t want to be all ‘partnership, partnership, partnership.'”

The Instagram account has been a lifeboat not only for Casa but its neighbors; when La Bonbonniere was at risk of closing during lockdown, Ms. David shared a link to the diner’s GoFundMe page, causing donations to double overnight. “She’s such a doer,” Mr. Ang said. “If you put her in a box, she’ll find a way to expand that box, push against those walls and make something different, or do it in her own way.”

Younger patrons have embraced the store, Ms. David said, noting that Ella Emhoff, the 22-year-old second daughter, has been coming “all the way from Brooklyn” to shop.

Of course, there are downsides to the exposure. The store has of late become a backdrop for social media photo shoots, despite the laminated sign reading “Please limit browsing. No photos of the content.”

On Saturday, Hannah McDevitt, a 21-year-old Wilhelmina model, visited the store to pick up the latest issue of Psychology Today, which featured her face on the cover. “I definitely want to be an influencer one day,” she said. “So I kind of take it seriously and try to find different locations.”

“We thought this would also be a cool place, kind of retro almost,” she said of Casa. While the magazines had brought her there, the store, she noted, had another valuable commodity to offer: an “aesthetic.”

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Credit…Tim Barber for The New York Times
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