Very Old Stones at the Mercury Lounge

by Thomas Beller

06/04/2006

217 E Houston St, NY, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

The Mercury Lounge is a well-known venue for live music. All sorts of distinguished and screwed up and talented and untalented musicians have played there since the place was founded in 1993. It’s been home to a great deal of rock music.

Previously it was home to a different kind of rock.

oldstones

Before it was The Mercury Lounge, the space was occupied for more than sixty years by a company called Shastone Monuments, which made gravestones. Established in 1904, Shastone purchased the Mercury Lounge space from the Astor estate in 1932, thereby joining a thriving gravestone industry that occupied a stretch of East Houston Street. By 1993, Shastone was the last gravestone company left–and they were on their way out. I came upon the place as they were vacating it, and found a Mr. Haskell supervising the exodus.

A thin man in his forties with a narrow nose and dark hair receding in a widow’s peak, Haskell is the third generation in his family to run the business. When I ask him how the business had changed over the years, he says, "The pre-need phenomenon. It used to be that when someone died, the family would shop for a stone. Now people are taking care of things in advance. Sort of like a living will, for gravestones. "All the details, except for the final date, are specified in advance." Mr. Haskell speculates that it’s because the old system of elders staying with their family has broken down, and now there is a fear that things like gravestones will be left unattended.

I ask if Shastone is taking clearing everything out, or if they’re leaving some stuff behind. "There’re some unclaimed stones in the backyard," he says, and we go out and take a look.

It’s quiet back there, away from the daytime bustle of Houston Street. Amidst a weedy lot sit some old stones. They have an Old World feel and look, and, since they’ve been outdoors all this time, they are weathered, as though they had been standing in a real cemetery. One reads: "Beatrice Katz, May 17, 1936–Feb 10, 1949." The inscription says: "Killed by automobile crossing the street while making collection for charity."

I don’t know whatever happened to Beatrice Katz’s body, or why her family didn’t claim the stone, but should you find yourself swaying amidst the throng to some music at the Mercury Lounge, know that just outside, in a quiet back lot, it’s quite likely that Beatrice Katz is, one way or another, resting in peace.

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