Updated: Oct 15, 2021
This week I caught up with my old friend John Mosloskie, a multitalented artist who croons under the solo moniker Gutter Sparrow, has toured with the likes of The War On Drugs, and more recently has turned his hand toward bringing discarded and forgotten treasures back from the dead, giving them new life and indeed new homes. This newest venture, The JEM Bazaar – a NYC-based vintage furniture repair and resale operation with a penchant for unique finds & mid-century gems – seems to be blowing up, and rightfully so… John’s eye for old gold rings true as his pitch, and his restoration work is top notch.
I’ve known John for almost ten years now: we collaborated musically on numerous productions by The Space We Make in and around NYC, he helped my partner finish renovating our house in Maine just before my daughter was born, and just last summer he joined me as a resident artist at the inaugural season of CA+MP, an artist residency program in upstate New York. I got to spend a week listening to him craft new songs inside an abandoned church in what can only be described as alchemy through mountain air, forgotten spaces, and a year of grief and change working its way through to the light of day.
The whole time I've known John he's been the consummate tinkerer – always fixing random objects, old pieces of audio equipment, even houses. That's why I'm so excited to catch up with him here to talk about how he turned his predisposition for tinkering from a hobby to a full-fledged career. And as with most good stories, it's not exactly a linear path. From starting a new life in another country to finding himself in one of the early epicenters of the pandemic, a forced return to a ghost-like New York to answering one fated Craigslist ad that set him on his new path, John's story is inspiring – and a cool reminder of the power of remaining open to the gems that life kicks your way.
CS: John, I love you. Thanks for doing this. I’m so excited to hear about what you’re doing.
JM: Love right back at you!
CS: We go back awhile now, and I always start by asking folks to kind of explain how we know each other, in their words...
JM: How we know each other… that could be a beautiful album title. Well we met at Upper Jay Arts Center in the Adirondacks in 2012, and I recall us as strangers being paired up and writing a song about water, and lying in the long grass of your grandparents’ home in the soft sun beside a babbling stream. Magic moments that I think laid some fertile groundwork for the collaboration that followed. I think that we know each other through our friendship, which has traversed drama and tears but has always felt light because of its constant laughter.
A Hundred Moods, our first musical collaboration.
CS: I love our first song!!! BUT: what I really want to talk about right now is The JEM Bazaar. I suppose it feels appropriate to start back in time a little bit, as I know you took kind of a circuitous route over the last few years in getting to where you are now, and it's truly one of those pandemic-life-rearranging tales. So for starters, when did you first launch The JEM Bazaar?
JM: I launched The JEM Bazaar back in 2015. My full name is John Elio Mosloskie, so it’s just my initials. When I started it I was repairing vintage guitar amplifiers and selling musical gear, something I was doing for fun.
CS: And did you always plan for this to turn into a full-time business?
JM: No! It was really only a part-time hustle at first, but I actually retired my bazaar-dom at the beginning of 2017 as I was preparing to move to Rome, Italy, where I was following a budding romance with an amazing woman who is still my partner Giulia. I ended up working in an entirely different sector there – tourism – but our apartment was always occupied with audio projects I was trying to repair, or items of interest I was finding at the mercati. Rome has great fleas!
But yeah, I guess you could say that most of my time was spent as a tour guide. By day I was a running guide giving tours of the city. I'd take groups out for 6k tours, or even private tours for up to 10k at a time. Your breathing gets very regulated when you have to give the history of Rome for 45 minutes and keep your client occupied while moving. It's a crazy business. The rest of the day I would spend on golf carts, touring clients while careening over the black basalt cobbles called sampietrini, and shouting over the rushing wind and traffic while trying not to lose my voice or one of my passengers overboard. I did whatever I damn well pleased on those vehicles... that’s how you drive as a Roman. Helps I was born in Jersey.
CS: Wow, okay, so it seems like the furniture (or musical equipment) revival stuff was kind of sidelined for awhile. Were you still writing music in Italy? And if so, how was the landscape and culture there affecting your creative process at that time?
JM: It didn’t have an immediate creative effect if that makes sense. Rome makes a big impression on a visitor, but it’s the subtleties of it that are even more interesting. I can say that what is amazing for a lover-of-history like myself is the monumental effort of preservation subsidized by the Italian government and other private entities.
Being a guide and repeatedly encountering the same spaces again and again allowed me to see them in different lights and times of day, approach them from different angles and, depending on my mode of transport, different speeds. All these vectors and trajectories enriched the way I look at structure in general.
CS: There’s kind of a connection then, between moving through a place and, well, truly noticing...
JM: Yes! I mean, I find a lot of my best wares for The JEM Bazaar now while I've driving around New York. You have to be open in order to see the gems. But it relates to music too. In my song "The Waker Dreams," there’s a line that says “time is not a line, but a collapsing ring of hopes and shades and fates where we have all come to be seen.” That’s a meditation inspired by the architecture of the Colosseum, which I saw from shifting vantage points countless times. Those places live within me now.
John sings "Clear Light of Morning," off his album The Waker Dreams.
CS: But all of that changed in 2020…
JM: So when we were celebrating New Year’s 2020 I joked that “2020 gonna be big.” Unfortunately it was the other big.
CS: I can imagine that being in Italy during the first leg of the pandemic must have been pretty wild. What was it like?
JM: Well what’s crazy is that while the virus was starting to get newsworthy, I was in and out of Rome. Tourism is really slow in the winter months, so I was doing set dressing work with a friend in New York to drum up money for studio time for a new album. I made most of that record, and was scheduled to return to Rome on March 20, but the EU announced the closing of its borders to foreigners on March 16, effective the next day. I had to get back to my partner so I bought a one way ticket and somehow entered a very locked down Italy.
Rome was spared the full brunt of Covid thanks in part to the national restrictions.
You could only go to the supermarket and the pharmacy. That’s it. You had to carry a paper called an autocertificazione stating why you were out and where you were going.
There was legislative vacillating about being outside for one’s health, and they ended up deciding walking within 200 meters of your dwelling was okay. Well I broke that rule because I wanted to remain sane, and running centers me. We had this beautiful reserve in our neighborhood called il Parco dell’Aniene, and I would do night runs under the moon. And if I did day runs I would just trust I could outrun the authorities. But yeah, there was no work. And no signs as to when I'd be able to find work again.
CS: That’s intense on so many levels. Along with the shock of the pandemic first hitting and all the fear associated with it, to have the new life you'd been building kind of blow up is a tough pill to swallow. How long had you been in Italy at that point?
JM: 3 years.
CS: And you had been intending to stay, before covid hit?
JM: I was. But I eventually decided to return to New York on May 4, which was the end of Italian lockdown. Seems counterintuitive, but tourism’s death knell had pealed and I couldn’t access any American pandemic-related unemployment benefits from afar. It was really an issue of economic survival at that point. So I left a liberated Italy just to enter a locked down New York.
CS: What was it like when you got back? Was it the same New York?
JM: It was a very different place. I remember my journey from JFK airport on the Air Train and the lightly trafficked highways, the ghost town subway ride to Bushwick where I exited the Wilson Ave L, hauling my suitcase past all the closed establishments. I was staying at first with my dear friend Dave who always made his place a home for me in the past, and who checked in with me constantly while I was in Rome – he had lived abroad too, and understood the struggles of displacement that entails. We were basically bosom buddies for that first month I was back, doing odd jobs together that I was finding on Craigslist, and home improvement projects for friends and family.
One of the ads I responded to was looking for someone to fix a broken lamp. I brought my soldering kit over to the client's place, who happened to be none other than Ed Be from Lichen. In the furniture and design world, that's a name you’ll recognize if you’re in the know. He asked me if I could do some small scale deliveries for the store and of course I agreed. Dave had a Chevy Astro van which made it a breeze.
As a driver, lockdown New York was perversely the most beautiful time I can recall.
You could go anywhere with no impediments and no oversight – that was all saved for the protests, sadly. Those were the moments that New York felt downright strange: boarded up Manhattan, overhead surveillance, apocalyptic imagery, really. Feeling like we might be on the brink of things really exploding. But it didn’t, and I think that speaks to the character of New Yorkers.
CS: I can’t imagine the strangeness and grief of this time. But that story about the lamp is pretty incredible... it feels like a stroke of fate, given where you're at now.
JM: Fate’s the right word. I have a song called “Follow The Wind” which sort of encapsulates the way I view life as a gift giver... and keeping your sails open to its currents.
I know a lot of folks were suffering from the internal spiral that the pandemic sucked them into, but just being proactive and choosing to believe something good could come from a simple act like responding to a Craigslist ad literally changed my life.
Through the deliveries I made for Lichen, I was introduced to other dealers in the ecosystem, and then it naturally flowed into my own collecting!
CS: And so like Ed Be's lamp, The JEM Bazaar was, well, resurrected.
JM: It was!
CS: It seems both daunting and exciting to take the leap into starting your own operation, especially in an economic and political landscape that was still pretty unstable. What was this transition like?
JM: I was starting from zero and still room hopping around Brooklyn. So at first I was acquiring things that brought me comfort and that I could envision in my future place. I wasn’t looking at it as a business proposition per se, but rather following my gut, and this little voice inside that was telling me I might be able to make something of these objects.
Kind of like I mentioned before about the idea of being open to life's gifts, I feel like I went through this subtle transformation where I had my eyes open all the time – as I was driving around making deliveries, or scouring Craigslist for more work. I started to see gems everywhere.
CS: I love the concept of riding this line of discovery as a form of recovery, both personally and in the actual practice of bringing new life to old objects.
JM: One of the ways I found I could acquire things at a decent price was repairing broken items.
The thing about repair, though, is that it’s a commitment. First you have to see the dilapidated and believe it would be better off rehabilitated, no matter its current state. Second, you have to be willing to put in the time to deconstruct it and have faith you can put it back together again.
Lamp repair, via @thejembazaar (2021)
One of my first design repairs was a cushion-less Bowery and Grand Z chair which had its arm completely shorn off and was in shards. With glue and clamps and sandpaper I brought it back to life, and today it’s the chair that my partner sits on every morning to journal. That brings me joy.
CS: In the midst of the ongoing pandemic weirdness, how did you actually set up your business? Where do you keep your furniture? Where you find it?
JM: So I effectively run The JEM Bazaar out of the city and most of my clientele right now are New York-based, but a few months into the project I acquired some out of state storage which also affords me workspace. I’ll go there two days a week for restoration and sourcing and then return to the city with items I’ve sold or am hoping to put on the market soon. Of course I’m always on the prowl for items within town, too. Last week I had my eye on this torn up chair on Facebook that had an almost Pierre Jeanneret vibe, saw it was sold. Oh well, right? You’re going to get beat, it’s part of the game. Crazy thing though – walking to the subway the next morning, there it is sitting by the garbage pile. Sold to the lowest bidder! I can’t wait to get cracking on it.
CS: I feel like every time we talk or text nowadays you’re pulling a U-turn to go grab something off of a street corner or trying to wrangle a table onto the subway. It’s so cool. I feel like you’re kind of uniquely tuned to this kind of work… you have to be so open all the time to noticing your surroundings, and to seeing more deeply into what objects and landscapes might hold. Kind of like your response to the architecture – and really the energetics of antiquity – in Italy, and even how you have to remain open as a songwriter… licks, lyrics, whole songs can hit at any moment. But it takes a certain kind of person to be really open to them arriving, and to capturing them when they do.
JM: As a child I was a collector of things – baseball holofoils, Star Wars figurines – and then as I got into music, it was foreign releases of singles from my favorite bands, guitar and keyboard rarities. Collecting is kind of innate thing for me.
A key to my mentality, though, was my first job working for my Dad in New Jersey. He ran a property maintenance company, and for about a decade I was literally in the dumpsters of strip malls every day. I lived and breathed the garbage of a society consuming itself like a madman.
Often people would bring their home refuse and illegally dump it in parking lots, and you better believe there were gems in the rough; steamer chests, mid century settees, Leslie organs, you name it, that I brought home. Not only was I predisposed by nature towards this energy of acquisition but nurture encouraged me to follow it.
CS: How does this theme of reclamation or redemption spill over into your music?
The whole raison d’etre of Gutter Sparrow is to be someone who picks up the scraps and fashions them into something structured, something safe, something a little more like home.
As a songwriter you have to have your powers of observation dialed in, and also be able to store the images and words away – then the music pulls those things from the cedar chest and the tapestry begins its weaving. I’m also a believer in the imagery and the feelings experienced in dreams, and sometimes, albeit rarely, the muse visits you there.
I was lucky enough to be visited one night by Nina Simone. She sang a song called Nightingale, and I could still remember it upon waking. That song is on one of my forthcoming albums. Dreams are treated as figments of the imagination by our Western science brains, but I’m of the opinion that that's where we touch our truest selves.
John describes learning a new song from Nina Simone in a dream. Upper Jay, NY.
CS: I was lucky enough to hear that song – it’s absolutely beautiful. It feels like it was truly channeled.
JM: It was, and that’s probably why you felt that way!
CS: I can’t wait to hear the album. When is it coming out and where can we find it?
JM: Well, I’m happy to say it’s actually two albums that I’ll be releasing in 2022. One is called Letters From Rome, and the other, Windows On The Floating World. The rest of my catalogue is up on streaming services like Spotify, and you can also buy cassette and vinyl of past releases through my Bandcamp page.
CS: Since we’re on the topic of music – last summer when we were up at the residency together, you used an old, unused church as your studio. Another haunted space. And you put some of your JEM Bazaar restoration skills to good use… wanna tell everyone about it? It was probably the coolest thing I’d seen all year.
JM: Dan Christoffel is this fascinating painter and sculptor from New York who bought a decommissioned Methodist Church and made it into an art space to interface with the community there. He allowed me to use the space during our residency to explore some new tunes I was writing. In the sacristy he has an impressive LP collection, some of which are red vinyl 78s of carillonic bell hymns.
From the street I saw a speaker combo up in the steeple, so I climbed up there from the narthex and followed the wire, fed it down and connected it to a turntable and amp. Now you can play Charlie Parker or Beethoven direct from the belfry.
CS: Your restoration skills know no bounds...
JM: They’re bound I assure you.
CS: Not that I've seen, anyway. The amazing thing about all of this, this whole story – from Italy to New York, the pandemic and everything else that happened – is that it has really led to a new life for you, .
JM: Isn’t it crazy when you look back at your life and you see very clearly the forks in the road, the paths not taken, and the story taking shape? Then there are the subtle gradations, micro-choices on the daily level that change your course, along with those beautiful surprises that come from the ether. I’m hopeful for what’s coming.
CS: And The JEM Bazaar is really growing fast. I’ve been following you on Instagram and everything looks SO GOOD. From the pieces you find to the photos… it kind of blew up in what feels like a really short period of time. What’s happening with The JEM Bazaar now and where are you hoping to take it all?
JM: Thanks! Instagram has been my main milieu and I am super appreciative of folks like Dutch Oven Finds, Doubles Tennis and Angular Vintage for tagging me in their stories and posts and helping spread the word organically.
There’s a lot of savvy folks that understand the algorithmic quotient of the industry and using it to spur growth but that doesn’t turn me on: word of mouth, good customer service and kindness are what matter at the end of the day. And not breaking the merchandise.
For 2022 I’m working on rolling out an easy scroll mobile site for direct purchase, and some big rebranding, splitting up the Bazaar into three dedicated Instagram handles.
CS: Yay! I can't wait to see the Bazaar's next iteration! And I love your aesthetic – it’s definitely centered around mid-century items, but it's also pretty eclectic in terms of the kind of items you choose, as well as the materials they’re made of. There are really shiny glossy chrome features, as well as upholstery, Danish woodwork, and even decorative items like that big leopard statue I saw awhile back. How would you describe your aesthetic, and how do you choose the items you work on?
JM: The midcentury is always popular for good reason, but it’s just a law of attraction. I have turn-of-the-century pieces and contemporary too.
CS: So here’s the million dollar question: Where can people find your stuff now? Do you still hope to mostly serve the metropolitan area? How else can folks access your wares and your restoration skills?
JM: Following my Instagram is the best way to find me now, and where I post all new items. I can deliver within a 100 mile radius of NYC, and of course shipping is also an option!
CS: John, thanks for doing this. You’re such a crazy talent in this world. I love what you’re building, and how you got here after such a tough year. I can’t wait to hear your new albums and see what happens next with The JEM Bazaar. I think everyone needs to be following you in both these ventures. Where can we find everything, and how can folks get in touch with you?
THE JEM BAZAAR
~ DM for inquires on his wares ~
~ New items featured in IG stories ~