I didn’t want this to be one more lament about the loss of another unique, one-of-a-kind NYC institution that bites the dust because of yet another insane rent hike, but there’s nothing for it, that is what this is. Back in the Spring it was reported in The New York Times, and other local newspapers, that Pearl River Mart, the huge emporium of Asian goods and sundries, will be closing its doors at the end of this month. According to that Times article back in April, the store’s president, Ching Yeh Chen, said the rent for the 30,000-foot store at 477 Broadway was likely to jump from about $110,000 a month to five times that. Do the math; that is nuts. That part of Broadway already has enough Sephoras, H&Ms, Downtown Bloomingdales, Victoria’s Secrets, Sunglass Huts, Aldo Shoes, Banana Republics, Kenneth Coles, tacky t-shirt and sneaker lofts and other shopping mall chain store outlets and franchises that the only thing worth that much rent is a dry docked cruise ship or a Soho outpost for Disney World. Broadway between Canal Street and Houston Street is now a full-time miasma of consumerism. It is no longer the rarefied enclave of art and originality that was once its main draw for tourists and locals.
A long time ago in a city far, far away in the mists of nostalgia, Soho was chic, cool and cutting edge; Chinatown bordered it like Mos Eisley, that dusty and menacing space station of planet Tatooine in ‘Star Wars’. Soho once had elegant and artistic shops like the Robert Lee Morris jewelry gallery, If Boutique and Patricia Field, and Chinatown was, and still is, the place for the best noodles, soup dumplings, herbs, fresh fish and produce, asian imports, bootleg handbags, jewelry and tourist stalls full of t-shirts, cheap bling and watches and bongs. At the apex of all that Asian ephemera was the Pearl River Mart, which first opened its doors in 1971, on Catherine Street, deep in the flux of Chinatown’s dense satellite world. It eventually occupied multiple floors of an old building on Canal Street near Broadway, each floor full to bursting with exotic goods imported from China. Racks and racks of kung fu shoes, Bee and Flower soap, incense and burners of every variety, herbs, cosmetics, bamboo mats, ceramic flatware and bowls and tea pots, playful chopsticks with animal heads, paper lanterns, tiny buddhas, dragons in every shape and size, kimonos of cotton and silk and brocade, Cheong Sam gowns, packages of ramen and tea and soba noodles and mochi and bottles of every kind of soy sauce and mirin and rice wine for cooking. And so much more.
When Pearl River Mart moved to Broadway just north of Grand Street, its current location, the ambiance became decidedly more posh, with a newer space, higher ceilings and an air of zen calm. The ratchet old building with its scary elevator and narrow staircase was replaced with a sort of temple reminiscent of the Ming dynasty, with water falling down a wall leading to the lower floor and live bamboo plants. Huge paper mache dragons undulate along the ceilings. Furniture and lighting was added to the inventory, and the racks of silk embroidered jackets, kung fu pants, blouses, t-shirts, dresses, kimonos and shoes are now displayed with the care of a high end retail store. Dainty Chinese slippers with panda bears and embroidery are displayed along with chic embroidered satin handbags and duffels; keychains of the sort favored by Tokyo school girls and hologram makeup mirrors mix with tote bags emblazoned with colorful fantasy figures and pop propaganda slogans. There are racks of chic wool dresses and tunics and capes and shawls in plain solid colors or bearing subtle embroidery. It’s not quite Shanghai Tang or Takashimaya; those upscale Asian department stores didn’t last in NYC either, but it has the vibe of coming close to that kind of Far Eastern chic.
The thing about Pearl River Mart is not that it is just another store specializing in Asian goods that you can find anyplace in Chinatown, or anywhere on Fifth Avenue near the Empire State Building for that matter. It is the experience that it offers. Walking through the doors, one leaves the overcrowded sidewalks of Broadway and enters into a serene world that seems presided over by Buddha himself. Pearl River Mart is the perfect place to find a very special greeting card or many little items to stuff into a gift bag or a silk embroidered gown when in the mood for some Beijing style chic. If you are into tea, you can find every type of authentic tea set with creamers shaped like animals to go along with it. There is a huge selection of kitchen tools and pots, pans, woks, steamers and appliances; the sort that cost a fortune at a Williams Sonoma, but are just as cool and more affordable at Pearl River Mart. Packages of ramen are under a buck and there are loads of Asian snack foods and soft drinks and candies.
Pearl River Mart was slated to close its doors at the end of this month, but now the date is set for sometime in mid-February. On a recent visit the store was full of shoppers loading up on Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers, which Pearl River Mart has by the truck load. There was an assortment of colorful wool unicorns and dragons, all made by hand by low income women in Nepal, perfect gifts for eco-conscious friends and family; Christmas ornaments shaped like peacocks and tree lights and animal mobiles and greeting cards and rolls of whimsical wrapping paper and even paper lotus flowers to affix to the top of gift boxes. Pearl River Mart has been a resource for unique gifts for years for this writer, as well as a place to just wander around and pretend that the cheesy commercialism of lower Broadway doesn’t exist for a few magical moments. For a deeper understanding of what New York City will lose when the store closes its doors for the last time in February, no better authority on the subject is the owner’s daughter, Michelle Chen, a writer who still lives in New York City. You can read her paen to her parent’s achievement here.
Pearl River Mart
Address: 477 Broadway, New York, NY 10013