WANDERING THE AISLES OF OUR MEMORIES: REFLECTING ON THE CLOSING OF PEARL RIVER MART – SINOVISION ENGLISH by LANI NELSON APRIL 14, 2015
By now, most visitors to the Chinatown and SoHo shopping areas have felt the hard hit of disappointing news: this December, the iconic Pearl River Mart will close its doors, folding under the weight of an astounding fivefold increase in rent from $100,000 to $500,000 per month, which will take effect once its lease expires at the end of the year.¹
When Pearl River Mart opened its first store on Catherine Street in the early 70’s, it wasn’t just a wellspring of Chinese tchotchkes and knickknacks.² Originally established as a Maoist-inspired “Friendship Store” 8 years before formal diplomatic relations would be established between the US and the PRC,³ it was one of the only stores in the country offering openly imported goods from mainland China.⁴
Today, the gargantuan emporium boasts 30,000 square feet over 3 floors of retail space in which visitors can explore and purchase Chinese throwback goods, snacks and teas, home décor, and more.⁵ While in today’s New York City it is hardly difficult to come across the nostalgic, esoteric inventory like that carried by Pearl River Mart, it has nonetheless secured a special place in the hearts of tourists and regulars alike.
As the physical storefront begins to gradually pack itself up, the owners of Pearl River Mart are making an effort to expand and develop their online store, continuing their legacy in a contemporary e-commerce fashion.⁶ However, the impending loss of the physical shopping experience, which has left such a deep impression on the store’s visitors, has prompted many to think back on their experiences with the store. In spite of being located just blocks from Chinatown proper, it is appreciate by many for the unique shopping experience it offers, which for many, whether or not they ultimately make a purchase, is like a virtual excursion to China over the ages.
Sara Miranda, Student, New York, New York
“I remember going to the original location when I was 14 or so…, the first time I stepped in to the new Pearl River, I felt like I was entering a museum in China—one that you could buy things, even if you only had a few dollars on you!
I usually buy bowls, cups, lamps (they have so many types—not just Chinese or Japanese style), tea, tea pots, and gifts for other people…They have something for everyone: Chinese slippers, artwork, fountains, swords, furniture, Japanese dolls, Asian instruments, and more.
I’m not sure if I would [shop online] because Pearl River’s atmosphere is what attracts customers. We can buy these products from Amazon and other sites! It’s a different experience to actually be there and feel a Mandarin dress in your hands. The feeling of being surrounded by traditional tea pots and cups is really distinct from just scrolling through a website.
Our city might be multicultural, but Chinese culture (or any Asian culture) is still seen as exotic despite the fact that Asians have lived in America since the 1800’s…Buying chopsticks, eating out [of] Chinese bowls, and decorating their homes with traditional art will make people see the similarities as opposed to the differences between eastern and western culture. They’ll become accustomed to the differences and will focus on the similarities instead!
I will miss the feeling of taking a mini trip to China! If only I could bottle the feeling the Pearl River makes!”
Annamaria Alfonso, ESL Teacher, Queretaro, Mexico
“My first experience with Pearl River Mart was a most pleasant accident about 12 years ago…I had always found “Asian” things beautiful and was excited to roam around the store. I remember being completely blown away by the size of the first floor, and was slightly overwhelmed when I realized that there was a huge downstairs, too! I had never seen that many Chinese goods of such variety in one location.
My visits to Pearl River Mart did not typically end with a purchase. They were more mini vacations. I would roam aisle after aisle full of beautiful and interesting things, mind whirling with a million questions, and heart wishing I could go see the place where each of these items were born.
I found the items in the basement to be the most interesting, and unusual. There were so many different teas, food items, and kitchen gadgets that I was unfamiliar with… The products in that basement were a reminder of how little I knew, and how much there was to learn!
The experience of the store – the real [beauty] of it – is completely lacking with the online version. There is no music, no other shoppers, no delicious smells, no visual stimulation in the way that one would experience stepping into the store for the first, or fiftieth time.
Sino-American relations certainly come a long way since the 70’s. But this store is a NYC icon. It will be a great loss to the local community, and to those of us that traveled hours just to meander through its beloved space.
I will miss being able to browse the basement level, not wondering what all that stuff is used for, but rather looking for things I absolutely need and can’t get in suburbia! It was a link to my short, but significant stay in China, and a place I could go when I was missing what I have come to think of as my second home.”
Sam Burrell, Hudson Valley, New York
“My main interest in Chinese culture is because of martial arts. Since I got into martial arts though I have started studying Mandarin and been to China twice, as a result of that I also have come to love drinking good tea.
I think the first time I was there my mom took me, it was awesome. Love going to that place and looking at the big wall of tea… Also trinkets from downstairs and occasionally cooking utilities, but mostly good tea.
I would still shop on their online store a bit I suppose, but it was just so nice to be able to go in there and sit down for a nice cup of tea. To feel and smell the products in person, to get to know the teas before I decide which ones to get.
It would be wonderful to keep it around, I love stopping in there and it is a great place to take people who are just visiting the city for a break in the shopping in SoHo… I’m gonna miss the teas. Such good teas, the big wall of teas. Such a great sight.”
Annie Wong, Student, Rochester, New York
“I’m a first generation Chinese American. My parents are from Hong Kong and Guangzhou. I’ve been born and raised in Brooklyn all of my life, and am looking to reconnect with my heritage.
I first stepped into Pearl River Mart close to 4 years ago… I usually buy calligraphy brush pens and novelty candies… I found the novelty items, handmade papers, clothing, and the lighting items to be the most interesting to me.
NYC is always shifting and stores have come and gone. But I do wish that Pearl River Mart could’ve persevered since it does a good job in making the foreign Chinese culture more accessible and friendly to those who are not familiar with it. In my opinion, it will soon become a place store go-ers would reminisce about in old age.
I’ll miss knowing that the one place I feel a sense of connection to my heritage, no matter how commercialized it has become, is gone from the brand centric strip of [SoHo].”
Melissa Chen, Student, New York, New York
I cannot remember my first time at Pearl River Mart, but I’m pretty sure I had been brought in by a cousin when I was pretty young (elementary school age). It feels the same every time I walk in though because nothing really changes in there.
I am fascinated by tea cups and teapots and ceramic bowls. There’s a lot of novelty items in Pearl River – like the musical instruments downstairs (don’t know the names of them), or toys (like finger traps) that you don’t see everywhere else.
The store isn’t needed in this day and age. Its purpose for being can be found dispersed along the Chinatowns across the city. However, to have one establishment that holds all of these items and ornaments in the store which are so characteristic of the Chinese culture to be in the middle of a tourist location is hard to come by.
I am really sad about Pearl River Mart closing, though not surprised. It’s definitely a landmark for me because of its location and its existence in my own history. It served more than as just a store, it was kind of like a museum and an entryway for people to look into what Chinese material culture was.
I will miss the smell, the replicas of the members of the Terracotta Army, the wall waterfall, the candy, the ceramic bowls and teapots, the weird trinkets, and the helpful salespeople.”
¹ Pasquarelli, Adrianne. “Famed Pearl River Mart Will Close Its SoHo Department Store.” Crain’s New York Business. April 7, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20150407/RETAIL_APPAREL/150409927/famed-pearl-river-mart-will-close-its-soho-department-store.
² Chen, Michelle. “Good Fortune, Long Life.” Open City. April 7, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://opencitymag.com/good-fortune-long-life.
³ “30 Years of U.S. – P.R.C. Diplomatic Relations.” Embassy of the United States Beijing – China. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/bilateral.html.
⁴ Chen, Michelle. “Good Fortune, Long Life.” Open City. April 7, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2015.
⁵ Pasquarelli, Adrianne. “Famed Pearl River Mart Will Close Its SoHo Department Store.” Crain’s New York Business. April 7, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20150407/RETAIL_APPAREL/150409927/famed-pearl-river-mart-will-close-its-soho-department-store.
⁶ Nguyen, Michael D. “End of an Era: New York’s Famed Pearl River Mart Is Closing.” NBC News. April 10, 2015. Accessed April 10, 2015. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/pearl-river-close-after-44-years-bringing-china-nyc-n338511.
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