I feel so lame that I’ve lived in New York for four years and never visited the Chinese emporium of Pearl River Mart until this week. Even more tacky, I worked directly across from it for two and half years as an employee of Topshop, so I saw it every day! Truthfully, it is odd I never stepped in because, generally, I love the art, food, and clothes that are birthed out of Asian culture. Asian cuisine, such as Thai, may be my favorite type of non-American food and don’t even get me started on the cute illustrations of friends in my head (the Japanese-branded) Sanrio characters like Keroppi and Sailor Moon. And anywhere I travel within the U.S., a top five question of mine is always, “Where is Chinatown?” I always found little countries within a city so cool, like a Little Italy, or Little Brazil.
Nothing gives for why I never went to Pearl River, but when I heard the news that it was planning to close this December, because of a rent hike, once again, my mood was saddened that New York changing. Just because I never shopped at Pearl River didn’t mean I didn’t care for its presence. It became a familiar face to me as a New York transplant in 2010, working in Soho. In reading a Crain’s New York Business article, I learned that their current 477 Broadway location wasn’t even their original. The family-founded store had moved there in 2003 from their first space on Elizabeth Street in 1971, and then from the corner of Canal and Broadway.
The three-level store was founded by Ming Yi Chen and his wife Ms. Ching Yeh. Chen helps oversee the business today as the president. What makes Pearl River Mart so cool and fun is that it stores 95% pure Chinese and Asian products. Tourists could explore genuine products from another land, but for those already of that culture and devoted to their traditions, it was a second home where they could get ceramic chopsticks and silk academic dresses and robe garbs.
I finally went to Pearl River on April 13, 2015. The moment I stepped in, I felt like a kid again. I wanted to touch everything. I felt pulled in every direction. I wanted to see all the goodies they had. There were so many trinkets and they’re cute and totally unnecessary, I grabbed a shopping basket and immediately placed two embroidered lipstick cases (one for my mom) and a small porcelain case with a mirror inside. As I browsed, I took pictures of lots of the items. Included on the first floor are a food and lamp selection, more so towards the back. Really cute small bags and lunch bags that look like take-out boxes, though I made a face when I realized they were sold out at the moment.
Downstairs, where I was first introduced by an in-store waterfall (soothing AF), were the kitchen wares and more shelve decor like figurines and little Buddhas. I promptly chose two Buddhas, a gold-painted and dusty lilac, and they LOL’ed into my basket. The kitchen area was practical with lots of pots, pans, and utensils but another Pearl River treat was that they sell super pretty and detailed teapots, teacups and mugs. And the prices! You could get a beautiful teapot for just $12 to $14. I felt compelled to get one, so I picked up a teacup, the last one of a specific design. I also chose a cute ice cream timer so I wouldn’t burn up any meals and breakfasts in the future (yeah, right).
On the mezzanine is a small tea bar and the top, third floor are grand sculptures of Asian soldiers and artwork. There were some expensive pieces, but on average, you could buy a piece as tall as a small suitcase for $50. It felt like being in a museum. It was kind of stunning.
I bought my items on that same floor and spent a total of $24. I was happy with my selections.
I wonder how long it would’ve taken me to visit if it wasn’t for that rent hike announcement. But like many other New Yorkers, I made sure to get to Pearl River and get some goodies before it’s farewell.
On a happier last note, Mrs. and Mr. Chen confirmed to Crain’s in an updated post that many New York-based brokers and real estate developers have reached out and that the level of business has been higher than even the “Christmastime.” Not even born and bred New Yorkers want to see the stores and landmarks that given New York City such great character fall under the money-hungry gluttony of corporate big-wigs.
View my Pearl River Mart photo gallery below!
UPDATED: Pearl River Mart officially closed after 45 years of Manhattan business on March 29, 2016. Check out this Bedford and Bowery link here about it.