Retail Churn on the Lower East Side: Checking in On Five Orchard Street Businesses
This story was first published in the April 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine:
Over the past several years, you’ve practically needed a scorecard to keep track of the comings and goings on the Lower East Side retail scene. Some of the recent departures include: menswear designer Feltraiger, which fled to Williamsburg; the Steve Madden Warehouse on Rivington Street; kids’ clothing store Honey in the Rough; and, most recently, Broome Street boutique Old Hollywood.
A lot of times, new ventures make it only a year or two before calling it quits. Stores fail, of course, for all kinds of reasons, but if there’s one common theme here it is this: perceptions about the neighborhood being a hip and trendy spot teeming with eager shoppers clash with a harsh reality. The truth, as many optimistic entrepreneurs have repeatedly learned, is that the Lower East Side, lacking a sizable daytime workforce, boasts little reliable foot traffic. Yet in spite of the challenges, new stores keep on coming, their fresh-faced owners lured by the historic neighborhood’s significant charms. The Lower East Side has long been an entrepreneurial testing ground, a place for scrappy innovators to launch new concepts. Amid the flops, there are high-profile success stories. The groundbreaking lifestyle brand Reed Space and cutting-edge men’s designer Robert James are two examples.
As the brutal winter of 2014 loosened its grip, we took to the streets last month to find out how some of the new stores are doing and to check in on a few veteran retailers in the Orchard Street shopping district. Three of the five operators interviewed have stores right next to one another on the block above Delancey Street, which is arguably about to undergo more changes than any other retail strip on the LES. Some are struggling, to be sure. Others, especially those with loyal customer bases and aggressive marketing strategies, are finding success.
Here are their stories.
ON THE WAY OUT Sheherazade, 121 Orchard St.
When Rachid Ouassil opened Sheherazade, a Middle Eastern and Central Asian home furnishings store 14 years ago, he hoped to benefit from the presence of the neighborhood’s many discount fabric stores. His business, which features beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces from international artisans, was set up to attract the many interior designers who visited Orchard Street with regularity. In the beginning, it worked; Sheherazade has been a destination for both design professionals and retail customers. But a lot has changed over the years, and a few weeks ago, Ouassil decided to close the store. Reclining in a luxurious armchair at the back of the shop one recent afternoon, he explained his decision.
“It’s not worth it anymore. It’s not profitable.” There’s not just one reason for the decline.
“The area changed,” Ouassil said. “It became more of a nightlife destination.”
Another factor is the rise of the internet. These days, designers are more likely to order furniture with a few clicks of a computer mouse than make an excursion to the Lower East Side. People who come in from the street, he added, are just browsing and are often intimidated by the look of the store, even though there are quite a few small, affordable items. After pulling down the metal gate for the last time at the end of this month, Ouassil hopes to reopen on the Upper West Side or in Chelsea, he said, in a spot “with good traffic and where they love this aesthetic.” While the LES is one of his favorite places, especially for its charm and old-world feel, he concluded that for retail, “it’s a very tricky neighborhood.”THE YOUNG GUNS Extra Butter, 125 Orchard St.
Next door to Sheherazade, it’s not uncommon to see the kids lining up outside a sleek new store for the latest limited-edition sneaker release. Extra Butter, which got its start seven years ago on Long Island, is determined to help revive the LES’s longtime reputation as a center of street fashion. The owners, including 34-year-old Jason Faustino, are indulging their love for the coolest kicks, as well as film, in the high-concept shop with a sense of humor. Vintage cameras are on display in the window and cult classics are projected inside; an early event for a Reebok release featured Mel Brooks’ Men in Tights. Extra Butter (the name is slang for fresh, premium, dope) caters to sneaker heads. The core audience, Faustino said, “is people who are into anything cutting-edge… They’re so into it, they’ve figured us out already. They have us on the map. They are people who appreciate we’ve put a lot of effort and care and passion in what we have here.”
At the same time, the store also serves more general interests and carries a line of T-shirts, hats and other accessories. The Extra Butter team always planned to come to the Lower East Side, but decided to build a strong foundation closer to home in Rockville Centre first. After opening in October, they knew Orchard Street was a good fit. “There certainly is a community feel around here, a neighborhood type of ‘have your back’ feel that made us feel at home right away,” Faustino said. In the dead of winter, there were concerns about the lack of foot traffic, but he sees business picking up on warm days. Extra Butter’s owners predict they’re on the front end of a LES street culture renaissance. “Once it gets going there’s no turning back,” Faustino said. “Enough good places get in and stay, we’re going to have a solid run here.”
OLD ORCHARD STREET Lea’s Dress Shop, 125 Orchard St.
Eugene Gluck’s mother Lea opened the family’s first dress shop on Rivington Street in 1970. In the past 45 years, it’s moved numerous times, currently operating alongside Extra Butter, in the same Orchard Street building. The decor is no-frills, but Gluck said he has never sacrificed quality; most of the dresses are imported from Europe.
“My father, my mother, they had the nicest things,” Gluck said. “Before [they opened], everything was very, very cheap stuff. After my mother, everyone started to bring in nice things.” Reminiscing, Gluck recalled the Sunday scene many years ago on Orchard Street. “Thousands of people used to walk by,” he remembered. “People used to come from all over” to buy “decent clothes at decent prices.” The crowds, of course, disappeared long ago, and business at Lea’s is half what it was in the days when the shop was perched above the legendary but now-defunct handbag store, Fine & Klein, at 119 Orchard St. “The problem,” Gluck said, is that “all these good stores are gone, so there’s nothing to come here for. They go to Soho,” or shop online and at big-box stores. “We had many good stores and they are all out of business.” His monthly rent, he said, is $8,000. In explaining how he keeps the store open, Gluck said, “we sell very expensive things” and “we have a clientele all over the United States.” But he quickly added that at the age of 59, retirement is not far away.
“There will come a time, we will all be gone, driven out,” Gluck said.
STAYING POWER David Owens Vintage, 154 Orchard St.
One block to the north, David Owens has been selling high-quality clothing and accessories, primarily from the 1940s to the 1970s, for more than 13 years. He chose a garden-level space in the middle of the block because the rent was affordable “and there seemed to be some foot traffic,” although he later learned it was mostly construction workers completing renovation projects. The neighborhood has changed a lot since the shop opened, but not necessarily in helpful ways. Business has gotten better “very, very gradually,” Owens said. “It’s more for restaurants and bars down here [as opposed to retail]… Overall, it hasn’t been easy.”
Owens has persevered, he said, thanks “to some backup financial reserves.” Others have been less fortunate. “When I first moved here,” he recalled, “so many vintage clothes people had come to the neighborhood within” a span of three years. “There were probably 20 stores within a four-block radius. Now I don’t know if there’s four or five around. All of a sudden there are a lot of galleries. The same thing is going to happen. They’re going to get weeded out.”
Owens remains upbeat, and says he loves meeting new customers, especially travelers from around the world. “I think [business] will get better. I think I can do better business, better than the last 12 years.”
A NEW YORK FOOTHOLD Quinn, 181 Orchard St. When the owners of Quinn, a Naples, Fla.-based clothing designer, decided to open a New York outpost, they looked no further than the Lower East Side. The 1,000-square-foot space at 181 Orchard St., which opened last spring, features a skylight and a wrought-iron bird cage chandelier. Quinn has been selling its line nationwide for a decade, but the local store is only the second retail location. The simple, contemporary designs focus on cashmere and silk pieces for women, as well as men.
According to store manager Latia Garcia, the “Lower East Side just seemed like the best fit,” in part because it’s an “up-and-coming” neighborhood. “We love our space.” During the cold winter months, Quinn made the best of the harsh weather, even hosting a “Snow Soiree” event. The proprietors have also concentrated on creating enticing window displays and are enthusiastic about large-scale neighborhood happenings, such as the Lower East Side BID’s annual Pickle Day.
“The LES is like a little secret society,” Garcia said. “It’s a perfect location. We wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
BID Focuses on Events, Advocates For Office Space
The Lower East Side Business Improvement District exists, in part, to draw more shoppers to the neighborhood and to promote stores, restaurants and cultural attractions. Initiatives such as an annual neighborhood guide, a revamped website and robust special events are aimed at creating new energy in the old “bargain district,” said Tim Laughlin, the organization’s executive director.
But, Laughlin added, “no organization, no amount of money” can totally address what he calls the “foot traffic dilemma.” For several years, the BID has advocated for more office space. Few commercial buildings on the Lower East Side are big enough to support mid-size to large companies. Laughlin is hopeful, however, that Essex Crossing, the large-scale development coming to a six-acre site along Delancey Street, will be a game-changer. The project is expected to include a significant amount of office space, as well as an incubator and major attractions such as a movie theater. The hope is that Essex Crossing will provide a steady stream of customers who will patronize local businesses.
In the meantime, the best advice for small businesses looking at the LES seems to be this: do your homework. No, you’re not going to find Soho-like crowds beating down your door. But Laughlin maintains the neighborhood is an ideal place for shop owners in search of a “unique flavor” and a strong “community feeling.”
“I believe the Lower East Side is a place where businesses can make their mark,” he said.