During the economic downturn, it has, of course, been commonplace to see shuttered businesses on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown. But a closing we heard about this week is especially significant. Sinotique, Jan Lee's antique, home furnishings and custom furniture store on Mott Street is shutting down its Manhattan location. Lee will reopen the store in DUMBO, where he already has a warehouse and workshop.
The Lee family has been a fixture on Mott Street since 1890. They own two tenement buildings between Mosco Street and Canal. The ground-floor store has gone through several incarnations. It was a laundromat, a shoe store and a dry good store, before Lee opened Sinotique in 1992. The decision to close has been a topic of conversation in the neighborhood this week not only because of the family's legacy in Chinatown but also because Lee is an outspoken community activist.
I stopped by the store yesterday to talk with Lee about the reasons for closing Sinotique. He said that his business, which had become a favorite destination for designers all over the city, never fully recovered from 9/11. Dozens of stores closed their doors since 2001, as foot traffic was drastically diminished, and permanent street closures made getting to businesses by car almost impossible.
He's been juggling the Manhattan and Brooklyn locations up until now, but it's been a struggle. While the family owns the space, there are still substantial operating costs that simply became too burdensome, especially as the recession dragged on. The space has been leased to a health insurance company. Lee said it was important to him that an unsavory business didn't go into the building.
In spite of the move to Brooklyn, the family will remain a major presence in Chinatown. Lee has helped lead the opposition to the city's reconfiguration of Chatham Square and campaigned vigorously for Bill Thompson. He considered running for City Council last year. In the months ahead, look for Lee to be opposing a campaign to expand the LES Business Improvement District into Chinatown.