RIP Pearl River Mart, the Best Place in New York to Take Your Mom 


Another New York institution will be uprooted thanks to the ever-escalating cost of rent—Pearl River Mart, hands-down the best place in the city to take your mom.

As the New York Times reports, Pearl River plans to close its current location at the end of the year. They’ll relocate, but it’ll involve shrinking the business and focusing more heavily on the Internet. “We’ll find a place off the beaten path, maybe south of Canal Street. A smaller place,” 76-year-old founder Ming Yi Chen told Gothamist. In other words it’ll survive, but in a very different form, because the essence of Pearl River Mart is its holy-shit-look-at-all-this-stuff amazingness.

The store was founded in the early 70s; the founders’ daughter Michelle Chen writes in her reminiscence at Open City:

My father (I was not yet born) proudly hawked a singular selection of bottled soy sauce, Mao’s Little Red Book (my father’s attempt to spread the Marxist gospel, without irony), cotton “kung fu” slippers and People’s Liberation Army caps. These products were familiar to many local immigrants, but exotic to most lao fan (“foreign barbarians” —what we called white people in Chinese, with irony).
As a Friendship Store, Pearl River was one of the first to offload crates of goods shipped in under newly loosened trade restrictions. It was part Fair Trade diplomacy, part nationalist enterprise, part Asian bodega, and totally New York City. When I came along a few years later in the Reagan Era, the store had moved to a larger storefront on Elizabeth Street, a few doors down from the Fifth Precinct, which policed both the old Italian mobsters and the new Chinese gangsters.

It grew into a sprawling emporium, moving in its current 30,000 square foot, three-story location on Broadway in 2003, the New York Times reports. And sure, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also fucking amazing. One of my favorite memories from living in New York City is taking my mother to Pearl River. She found some canvas window shades that were so reasonably priced it was downright scandalous. Moms LOVE Pearl River. It’s like finding the headwaters of the Nile, except the Nile is every suburban Pier One Imports. Really it’s one of those places you can take just about anybody and they’ll find something not necessary, exactly, but very exciting. Bowls? Slippers? Robes? Carpets? Small statuary? Gummy bears? They will hook you up.

It wasn’t just a place you dragged your mom, best friend from college and various assorted other visitors, though. It was also a community bulwark, as the New York Times reports:

Run with a strong, nurturing hand by Mr. Chen’s wife, Ching Yeh Chen, 68, Pearl River has provided a life for its immigrant workers for four decades. It has been a welcome alternative to restaurant and supermarket jobs for new immigrants, a place where Cantonese and Mandarin were spoken and employee banquets were held every year. The store, overseen by a board of trustees and 30 shareholders, has helped some workers apply for green cards, once had a matching 401(k) plan and still offers health insurance.

But their rent was about to jump, from $110,000 to as much as five times that, according to the Times. “There are people waiting for this space,” Mr. Chen told the Times. “Maybe H & M, one of those big chains — with big pockets.” Why tourists want to come all this way to shop at interchangeable H&M is one of the great mysteries of our time.

Photo via Venturelli Luca/Shutterstock.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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