I can't put a specific date on it, but I'm inclined to say that the Kmart on Astor Place opened up sometime in 1996, but I honestly don't remember voluntarily setting foot in the place until U2 held a bizarre press conference there in 1997 to kick off their ultimately flawed PopMart tour (to this day, I can't help but think back to them playing their somewhat anemic b-side, "Holy Joe" in the area where greeting cards are now sold, just north of the cash registers). Like Kmart's very placement on Astor Place itself, the event was fairly botched and ill-considered.
I didn't do any genuine shopping in that Kmart until I had kids (opting instead to buy my sundry housewares at places like Surprise Surprise on Third Avenue between 12th and 13th). But, once babies were on our scene, I was regularly dispatched to Kmart to procure diapers and accompanying gear in bulk.
Despite seeing the odd punk rock luminary in its expansive aisles (I've run into both Richard Hell and Jon Spencer within its walls), I've never warmed to the Astor Place Kmart, and I sincerely doubt I ever will. If they closed it up tomorrow, there's nothing about it I'd miss. Well, there is maybe one thing...
On the second floor of the southeast corner of the building (which, of course, used to house the department store Wanamakers, way back before my time), there's a chamber with big, beautiful picture windows that face east and south. When Kmart first opened there, that space was used as the "K Cafe." There used to be a clip on YouTube of a news report, suggesting that this little wing of the Kmart stayed true to the neighborhood's bohemian roots, and it would feature art shows and the like. Sadly, that video is no longer available, but you can see a little bit of the K Cafe in this NYU student film from 1996.
Evidently, the K Cafe didn't really take off, and it became their audio/video department for a while. The last time I was there, it looked like the place where cut-out CDs, holiday DVDs, and budget electronics went to die. Being up there is fairly depressing.
That said, the views from what was the K Cafe are still striking. If you're there with a device that takes pictures, it's hard not to succumb to the temptation of snapping a shot. I took that one up top of my kids looking south down Lafayette Street in 2011.
Last night, however, I was perusing around Flickr, and I stumble upon the shot below by one Ethan Wolff (click here to see more of his excellent photographs of NYC). I'm guessing he shot this particular photograph from that same second floor vista in the K Cafe fairly soon after the place opened. The parking lot on Astor Place is still pictured, the diner on the right hand side is just that -- still a diner and not yet a Starbuck's. Across the way, it's still Barnes & Noble (and not yet the Walgreen's, although it would morph into Astor Place Wines & Liquors between those two incarnations, if memory serves). Click on the photo to enlarge...
I've spoken at great length in the past about how I feel about Astor Place, basically how once upon a time in pretty much symbolized the gateway to everything I held dear. As we all know, Astor Place is shortly to get a radical facelift (this on top of having a couple of horrible structures already erected on it). As such, the Astor Place that I know and love will probably not be recognizable as such for much longer.
As a quick aside, the bus stop pictured above in Wolff's photo at the bottom of the image also made a fleeting cameo in Glenn O'Brien's "Downtown 81" (see below) in a scene wherein Jean Michel Basquiat is accosted by a foppish David McDermott. The acting is wooden and terrible, but it's an interesting snippet. When this scene was filmed, the diner on that corner hadn't even opened yet. Today, once again, it's yet another entirely needless Starbuck's.