Earlier this week, my comrade EV Grieve posted an entry with a headline that begged a tantalizing question, that being “Are Kmart’s Days Numbered on Astor Place?”
Having been shaking my fist— both metaphorically and literally — at the place since its opening in 1996, I was struck by a strange emotional quandary. This place I’ve reviled for so long … this place that is the literal and physical manifestation of the suburbanization of downtown Manhattan …. this place that marked the first blow against everything I’d held dear about the neighborhood … this place was …. going away?
I have a long list of posts about my doings in and around the Astor Place Kmart, most of them steeped in snark and flecked with contempt. At first, I completely boycotted the place. I don’t think I actively set foot within its cavernous three floors until 1997, when U2 held a frankly bizarre and oafishly undercooked press conference there to announce their equally club-footed PopMart tour. I remember thinking the band themselves weren’t even buying it. See below for those details.
I didn’t really have to shop at KMart (or is it K-Mart?) until about 2004, when my first child was born. I vividly remember trying to make an argument against spending our money there, but the weighty factors of immediate convenience and new-parental necessity rendered my protests moot. We needed diapers, burp cloths, wipes, bottles, baby powder and a host of other unimaginable such gear in fucking bulk on a maddeningly regular basis. I went from being a hostile KMart abstainer to a fucking regular customer in an order so short it made my head spin.
But even when my kids both moved beyond the baby stage, I found myself having to continue darkening its doors. While their stock was — and remains — by no means the highest quality, the sickly allure of convenience had me routinely repairing to it sprawling aisles for the procurement of various sundry items. In predictable course, my kids became acquainted with its toy section on its lower level. No one else in my family shares my hang-ups about the place, so I’ve just had to eat it, basically.
For picture frames and soccer balls to side-table lamps and popcorn poppers, I’ve stood on those interminable check-out lines for myriad reasons, whether to put my hand to a last-minute birthday present or secure a makeshift replacement for a crucial household item, although more often was the case that I was in there searching for some unlikely widget that they, of course, did not have, which only compounded the displeasure of the experience.
Regardless, whether I liked it or not, the Astor Place Kmart became a dependable-if-lackluster resource, and something of a neighborhood landmark, for better or worse. I know folks who swear by its restrooms, although I find their elevator scary enough that I’ve never deigned to explore those other facilities. I find it hard to imagine, but a lot of folks are probably crazy happy that the Kmart is there.
Beyond U2, I’ve (literally) run into Jon Spencer of Pussy Galore/Blues Explosion fame, and original punk rocker, Richard Hell also shopping there. I’ve probably wandered around every square inch of its spacious interior, often wondering what shenanigans have been attempted in its remotest aisles where the eyes aren’t always watching.
In 2017, the notion of there being a Kmart in downtown Manhattan no longer seems even remotely farfetched. The tumultuous two decades since its opening have seen New York City completely made over, its map covered with chainstores and big box outlets like a chronic case of the chicken pox. Once upon at time, Kmart stood out like a cow pie on a prayer rug. Now it’s basically just a field of cow-pies, to use an incongruously rural analogy.
This all said, once I read EV Grieve’s post, I was struck by that strange twinge of melancholy. As such, when out for a stroll in the unrelentingly frigid elements today, I voluntarily ducked into Kmart to find some veracity for Grieve’s report.
The first thing I noticed within, however, was several “pardon our appearance” signs, as there’s a bit of — for lack of a better term — “re-modelling” going on. I wouldn’t expect any sort of radical make-over, but plans for reorganizing on the street-level floor and the second floor don’t suggest they’re planning on going anywhere soon.
I made my way upstairs and back to the southeasterly corner of the floor, or what was originally dubbed “The K Cafe” (see this post for details). As mentioned on that older post, the K Cafe initially sought to mesh with the neighborhood’s once-storied aesthetic by showcasing work by local artists. That gesture of good will unsurprisingly didn’t take off, and the K Cafe was turned into the store’s swiftly-anachronistic audio/video department, where dated tech went to ingloriously die. Today, it seems like a forgotten space filled with boxes and ramshackle shelves full of c-list DVDs that harbor precious little promise of ever being sold. The views from those arched pictures window, however, remain striking.
Whatever its status, being inside the Astor Place Kmart is still a dreary experience, and the misty associations recounted above didn’t really temper my immediate desire to leave the premises with all speed. If the store is indeed on the chopping block, I cannot say it will entirely ruin my day, but I’d obviously be lying if I’m not somewhat sentimental about the place.
I suppose the scarier question is: What will take its place?
Oh, and here's that U2 press conference. Canada's Much Music wrongly identifies the address as "8th Avenue." They meant 8th Street, those silly hosers.