China in Clinton

Manhattan's Last Great Emporium Addresses the Balance of Trade

A German stylist has just wiped out the entire stock of bandana parasols. An Italian fashion editor is around the corner stuffing her basket with handwoven straw shoes. A clutch of window dressers down the aisle is stocking up on rice paper lanterns. And a Very Famous Decorator is at the register slapping down Platinum for a table made from roots. Clinton in China? What's the big news? Clinton's already in china, take a right at the birdcages, pass the rice steamers, and it's there, on the third floor at Pearl River Mart.

It's in this unlikely but essential Canal Street location that half the male population between West 16th and 23rd Streets seems to stock up on essential housewares for the summer place on Fire Island. It's in this two-story dump that the last, best dry goods store in New York City can be found.

Is Pearl River Mart, Inc., a secret? Not to the cognoscenti. The fashion magazine doesn't exist that hasn't featured the store as a secret resource. And in the design trades, Pearl River is an inexhaustible source of "ideas." The fringed crimson Chinese lanterns once so strikingly used to set off hideously expensive and futuristic stereos in the Bang & Olufsen windows were bought at Pearl River. So were the neo-Noguchi lamps deployed at Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue. For a dance company benefit last week, society florist Robert Isbell took massive Pearl River lanterns and turned them into paper moons, skewered on the sort of gnarled branches rarely seen in nature. And in a fit of colonialist delirium, a British shelter magazine highlighted Pearl River's neon plastic washtubs as a "hot" new find.

"You got sleepers for babies?" a Barcelona tourist inquires one sweltering Tuesday, and immediately wishes he'd never asked.

As a stock clerk makes clear, Pearl River does carry slippers in all sizes and for all ages and in materials ranging from straw to rubber to cotton to corduroy and they have baby sleepers, too. At Pearl River the goods are stocked without prejudice and according to some mysteriously democratic principle that sorts ledger books next to turkey-feather hand fans, duct tape alongside boxes labeled "Traditional Flying Carp," car-seat covers resembling UFO consoles above displays of Bee & Honey soap. Look for the vinyl tablecloths if you want a hairbrush. For toothpick dispensers check next to the rasps.

There is so much and it is all so delirious, one shelf given over to wind-up clocks in styles from alarms with rackety bells and Great Wall faces to '70s plastic models right out of Wong Kar-Wai, another devoted to straw topees and politically incorrect palm-leaf coolies, anda third stuffed to overflowing with Korea (sic) blankets of the purest polyester ornamented with Wild West scenes from the put-on-your-poke-bonnet-and-circle-the-wagons Gunsmoke school of Americana.

"These are cute for the kids," an elderly lady with a Rego Park accent says to a friend. They're at the cosmetics counter, which also doubles as a display case for novelties. The toy she's handling is Weepy the Wee Wee, a little plastic figure that squirts water when you pull down its pants. It's a fact that no one has ever successfully sexed Weepy. Is its contourless pubic hump meant to suggest a pissing eunuch or else a pissing girl with uncanny control of urine flow? Who knows?

The lady with the Rego Park accent thinks Weepy would be "cute for a party."

"As a gift," her friend replies.

"You think the kids would laugh at it?"

"I don't think their mother would."

She settles instead on some Happy Face keychains--on which an enterprising but clueless Hong Kong manufacturer has added an action-figure body, achieving a kind of symbolic schizophrenia--as well as a box of ying-yang sticks ("guide for future by principles found in nature"), and a wooden backscratcher,and . . . well, the point is nobody's wallet gets out of Pearl River unscathed.

Perhaps you weren't looking for Guiha Flecks removing cream or jars of ginseng placenta. There's always the peacock embroideries and the clay replicas of figures from the third-century tomb of Qin Shihuang. Accessories designer Belle McIntyre wandered into the place one season and came away with a collection of wooden lice combs that she later hung on silk cords and sold to all the finest uptown stores. One of the city's more prominent drag queens buys outrageously shaped Pearl River lanterns and uses them as wig armatures.

"Burn that for Buddha, for money," cashier Lap Yan explains to a customer who's riffling through a stack of joss paper, each orange sheet centering a square of gold leaf. "Bring good luck and money," says Yan. And, overhearing this, John Thompson, a painter who is stocking his Cherry Grove house with Pearl River merchandise, sets his shopping basket on the counter and says, "You know what? I burn them all the time. And they work."

 
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