It happened just over a month ago, Pierre Nguyen tells me in his family’s small stall on Canal Street.
That’s when a friend told him what he had seen in a 99 cent store: a fidget spinner.
It was the first time Nguyen, who runs a vape shop in the back of the storefront his family shares with a few other merchants, had ever heard of the whatever-it-is (is it a toy? ADD enabler? classroom menace?) spinning object. Within a few days, he saw them growing popular in the online realm of vaping social media.
“I went out and bought four dozen, just to see what would happen,” Nguyen told the Voice on a hot weekday afternoon, as Canal Street thronged with traffic and the air faintly hummed of spinners. “They sold out in a day.”
Now Nguyen’s stall is almost entirely consumed by fidget spinners. They run $6 apiece on the low end of things, and up to $20 for the fanciest of them.
“What do these things do?” asks a customer.
“They’re a physical distraction to help you focus and clear your mind,” Nguyen responds.
Out on the street, in every stall and storefront: spinners. Spinners everywhere.
A would-be customer grumbles that the price has gone up. Nguyen explains that the quality has risen and, accordingly, so has the price.
Even so, compared to sold-out toy stores across the country, where spinners retail for between $10 and $20, the deal that tourists and locals get on Canal Street remains, as always, quite good.
Right now, Nguyen estimates he’s selling around a hundred a day. Even at the height of the selfie-stick craze, he’s seen nothing like this.
“On Canal Street, there was never anything for kids; now, there’s spinners,” Nguyen tells me.
Groups of out-of-town students in matching blue T-shirts huddle around a vendor who’s selling the spinners on a rack made for sunglasses, ostensibly supplanting the fake Ray-Bans and Oakleys.
Down the block, a street vendor who identifies himself as Dexter has a table full of spinners. He says he’s been a presence on Canal Street for ten years and started selling spinners around three weeks ago. But sales have slowed since then — with everyone on Canal selling them, the market is saturated.
“On Canal, there’s a lot of competition,” he says.
According to Dexter, the field is more open in midtown. A friend of his, who sets up somewhere in the 30s, claims he makes $1,000 a day selling fidget spinners.
“If people keep buying, we’ll keep selling,” Dexter says. He goes to the wholesaler to buy spinners whenever he comes close to running out. I ask him where the wholesalers are and he looks at me like I’m crazy.
“C’mon man, that’s a trade secret, I can’t tell you that,” he says.
Nguyen gives me the same answer, but in more definitive terms: “I’m not allowed to tell you that.”
Nguyen has been supplementing his spinner supply by purchasing half of them directly from suppliers in Hong Kong and China. Those are the ones that can spin for up to seven minutes, or one that can spin for over an hour.
He believes that might be going too far, though.
“What do you do when it spins for an hour? You just watch?” he says. “I don’t understand it.”
On 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, street vendor Frank Bruno sees fidget spinners as just another product in a long line of fads that have claimed real estate on his folding table.
“Spinners, selfie sticks, cell phone cases, cords,” Bruno says, spinning relentlessly between his thumb and forefinger, “they all have their turn.”