LA DOLCE MUSTO

NYC Has Become Suburbia–and I’m Submitting!

From Woolworths and Bag Man to Trader Joe’s and H&M: NYC’s love/hate history with chain stores

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In the mid-’90s, when a Kmart opened on West 34th Street, followed by one on Astor Place, in the East Village, there were citywide cries of “Gentrification! New York is over! The sky is falling!” Jump ahead to 2020, when word got out that both Kmarts were set to shutter and people were sobbing all over again and screaming, “What??? How can this be? The city’s finished!”

Yikes. What could have happened in the intervening 25 years to cause this tumultuous flip-flop? Well, Stockholm Syndrome had clearly set in, and we had become numb to the influx of chain stores while also realizing that if one of them closed, it was a dramatic economic sign that things were worse than we thought. An outpost of something so large and generic was supposed to at least guarantee stability for any location. And so, we bizarrely wept for the fallen Kmarts. (Besides, I actually have to admit that I enjoyed going there. More on that later.)

What a change in the climate! In the ’80s, Manhattan chain stores and restaurants were almost as scarce as bike lanes and cauliflower crust pizzas. Naturally, there were fast food spots like McDonald’s and Burger King, and grocery chains like D’Agostino (still there) and A&P (not), as well as the variety store Woolworths, where I got paintings on black velvet and also enjoyed hamming it up in the photo booth. But in 1994, the first NYC Starbucks opened and my head spun from seeing all the sheep lining up for Seattle-based lattes that didn’t taste nearly as good to me as plain old deli coffee. That same year, Rudy Giuliani began the first of his two mayoral terms, and seemed hungry to sanitize the city in order to bring in more tourist dollars. Rudy fostered an environment where big money would be kowtowed to, as Times Square became a place with way more superstores than porn palaces.

In 1997, the first NYC Target debuted (in Brooklyn), selling everything from throw rugs to board games. At the same time, we saw the continued expansion of all-purpose pharmaceutical stores—a seemingly endless array of places to get headache pills, suppositories, and cereal. Not to be topped, in 2000 H&M started selling jazzy, low-priced designer collaborations at its very first U.S. store, on Fifth Avenue. More than a dozen NYC H&Ms later, it’s pretty easy to find that place—or a Gap or an Old Navy—but don’t stop at the multitude of fast food options along the way or that cute onesie you had your eye on might not fit by the time you get there.

NYC is now one big chain of chains, to the point where a mom-and-pop store like the Round the Clock deli on my corner is shocking to behold. I support it like crazy—though I have to admit I’ve also shown up for the big-budget competition. I’ve traipsed around my neighborhood Trader Joe’s for five years now, looking for microwavable burritos and peaches-and-cream-flavored yogurt, then schmoozing with the refreshingly offbeat help at the register. Against all odds, this place has become my new Studio 54. The workers seem well treated, so they radiate a friendly glow and will gladly have an insouciant conversation, if you’re up to it. (One joked with me about my very large cucumber, while another regaled me with the story of his grandfather’s love of iodized salt.) Checkout lines usually snake all around the Murray Hill store, but seeing as there are no fewer than 30 cashiers on duty, you’re out of there faster than you can say “peppercorn-garlic boneless pork tenderloin.”

I’ll also put on my boogie shoes to venture over to the Soho branch (it has extra-spacious aisles and I keep hoping the cute worker who knew all about pasta comes back), as well as to the Chelsea location—though I poignantly remember when that space was a Barnes & Noble where I once had a reading and signing. I went from selling books about bohemia to buying Citrus Shrimp Bowls! I guess it’s gentrification either way. And I also remember that the people who mourned the closing of a couple of Barnes & Nobles were the same ones who had plotzed when B&N first came to the city, insisting that this signaled the end of independent bookstores. (Shades of the Kmart trajectory.) New Yorkers apparently love to chant “Everything used to be better” no matter what, and I’ve certainly been guilty of that broken record myself. (God, weren’t records better than downloads?)

But one chain store replacing another has become an all too NYC phenomenon. We’ve dangerously become like virtually any other American metropolis, in that we have the same chains offering the same merch to similar types of people. Fortunately, the chains have been stymied in their attempt to reach complete dominance. Amazon and other online shopping destinations have cut into their ka-ching (though it’s hard to celebrate that too enthusiastically, considering Amazon’s record of staff oppression. Are they really any better than Walmart?). Also, there was a sense that some of those mega-pharmacies had overshot and opened too many locations; you’d need to have an outlandish number of health and beauty concerns to require more than one big drug store per two-block radius.

Furthermore, in 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns added to the chain store crisis, and we saw some very large spaces sitting empty as if in a Wes Craven film. But corporation fetishists needn’t worry—the chains have been slowly rebounding and are still everywhere, like crabgrass, with no dearth of Best Buys, Party Citys, Dunkin’ Donuts, and 7-Elevens in the five boroughs. Any day of the week, I can tumble out my door and nab software, a tinsel wig, and a Slurpee, and be home in time to order a Popeye’s delivery.

I guess all these stores do serve some kind of purpose, whether it be specific (like LensCrafters, which in 2020 converted two Manhattan outlets into expanded “flagship stores”) or general (the 27 Rite Aids in NYC offer everything from hair conditioner to vaccines). And yes, I was one of the sobbers when Kmart closed, even though it was already a ghost of its former self. At its peak, Kmart was a place I could wander around and find cheap pants (as my waistline expanded, they miraculously still had my size), great gifts for Mommy (she loved the Jaclyn Smith collection of patterned blouses, and I tried a few on myself), and impossibly cute knick-knacks, often involving Snoopy or Disney characters. Best of all was the post-Christmas sale, when the leftover yuletide decorations and candies were marked down to as much as 80% off. It was a great deal—and the candy tasted exactly the same a year later.

You could never seem to find anyone who worked there and might give you needed information, but I must say the customer service department was great—they would generally take stuff back and give you a refund, no questions asked (which might be one reason they went kaput). The customers themselves could be cute, too: In this soulless but distracting theme park, I would run into punk rockers, editors, and Minnie Driver, and there was also quality alone time when I’d sit at the short-lived second-floor K Café for a nasty grilled cheese sandwich.

The truth is, all these years I’ve been making up for the childhood and adolescence I never got to enjoy, because in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, all we had was a Korvettes, and it was a 40-minute walk for little, pre-bicycle Mikey! I didn’t have the shopping mall experience growing up, where you could spend a whole day hanging with friends and just being young and silly amidst a backdrop of glitzy commerce. But now, I can treat these places like free entertainment attractions and bounce around them in search of a giddy escape from the isolation of writing all day.

I can easily spend hours at the 620 Sixth Avenue complex that contains Bed, Bath and Beyond, Marshalls, and TJ Maxx—all under one roof! This isn’t exactly a downtown Lincoln Center, but it is some sort of one-stop shopping destination for festive crap to spruce up your home. Whether I’m perusing pillowcases, spice racks, mugs, or jumpsuits, this triplex of crass yet affordable capitalism always amuses, and though Bed, Bath is famous for sending so many “20% off” coupons in the mail that you can just stay home and do your walls with them, most people would rather go there to actually use them on purchases.

It’s a far cry from when I used to go to marches and rallies against gentrification, but I’ve found that no landlord has ever looked out the window at screaming protesters and said, “Aww! These New Yorkers don’t want trendy stores to replace art galleries! Cancel everything! Rip up the contracts!” It’s hard to keep screeching about gentrification when you don’t see any results from the resistance, and it’s extra-challenging to stay focused when we’re nowadays battling an attempt to overturn democracy, not just open a cupcake shop. So I’ve sort of lost my will to fight chain stores, though I’m determined to keep both my spunk and my sense of humor about them. I’ll gladly sign up for a CVS rewards card just to get three bags of jelly beans for the price of two, but then I’ll block them when they start emailing me about sale offers, so I can convince myself that I’ve maintained some level of high-toned dignity.

Through it all, I will always miss those old-school one-offs like Bag Man—a three-floor West 34th Street value center that featured light-up Jesus portraits, panting dog statues, and other irresistible kitsch. (The store closed in 2015, and the space is now the “For Lease” lobby of a high-rise.) With that gem and the nearby Weber’s discount store gone, I’ve been relying heavily on the Lot Less and Jack’s 99 Cent Store chains to satisfy my questionable taste, but, as quirky as they are, they will never be Bag Man.

And so, the bigger, slicker chain establishments beckon and I robotically yield, if only as a fascinated observer. It turns out that acting like a tourist in your own town is sometimes the only way to get by. Sprawling entities like Hudson Yards and, to a lesser extent, Chelsea Food Market, string a lot of chains together into a relentless experience that it’s better to react to with an “Oh, wow!” than an “Oy, vey!” just for sanity’s sake. I treat these retail monoliths as if they were in another city—which they might as well be—so I feel like I’ve really traveled when I get there. I practically send postcards.

On the way back home, I realize that I certainly don’t need a Chase Bank every three blocks, especially since they keep hounding me to refinance but would never approve me if I did. But I do like having a 24-hour Duane Reade a block away from my building; those 5 a.m. suppositories might come in handy some morning. Besides, when I came down with restless leg syndrome in 2018, the store saved me because I would spend late nights angstily pacing up and down the aisles just to pass the time. They looked at me weirdly, but, marvelously, they let me keep pacing.

And stores or no stores, I just can’t exist anywhere but New York. I don’t drive—and my fruity persona would not exactly be celebrated in Oshkosh—so I’ve had to succumb to NYC as suburbia, trying to make the best of the fact that nothing stays the same. Adding to the appeal, we still have the finest museums, bars, theater, queer representation, and mouthy populace of anywhere I’ve ever been, so I’m not going anywhere else. I think we even have the best chain stores! And when the city was awash in the sounds of the clanking pots and pans of everyone leaning out their windows to thank medical workers at the height of the pandemic, in ’20, I was reminded that this is my eternal home. The Trader Joe’s–like lines for early voting to put Biden/Harris in office and the dancing in the streets when they won underlined all of that with a bodega-bought Sharpie.

And just like reality TV stars don’t detract from Meryl Streep—there’s room for both—cheesy chain stores can never completely take away actual culture. There will always be gentrification, but you simply have to find the culture you want by searching a little harder for it. (Whatever borough you’re in, perhaps try some of the other boroughs! Just a thought.) I remember the 1980s, when Alphabetland—the fabled far stretch of the East Village—was a territory you’d be crazy to venture into without a Sherman tank. Well, though that area has been gentrified with octopus-taco-serving restaurants and such, I recently moseyed around Avenue B and passed by people dancing salsa in a storefront, a diverse crowd intently watching a poetry reading in another, and other distinct signs of creative life. It’s not as simple as “The East Village is over!”

Ugh. Am I becoming an apologist for urban displacement? It’s that Stockholm Syndrome thing again. But “making lemonade” is the reality of what NYC has been for years, even if the lemonade might now be the same organic, artisanal stuff you get in Sacramento. A particularly dark side to that reality is that Chick-fil-A—which unapologetically gives big donations to anti-queer causes—opened here in 2015 and not only didn’t flop, it’s expanded to 10 Gotham locations. I guess the chicken is so delicious that some New Yorkers don’t mind killing queers with every bite. I avoid their establishments, proving once and for all that I will only support corporate greed, not crimes against humanity. That’s a tough high-wire act to pull off, but I manage it, and the best thing about it is I’m so cheap that I’m not really paying all that much into the corporate greed either. I’ve never actually bought anything at Hudson Yards except for a snack at Citarella; I usually just go for the free Chinese New Year festivities and the chance to feel like a teen for the first time. At TJ Maxx’s recently, I was captivated by a $16 vase that was cleverly shaped like a man’s head, complete with eyeglasses, probably from LensCrafters. It was almost like an old Bag Man item, if at double the price. But en route to the register, I convinced myself not to go through with the purchase (“It will grow tiresome”) and put it right back on the shelf. I’d like to also put Manhattan back to where it was, but I can’t, so here I am. See you at Trader Joe’s, by the cauliflower crust pizzas.  ❖

Michael Musto is best known for his outspoken Village Voice column “La Dolce Musto,” which began in 1984. (With the Voices return, he is delighted to be back as a contributor.) He writes a gossip column for Queerty, has penned four books, found himself on the Out100 list of the most influential LGBTQs, and is streaming in docs on Netflix, Hulu, Vice, and Showtime.

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