Kmart first opened its doors at 770 Broadway, a commercial landmark located at the intersection of the West Village and the East Village, in 1996. Who has taken the 6 to Astor Place may recall seeing a large red “K” on the Subway platform, enticing riders to look for bargains on their favourite sandwich.
It is possible that those who visited the store in person, in search of a three-pack of Hanes T-shirts or a clean-ish city bathroom, would have had a memorable, and at times haunting, shopping experience.
The same could be said for everyone who paid tribute to the store online after it was closed unexpectedly on July 11th.
On Twitter, the author Jason Diamond described going to the Astor Place Kmart as “one of the weirdest shopping experiences for reasons I could never quite put my finger on.”
“I never went to the Astor Place Kmart, mostly because I was certain it was haunted,” tweeted Malika Hunasikatti, a 32-year-old policy specialist.
Chris Crowley, a writer for New York Magazine’s Grub Street, wrote that it “always felt like a perfect location for a shopping scene gone wrong in a zombie apocalypse movie.”
The announcement of the store’s closure was made in hushed tones, with printouts of the announcement taped to clothing racks and store windows. Rumblings had been heard for some time: three years ago, the department store downsized from three to two stories after Vornado Realty Trust purchased the store’s lease. Even before that, tech and media behemoths such as AOL and Facebook had established headquarters in the building.
After moving to New York City from Texas 20 years ago, Mark Peikert worked for a few years in one of the offices above Kmart before moving to another location. “Everything just felt weird and vaguely creepy,” Mr. Peikert, 37, described the store in a phone interview. The experience felt like someone from the Midnight Society was telling a crazy storey about consumerism, which is why I referred to it as an episode of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’
Taking into account a wide range of psychological and biological factors, big-box stores are designed to increase the likelihood of people spending money in their establishments. Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” used the example of hand dominance to illustrate his point.
In addition to being the founder and chief executive officer of Envirosell, a behavioural research and consulting firm that counted Kmart among its clients in the late 1980s, Mr. Underhill also has a background in retail management. “Ninety percent of us are right-handed, and it is therefore easier to organise a store with a counterclockwise circulation pattern because we push a cart with our left hand and we pick things up with our right hand,” he said.
In recent years, the Astor Place Kmart bravely defied all consumer psychology logic by rearranging the store’s aisles on a regular basis, creating the impression that the store was engaged in an ongoing prank.
Every month, towels could be found in the seasonal section, which was usually, but not always, located in the basement, or they could be found in the home goods section on the ground floor, or they could be found anywhere else. That seasonal section (wherever it was located) undoubtedly contained seasonal goods, but no one ever guaranteed that it would do so in a reasonable manner.
In October, Valerie Kamen, a 29-year-old screenwriter who lives in the East Village, went to the store looking for Halloween decorations and found only a large St. Patrick’s Day display instead, she said.
Perhaps she should have come around around Christmas time to pick up her Halloween supplies. When asked about his most memorable purchase from the store, Max Henry, a 33-year-old actor and writer, replied, “I got a post-Halloween-sale doormat.” He claims that a woman once yelled at him for laughing because he was wearing a doormat. The incident occurred after Halloween and was completely out of season.
In addition to offering a mind-boggling selection of merchandise, the Kmart at 770 Broadway was associated with a slew of celebrities and entertainment franchises during the 1990s and early 2000s.
There was a time, back in 1997, when U2 performed in the lingerie department of the store. An article that appeared in the Daily News in February of that year stated that Bono sat in a reporter’s lap and handed out promotional materials for Kmart products (a detail this reporter was not able to confirm).
A year later, Kmart took out a full-page ad in the same publication to alert the city that both of its Manhattan locations would soon start selling the double-VHS set of “Titanic.” The ad includes a cute little “Titanic Fact” that claims that the Kmart at Astor Place was the site of the first Titanic distress call, with the future head of RCA, David Sarnoff, acting as the wireless operator — a rumour that, according to Mr. Sarnoff’s biographer, Kenneth Bilby, was started by Mr. Sarnoff’s cousin and spread by word of mouth.
A film screenwriter has revealed that the only song played over the loudspeakers in the children’s section of the theatre for two years in the 2010s was Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire,” which she described as “awesome.” “I’m not sure if they had a special licencing requirement,” she admitted. During the years 2012 to 2013, it was nonstop. “In one of the store’s corners.” Why?
As a result of those product endorsements and cursed shopping trips, bare mannequins, ladders of various heights, and abandoned red shopping carts are all that are left in their wake. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the following: In 2005, Kmart and Sears merged to form Sears Holdings. Sears filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018. Transformco, which closed nearly 100 locations between December 2019 and February 2020, now owns the stores that used to be operated under both names. Since then, the number of shuttered storefronts has only increased. In response to a request for comment, Transformco did not respond.
Even knowing that something is nearing its end does not make the prospect of it occurring any less tragic, and this Kmart in particular felt different than others. There were times when it felt like it was based on someone’s blurry memories of a store they’d just dreamt about, where the details shift and morph and it doesn’t dawn on you that something isn’t quite right until you try to make sense of it out loud that something wasn’t quite right.
There were Kmarts, yes, but they were dustier than any you had ever seen before, and they were stranger than you would have expected. It wasn’t always dependable, but it was relied upon nonetheless. It’s possible to walk from the train station right into the store’s underground entrance, like a vampire dodging the sun, if you take the 6 (perhaps to work at 770 Broadway, as I once did). In spite of the fact that you never stepped foot inside, it was a constant in an ever-changing plaza, a store that continued to exist despite all odds.