Kmart opened in 1996 at 770 Broadway, a commercial landmark where the West Village and the East meet. Anyone who has taken the 6 to Astor Place may remember the big red “K” that can be seen from the Subway platform, beckoning riders to hunt for discounts.
For those who actually stopped by, looking for a three-pack of Hanes T-shirts or a clean city bathroom, the store could provide a memorable and sometimes terrifying shopping experience.
At least that was the case for anyone who paid tribute to the store online after it was abruptly closed on July 11.
On Twitter, the author Jason Diamond described to the Astor Place Kmart. to go 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, mainly because I was sure it was haunted,” tweeted Malika Hunasikatti, a 32-year-old policy specialist.
Chris Crowley, a writer for Vulture of New York Magazine, 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 a silent one, communicated by prints pasted on clothes racks and windows. It had been rumbling for a while: three years ago, the department store went down from three floors to two after Vornado Realty Trust bought off the lease. Even before, tech and media giants like AOL and Facebook had established a store in the building.
Mark Peikert, an editor who moved to New York City from Texas 20 years ago, spent a few years working in one of the offices above Kmart. “Everything just felt weird and vaguely creepy,” Mr. Peikert, 37, said of the store by phone. “I referred to that Kmart as an episode of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ but really, it felt like someone from the Midnight Society was telling some crazy story about consumerism.”
Big box stores are designed to increase the likelihood that people will spend money, taking into account all kinds of psychological and biological factors. Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” cited hand dominance as an example.
“Ninety percent of us are right-handed, which is why it’s easier to organize 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,” said Mr. Underhill, who is also the founder and CEO of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm that counted Kmart among its clients in the late 1980s.
In recent years, the Astor Place Kmart bravely defied all the logic of consumer psychology: The store’s aisles were rearranged so often that it seemed like an ongoing joke.
Each month, towels could be in the seasonal section, which was usually, but not always, in the basement, or they could be in household items on the ground floor, or they could be nowhere at all. That seasonal section (wherever it was) certainly contained seasonal goods, but no one ever promised it would do so in a reasonable way.
“I went looking for Halloween stuff in October, and they only had a huge St. Patrick’s Day display,” said Valerie Kamen, a 29-year-old screenwriter who lives in the East Village.
Maybe she should have come around Christmas for her Halloween stuff. “I bought a doormat after Halloween,” said Max Henry, a 33-year-old actor and writer, when asked about his most memorable purchase at the store, where he says a woman once yelled at him for laughing. “It was way past Halloween, completely out of season.”
In addition to showcasing a bewildering assortment of items, the Kmart at 770 Broadway joined a hodgepodge of celebrities and entertainment franchises in the 1990s and early years.
There was a time, in 1997, when U2 played in the lingerie department of the store. According to an article published in the Daily News in February, Bono sat on a reporter’s lap, handing out Kmart merchandise (a detail this reporter was unable to confirm).
A year later, Kmart ran a full-page ad in the same publication warning the city that both Manhattan locations would soon be selling the double VHS set of “Titanic.” Smack in the middle of the ad is a cute little “Titanic Fact” that claims the Kmart on Astor Place was the site of the first Titanic distress call, with the future head of RCA, David Sarnoff, acting as the wireless operator – an exaggerated rumor at best, started by Mr Sarnoff’s nephew, according to his biographer, Kenneth Bilby.
Others whose performances drew fans to the store include Garth Brooks, JoJo, Martha Stewart, Aaron Carter and Sofia Vergara.
Ms. Kamen, the screenwriter, said that for two years in the 2010s, the only song you could hear over the speakers in the children’s area was Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire.” “I don’t know if they had special licenses,” she said. “From 2012 to 2013, it was non-stop. A corner of the store.” Why?
Now, left behind in the wake of those product recommendations and cursed shopping trips are bald mannequins, ladders of varying heights and abandoned red shopping carts. This should not come as a surprise: Kmart merged with Sears in 2005. Sears filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Stores under both names are now owned by Transformco, which closed nearly 100 locations between December 2019 and February 2020. The list of shuttered storefronts has only grown since then. (Transformco did not respond to a request for comment.)
Still, knowing that something is nearing its end doesn’t make that possibility any less sad, and this Kmart in particular felt different. It sometimes seemed like it was modeled after someone’s vague memories of a store they had just dreamed of, where the details shift and change, and you don’t notice that something isn’t quite right with that until you try to understand it out loud.
It was a Kmart, yes, but dustier than you’d ever seen and stranger than you’d expect. It wasn’t necessarily reliable, but it was relied upon. If you were driving on the 6 (perhaps to work at 770 Broadway, like I once did), you could walk from the train to the store’s underground entrance, like a vampire dodging the sun. And even if you never set foot inside, it was a constant in an ever-changing square – a shop that existed despite everything.