At various times in history, the name “Bleecker Street” has conjured images of small immigrant-owned business, beatnik watering holes, folk music hangouts, and ethnic clothing stores. More recently the street, especially its far west end, has glossed up its image and become a magnet to lovers of designer fashion and cupcakes.
An unscientific survey of businesses between Sixth and Eighth Avenues reveals a hodgepodge of emotions about the street, ranging from nostalgia to appreciation, resentment, hope, and acceptance about the past, present and future of our diverse and diagonal business corridor.
Arleen Bowman, owner of the Arleen Bowman Boutique at 353 Bleecker (between West 10th and Charles Streets), who has been on the block for 22 years, says, “I feel positive. There’s no other attitude I can have about it. I’m here to do business.” She does miss the old neighborhood feeling (”It used to take me half an hour to get down the street because I knew all the store owners”), but her store now attracts repeat customers from around the globe. Her core customer base, though, is still “from the 10014 zip code,” loyalists who come back for the store’s personalized service and the continuity of staff and style. “My manager, Gloria Perry, has been here for 17 years. It’s really like family here,” says Bowman.
Roni International, a fast-growing small chain of boutiques, has operated a store at 283 Bleecker (between Seventh Avenue and Jones Street) for the past two-and-a-half years. Half the store’s merchandise is designed by Roni Lin, president of the company, under the Roni label. Prices for the line, slightly lower than boutiques farther west, have hit “a sweet spot” for shoppers, Tim Shan, Roni’s vice president and Lin’s husband, says. “We don’t get comments that things are too expensive, but that, ‘Wow, they’re inexpensive!’” While the super-luxe boutiques “are there to be there, whether they make money or not,” Shan says, “we can’t afford to do that.”
“Every block is a small world in itself,” Shan observes. His, he says, still feels like a neighborhood: “On our first day here, the guys from Caliente Cab brought over some nachos.”
Matt Umanov, owner of Matt Umanov Guitars (between Jones and Cornelia Streets), has had a store within a block of his current location at 273 Bleecker for 40 years. He summarizes the changes he has seen: “There were more things to eat and less tourist crap before.” When the Biography Bookshop moved from Bleecker and West 11th Street to a location across the street from Umanov’s store recently, he was thrilled: “A frozen yogurt place went away and a bookstore came in. I cannot tell you how happy I am.”
Even those who have helped usher in the new, tonier Bleecker Street miss the good old days, it seems. Darren Sukenik, managing director of luxury sales for Prudential Douglas Elliman, who deals in properties in the West Village, Chelsea, and Tribeca, says, “I’m a die-hard West Villager. The reason I live here is it’s special, it’s always inspired the artist, the underdog, and independence. But now I don’t really think it’s fostering creative thought.”
“Landlords were greedy,” says Sukenik. “They went after big-bucks national chains, and they are going to realize that having a national chain like Coach on Bleecker Street is not what the West Village is about.” He predicts a “huge correction in retail pricing and rents,” noting that already, spaces that were going for $120 per square foot are now renting in the $70 to $80 range. As the market adjusts, Sukenik says. “I hope some landlords will give [small] businesses a break. I think they are going to have a long cold winter, and we might see a very special West Village spring. Perhaps some independents should consider taking the plunge right around March.” He offers some sage parting advice: “Remember, niche is the new big. Landlords have to embrace that.”
The only spokesperson from a far-west Bleecker boutique who agreed to speak with WestView was Steve Schwartz, manager of the Cynthia Rowley store at 376 Bleecker, between Charles and Perry Streets. (Representatives from Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Juicy Couture, Olive and Bette, and Magnolia Bakery were unavailable for comment.) On Fashion Night, says Schwartz, about a dozen neighborhood children crowded the store, delighting in watching master balloon artist Buster Balloon ply his trade. “All the neighborhood moms who shop here brought their kids,” Schwartz says. “Cynthia lives here, her kids go to school here. We’re very concerned and connected to the neighborhood.”
One longtime businessperson on Bleecker Street who appreciates the increased flow of local and foreign tourist foot traffic, despite the proliferation of cupcake boxes littering the street, is Peter Lewy, a classical cellist who has been performing on Bleecker for the past 20 years. “Lately, it’s been very nice,” says Lewy. Although he misses the “more artistic” old Bleecker, the tradeoff is that now, says the musician, “My CDs go off to every corner of the planet.”
Nancy Matsumoto is a freelance writer who lives on West 12th Street. She wrote on the Vanishing Village in the last issue of WestView.