Thursday, March 15, 2012


.. and thanks for the invite.

I went to a reception last night to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Paul Smith clothing store on 5th Avenue. I am not a reception-person, but this reception was different.

Paul Smith, set slightly back on the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and 16th, pioneered the present stretch
of retail along lower 5th Avenue. Arriving from England, the store opened in 1987 when lower 5th was a retail moonscape. From 14th Street clear to 23rd, there was no there there.

That same year I returned to New York after learning to bake in Paris. I had been infatuated with farmer's markets while in France, so back in New York, I began a religious routine of visiting the Greenmarket in Union Square       [a routine still in place]. Back then, Greenmarket was Wednesday and Saturday only, and it was a much, much, much smaller market than the four-day-a-week bonanza it is today. The entire area back then was totally different. 14th Street was a row of riff-raff discount stores. Union Square itself was an iffy proposition for personal safety. It may be hard to imagine this today, given the vitality of the area right now, but the park wasn't even a safe place to walk through at night. South of Union Square, the space now occupied by Whole Foods was boarded up for at least a decade. North of the park, the space that's now Barnes & Noble's flagship was also boarded up for years.

It was impossible to miss the Paul Smith store because it was the only nice store along 5th Avenue. There was no GAP, Banana Republic, H&M or Coach. No Aldo, Aveda, Sephora or Zara. It would not have been possible to imagine Victoria's Secret in that landscape back then. In 1987, if you were standing inside of Paul Smith, the view diagonally out the window was an 89-year old novelty and toy business, B. Shackman & Co. Shackman's sold toys like paper airplanes that unfolded from a wrapper that seemed to have been wrapped in the 19th century. The place was dark and slightly foreboding. Today, it's the effervescent Anthropologie.

Paul Smith got the ball of retail rolling at Union Square, and did it when no one walking along 5th Avenue was
even thinking about shopping. It was their first store in America. The odds they beat are the size of a mountain.
I'm fairly sure today they are one of only four or five stores among dozens from 14th Street to 23rd that have never changed hands in a quarter century.

Happy 25th to Paul Smith, and congratulations to all who have contributed to its success and longevity.

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