By Nan Victoria Munger
In 1979, Afghan millionaire Abdul Nusraty fled the communist government of Afghanistan, leaving behind his four cars and a 180-worker jewel factory to become a West Village storeowner. Since moving to New York and opening Nusraty Afghan Imports, Nusraty has twice been forced to relocate, not by Communists, but by landlords.
In 2008, Nusraty’s landlord informed him that the monthly rent for Nusraty’s Bleecker Street store would be increasing from $7,000 to $45,000 per month. “He [said] forty-five thousand—I [thought] he [was] joking!” says Nusraty, whose store had been in that location for 32 years. Unable to pay the higher rent, Nusraty was forced to move. A Brooks Brothers moved into his space.
The shift from independent shops to major fashion chains was common for Bleecker Street in the early 2000s. Once a nexus of West Village family businesses, Bleecker Street between 8th Avenue and Christopher Street became a tourist trap of high-end fashion stores like Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, and Burberry.
“Bleecker Street is not anymore Bleecker Street,” says Nusraty. Before, small shops were family-owned, and “people [came] here to see the family in [the] West Village. Now there’s no family.”
Nusraty Afghan Imports, now at 85 Christopher Street, is a remnant of the old Bleecker Street. The store is narrow, smells faintly of cigar smoke, and is pleasantly crowded with fascinating items from all over the world. The walls are hung with tapestries and rugs, and shelves are piled with statuettes, jewelry, and books.
Nusraty has a dedicated clientele, many of whom are antique collectors. Sculptor John Seward Johnson, Jr. is a loyal customer who stops by “every time he is in New York,” says Nusraty fondly. If business is slow, Nusraty alters his inventory to meet client demand: “I bring pieces that people like.”
Meanwhile, the fashion stores that drove Nusraty off Bleecker Street have been closing, leaving behind darkened windows pasted with ‘For Lease’ signs. Although these outlets sell clothing items for thousands of dollars, many stores have still been unable to pay the astronomical rents. There are currently 15 empty stores, and two more are about to close.
The flurry of closings has made Bleecker Street less of a shopper’s destination. “I was here last year and the year before,” says a Burberry salesman, “and there’s definitely less traffic.” At Burberry, sleek black shelves hold stiff purses; a raincoat costs $2,000. Behind the register, a flat-screen television displays models walking the runway. A saleswoman commented that if it were up to her, she would not renew the lease. “We love this neighborhood, but business is not good for us,” she said.
Next door, however, business is brisk. Sunni Spencer opened Après Sea on March 30th. “I was just going to be an April pop-up,” says Spencer, “but because the response was so good, I stayed.” Located at 371 Bleecker Street (between Perry and Charles Streets), Après Sea sells all things beach, from bathing suits to ocean-scented candles. The store smells fresh and tropical, distinctly non-New York. Beachy music and palm fronds create a vacation-like ambience.
Customers love the feel of Après Sea, but the biggest selling point is Spencer herself. Spencer has 19 years of retail experience, and she says Après Sea is “a combination of all my experience and all my talents.”
Spying a customer trying on a white dress, she calls enthusiastically, “I love that dress! It shows just enough leg.” Customers like Spencer’s energy. She has a small notebook in which customers leave comments. One reads, “You and your gorgeous store are a breath of fresh air. Bleecker Street will change for the better because of you.”
Six different people wrote ‘breath of fresh air’ without knowing what the other people were saying,” says Spencer, smiling.
Today’s retailers “can’t survive unless they offer something more—an experience,” Spencer says. Both Après Sea and Nusraty Afghan Imports offer customers a unique environment and a chance to engage with store owners on a personal level, allowing them to survive while high-fashion chains around them close.
With the right kind of stores, Bleecker Street could be revived. But for more stores like Après Sea to open, rents would have to be lowered. “Under this law and landlords,” says Nusraty, “[there is] no hope. Nobody can pay that kind of money.” With lowered rents, however, more personalized, experience-based stores like Après Sea could pop up. The liveliness of Après Sea shows that Bleecker Street is not dead—it just needs a breath of fresh air.