The Oral History of Retail on Lafayette Street

The Oral History of Retail on Lafayette Street

From the Pop Shop to Supreme, the stories behind the coolest downtown shopping strip ever.

As told to Zandile Blay (@zandile)

If the weather’s right, just one look down the long corridor that is Lafayette Street may compel you to walk all 22 blocks of this Lower Manhattan thoroughfare.

If you do you’ll be rewarded with a trek that's also a treat. From its very top—Astor Place—to its very bottom—City Hall—Lafayette is less a street and more a cultural experience-cum-social experiment. As you stroll from the East Village through NoHo, NoLita, Little Italy and China Town, boutiques blend into insider restaurants which melt into hardware stores that bleed into hipster hangouts punctuated by parking lots. By journey’s end, you’ve not only walked two miles, you’ve experienced a true anomaly: a street that’s as much a home for locals as it is a destination for tourists; an address for both Middle America’s biggest brands and New York City’s boldest labels; the geographical heart of downtown style, which has played host to some of the coolest retail establishments in NYC, from Keith Haring's Pop Shop to X-Large to Triple 5 Soul and Supreme.

Over the course of nearly three months we researched, tracked down and spoke with a wide range of residents, landlords, business owners and employees who helped to make Lafayette Street what it is. And while it's changed a lot over the past 35 years, there remains something uniquely inimitably fly about this great street in this great city. We’d try to explain this better—but better let the experts tell you, in their own words....


THE PLAYERS

Vahap Avsar - Co-owner, Brooklyn Industries

Matt Barolo Former assistant store manager, Keith Haring Pop Shop; current Operations Manager, Keith Haring Foundation.

Guido Campello - VP of Sales, Branding and Innovation, Cosabella

Alex Corporan - Skateboarder 4 Life, former manager at Supreme

Fernando Dallorso Manager, Puck Fair

Jean-Marc Houmard - Co-owner, Indochine

Dean Jankelowitz - Co-owner, Jack's Wife Freda

Tatiana Johnson - Representative, Liebeskind Berlin

Charlie McCorkell - Owner, Bicycle Habitat 

Ed McFarland - Owner, Ed’s Lobster Bar

Shayni Rae - Director of Retail, G-Star Soho

Dante Ross - A&R rep, owner Stimualated Records

Steve Schul - Press Director, BESS:

George Schwarz - Owner, Noho Star Restaurant

Shana Tabor - Owner, IN GOD WE TRUST

Laura Wills - Owner, Screaming Mimi's

 

THE EARLY YEARS: 1978-1990

George Schwarz: “I think I moved here around 1978. Needless to say, the neighborhood was not this crowded and busy as it is now. In fact it was totally deserted, so much so that when people passed by my wife would call me and say ‘Oh look, there’s somebody here. Do you know who it is?’  At that point there was a liquor store which basically sold Thunderbird, a sweet wine that you could put in your back pocket. There were people lying on the streets from the Bowery, drunk from large amounts of it.

There was a lot of drug traffic in the street, and until Mayor Giuliani arrived there was no way to stop it. The specialty was crack. The neighborhood was so scarcely populated it was pretty easy to buy and sell it.  For example, right here off the corner - just twenty yards west of Lafayette Street - was a pickup and drop-off place.  Usually a big car, a Lincoln or Cadillac, would pull up and in thirty seconds five or six people who come out of nowhere would crowd the car, and thirty seconds later the crowd would disappear and the car would move on. This went on for years.”

 

There was a lot of drug traffic in the street, and until Mayor Giuliani arrived there was no way to stop it. The specialty was crack.

 

Charlie McCorkell: “When we moved here in 1978 too and frankly it was all we could afford. This was really cheap retail back then.  This whole area was much more commercial. If you wanted to buy a drive chain for a tractor or a motorcycle, you could come down here and find it. There were a lot of hardware stores, a lot of people who sold compressors, sewing machines, and that kind of stuff. At that time, the city was no longer desirable. [Readers] may be too young to remember but around that time the city had asked the Congress and the President for help to get through a couple rough years and there was a big headline in the Daily News that read ‘President Ford to New York City: Drop Dead.’ ”

Jean-Marc Houmard: “I arrived in New York in ‘85 and began working at Indochine shortly after. It definitely felt like a no-man’s-land then. There was very little activity especially at night and even during the day. There weren't very many stores at all. It felt very far from Soho. Even Broadway had very little activity then. So at night when you arrived on Lafayette you kind of wondered where you were arriving. Then there was this door with no name really, just tiny neon lights and you enter the room and there was like all this activity blossoming inside. Indochine literally felt like an oasis on Lafayette.  It was a lot of energy and a lot of glamour in what was then the middle of nowhere.”

Charlie McCorkell: “It may have been deserted but we’d still have people like [Sex Pistols bassist] Sid Vicious come in here stoned and kind of wobbling around in the store.”

Matt Barolo: “Keith’s shop opened in 1986 and I remember it being the only store on that strip. I didn’t start working at the shop until 1991. There was our Pop Shop, which was across the street from the Puck Building, and down from the Puck Building but on that same side was a movie prop shop. Do you remember the big topiary bushes from the Edward Scissorhands film? Those were all lining the street. They were huge! It took up the entire block.”

Fernando Dallorso: “I remember the space where the restaurant Delicatessen sits was literally a Greek deli. I used to buy a bagel with butter and a coffee from there all the time and I remember the shop was run by one Greek man. ”

Jean-Marc Houmard: "When I first started, I waited on Andy Warhol, that was a little story in our book (Indochine: Stories Shaken And Stirred) and I was completely nervous. He ordered a mint tea and when I put the cup down I slightly brushed his hand and I thought ‘Oh my God! I just touched Andy Warhol!’ it was like a thing! I still remember the excitement.”

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