It’s unusual to think that one may have to travel all the way to New York City just to shop at a Kmart. The retailer has operated a two-level store in Lower Manhattan since November 1996. It’s one of the last holdouts of a one-time discount retail powerhouse and is located in one of Manhattan’s former iconic department store structures.
The Astor Place Kmart, located at 8th Street and Broadway, is housed within the former John Wanamaker New York building. It’s one of two Kmarts that once dominated Manhattan’s discount store market.
The other Kmart was located smack in the heart of one of the city’s busiest commercial districts. The West 34th Street store was a stone’s throw from Macy’s Herald Square and included a direct entry into Penn Station.
Transformco, Kmart’s parent firm, announced last February that it was closing the once-popular “Penn Plaza” Kmart. Its liquidation sale was held while New York City was at its COVID worst. Deemed an “essential business,” Kmart carried on with its final sale until its doors were locked in May.
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Unlike its former Penn Plaza counterpart, the Astor Place Kmart, at the “Gateway to the Villages,” continues to welcome shoppers, at least for now. When it opened in 1996, the Astor Place store was one of over 2100 Kmarts located throughout all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam. As of early March, it is one of only 23 Kmarts still open for business.
Despite its current open status, the location suffers from the company’s misfortunes and corporate misguidances. Employees express frustration that deliveries to the store have slowed. They cite the absence of blankets, pillows, and towels within its once-popular home department. Employees notice that its once-steady foot traffic tends to come and go.
The store has also shrunk in size since it first opened. In early 2018, the 154,000 square foot, three-story business was consolidated onto two levels.
After years of missed payments and unpaid bills, Kmart’s relationship with many of its longtime vendors has evaporated. It has led to empty shelves and unusual selections of off-brand merchandise. Besides, with only 23 remaining locations, Kmart is no longer a profitable and dependable outlet for suppliers.
The Astor Place Kmart has been unusually quiet in recent weeks. The traditionally long lines at its checkout counters tend to be shorter in length. There are no rumors about an impending closure but the company is running out of steam, and options.
The Kmart Corporation had high hopes for Astor Place when it first opened. After being badly bruised nationally by Walmart, Target, and others, Kmart hoped that the Lower Manhattan store could serve as a “laboratory” with direct connection to many local “young avant garde” residents. Kmart wanted to learn what these customers liked, wanted, and needed. The company thought that success in Manhattan could certainly help determine its merchandise offerings throughout its entire nationwide chain.
Manhattan also provided a retail environment largely free of discount store competition. At the time, only Bradlees, a now-defunct New England retailer, operated a large Manhattan discount store, at Union Square.
Kmart also proved to be popular with Manhattan residents seeking lower prices, especially at its Astor Place location, and international visitors looking for an American discount store experience.
However, after 25 years at Astor Place, Kmart is no longer Manhattan’s only discount retailer. Several big box firms, along with nine Target stores of various sizes, currently operate within the borough.
The Astor Place Kmart is located within the former John Wanamaker New York flagship. Built in 1906, the provincial store, based in Philadelphia, was known for soft-spoken salespeople, cavernous aisles, and an “air of quiet gentility” before it closed in December 1954. It was divided into two structures that sat side-by-side, connected by a “Bridge of Progress,” over 9th Street.
The 15-story, 1.15 million square-foot iconic department store was designed by the famed architectural firm, D.H. Burnham & Company. Daniel Burnham’s firm also designed Wanamaker’s famous Center City Philadelphia masterpiece (currently operating as a Macy’s), Marshall Field’s Chicago flagship store (also currently a Macy’s), and London’s famous Selfridge’s department store. Burnham was also the architect of New York’s Flatiron Building, Washington DC’s Union Station, and many early commercial “skyscrapers.”
The building’s exterior is historically protected and has been largely preserved. The interior is a different story. Its stately ground floor, with its 22-foot high ceilings and granite columns, is long gone.
Kmart’s portion of the building does include a few aspects reminiscent of a downtown department store. There are high ceilings, escalators, and revolving doors. It even includes a direct access into the Astor Place subway station, a restored throwback to the building’s tenure as Wanamaker’s.
Vornado Realty Trust currently handles the property, presently named 770 Broadway. Vornado defines it as “a 21st-century office environment and creative hub, catering to some of the world’s best-known technology and media leaders.”
Its current tenant profile brochure lists Facebook, Oath (now Verizon Media), and Bank of America as the property’s major tenants. There is strangely no mention of the Kmart, even under its “retail profile.”
Kmart’s 25-year record of service at its Astor Place location is worthy of note. Many other prominent retailers have come and gone since Kmart set up shop in 1996.
Though the lights currently remain lit at the landmark location, Kmart’s likely impending departure will leave an unfortunate retail hole. It would mark a second retail loss at the imposing and historic building.
Source: Forbes – Business