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Why New York Is A Hub In The Global Trinket Trade

Oct 3, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 11:07 am

For more on the junk economy, see this slideshow.

There's a neighborhood in New York City that has always been a mystery to us. Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, around 29th street, is the wholesale district. There you can find rows of narrow storefronts packed to the ceiling with trinkets. Racks and racks of fake gold chains. Acres of souvenir lighters and walls of belt buckles. Plastic, plastic, plastic toys.

It's not surprising that these things exist. But why would you sell all this cheap junk from stores sitting on some of the most expensive real estate in the world?

It's not as if we make it here. Most of it comes from Asia.

And it's not just to sell this junk to New Yorkers. We just don't need that many key chains.

The trinkets are here because this stretch of Midtown is a hub in a vast global network of junk. When stores in Africa or Latin America or the Middle East run short, they come here.

The biggest reason is one of scale. Small stores in developing nations can't handle a whole shipping container filled with thousands of rhinestone bracelets. They only need a few. So the people in New York's wholesale district order the big loads and sell the bracelets by the dozen.

Still, why does it have to be stored in Manhattan and not in a warehouse in New Jersey? Why can't the buyers just get it over the phone or the Internet?

We ran into a Nigerian businesswoman in a cheap perfume store in the area and asked her. Kemi Alao was buying for her boutique, Lasting Impressions, in the town of Jos. She said it's hard to send money electronically from Nigeria and make sure you are getting what you paid for. Even when she flew directly to China, she said, she found that she couldn't trust the quality.

Alao says it's much easier to bring cash and some empty suitcases to New York and buy stuff in person. That way you can tell if merchandise is flawed or counterfeit. And you can look people in the eye when you do business.

For buyers like Alao, New York City makes logical sense as a trinket hub. It's easy to get to this city from the rest of the world. And once you get here, everything is close together. Alao can't drive between warehouses in New Jersey. In Manhattan, she can walk a couple of blocks and see hundreds of different stores. The more customers, the more stores pop up. And the more stores, the better the selection.

But like any hub, this neighborhood is only as strong as the network around it. And in the past few years, the businessmen in the wholesale district say, it's been getting tough. It's not just the economy. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, it's been harder to move money and merchandise in suitcases on planes. And the City of New York has been cracking down on parking and making it harder to ship in the junk.

In any other type of business, these stores would have already moved out of Manhattan. But the wholesalers fear the African and Latin American customers would never venture out of the city to find them. And so they stay. Better to huddle at the crossroads than to be off alone in the middle of nowhere.

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The great cities of the world were often built at the crossroad. A place where trade routes came together and people could do business face to face. But even in this Internet economy, new crossroads pop up all the time. Our Planet Money team found one in a neglected stretch of midtown Manhattan. NPR's Robert Smith had a look.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The corner of 29th Street and Broadway features one of those classic New York splits. On one side of the street, we have the Ace Hotel. It's a boutique joint with $500 rooms. On the other side of the street, is this collection of tiny stores that sell the cheapest trinkets and stuff you can imagine. But it turns out the two sides of the street are actually both in the same business: getting people together.

I'll show you what I mean over here on the cheap side. David Hong has a brand new store. It's packed with wigs and hair extensions. And his big plan is to buy fake hair from one side of the world, Asia, and sell it to the other side of the world, Africa.

DAVID HONG: From Africa, West Africa.

SMITH: Why do you need a store? Can't people just buy these on the computer?

HONG: Because this kind item is hard to figure out, you know, quality.

SMITH: So people want to touch it. They want to see the hair extensions. They want to flip through them, hold them, look at the exact color in the light.

HONG: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

SMITH: OK, so why open a store on 29th Street if you want to reach Africa? Hong tells me it's not the location. It's the customers. African businesspeople fly across the Atlantic to come to this corner to buy cheap products, to sell in their stores back home. And they can get anything: candy-colored watches. Embossed lighters, belt buckles, fake gold chains.

Around the corner at a perfume store, I ran into Kemi Alao. She lives in Nigeria. She's looking for stuff for her boutique.

It would seem crazy to people to fly all the way across the ocean to the United States to buy perfume. Can't you call them up on the telephone and say send me a package?

KEMI ALAO: Yeah, you can. You can do that. Though sending money sometimes is so difficult from Nigeria. And then, sometimes you want to know who you're dealing with.

SMITH: Alao wants to use cash. She wants to look people in the eye. She wants to make sure products aren't shoddy or fake. As inefficient as it seems to use 29th Street in Manhattan as this global crossroads, she hasn't found better way.

Now, oddly enough, the cool crowd across the street at Ace Hotel, they're doing the same thing. The lobby of the Ace Hotel, in the mid-afternoon, seems like an outpost of one of those new media conference. There're cool, young people lounging on sofas tapping away on laptops.

For instance, Ariella Cheskis-Gold is planning a music festival. She's not staying at the hotel, she just uses this lobby for meetings. And just like at the hair extension shop, it's not the location. It's the crowd.

ARIELLA CHESKIS-GOLD: Any one of these people I could strike a conversation up with and we'll find something. And, you know, it could lead to another job. It could lead to another freelance opportunity.

SMITH: And this lobby did not happen by accident. Alex Calderwood, the co-founder of the hotel, says he set out to create a crossroads here. He can fill his rooms and charge a premium, if it feels more like a creative scene. So there's the free Wi-Fi, the curated music.

ALEX CALERWOOD: You want the hotel overall and the public spaces to be sort of a catalyst for interaction. I personally have just always believed that, like, energy attracts energy.

SMITH: Energy attracts energy. That could be the motto for either side of the street. The bracelet stores attract the hairweave joints. The Ace Hotel attracts new clothing boutiques. Real estate being what it is, you could predict that maybe the hip stores will push out the wholesale business.

But both side of the street actually face a common threat. When you build around a crossroads, the big risk is your customers will find a shorter route, that they'll bypass you completely. The trinket sellers, they're already seeing fewer customers, as China figures out better ways to get their products directly to Africa.

And the Ace Hotel, they have to worry about what happens if they lose their cool. Ariella Cheskis-Gold says she used to work at another hip hotel lobby, but the vibe changed, so she picked up her laptop and she left.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.