NEW YORK — Mismatched letters spell out “Courageous” on one wall in the new Barneys Co-op on the Upper West Side.

It might not be intentional, but considering how spotty the area’s retail scene has been in recent years, the word very well could describe the flurry of stores heading North to open outposts.

Barneys Co-op and a smorgasbord of designer stores at the Time Warner Center may have rubber-stamped the area for big-brand retailers, but a bevy of independents like Steve Alan and Boyd’s are trying to stake their ground in an area that has been largely known for its nondescript style.

Michael Celestino, executive vice president of stores for Barneys New York, said of the new store, “It’s much better than our wildest dreams. It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood. We knew we have a lot of customers there, and there’s a lot of great traffic on Broadway.”

Others will soon be vying for those shoppers. Steve Alan bows next week at 465 Amsterdam Avenue. On Columbus Avenue, Boyd’s will open within the next two weeks. Kiehl’s welcomed its first customers Friday, as did Jubilee New York, a shoe store at 2169 Broadway in what used to be a Skechers store. Shen New York debuted last month at 311 Columbus Avenue, while Eileen Fisher and Blades Board & Skate have expanded stores at 341 Columbus Avenue and 120 West 72nd Street, respectively.

Rents per square footage on the Upper West Side are still relatively reasonable for stores 1,000 square feet or smaller compared to spaces on the tony Upper East Side, according to the Real Estate Board of New York’s spring 2004 retail report. The asking price on Broadway between 72nd and 86th Street is $240 per square foot, a bargain compared to $676 on Madison Avenue in the Sixties.

In a space reminiscent of a general store, Steve Alan will offer its own label, as well as 10 other designers including Myshkin and Margiela Line 6. The company’s namesake and designer said he enjoys tweaking new stores to suit the neighborhood. The uptown store will be a replica of his other store in TriBeCa.

“The needs of a lot of groups are not being met. There are moms, daughters and young single people. It’s such a big area,” he said. “Unlike SoHo, which is one area, the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s are four different areas, really.”

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