NEW YORK — Pearl River Mart, the 45-year-old Asian emporium, which in March was forced to close its doors in SoHo after its rent shot up fivefold, is getting a new lease on life.
A new 8,000-square-foot Pearl River Mart is opening on Friday at 395 Broadway on the corner of Walker Street in TriBeCa with new leadership and a new direction that includes modernizing its merchandise and customer experience, increasing its digital and social media presence and forging strategic partnerships with national and global brands.
Pearl River Mart will operate as a pop-up until the permanent store launches in May. The pop-up will give the company time to understand what products consumers want most and allow time for the build out, which is being designed by TRA studio. The pop-up is made from temporary materials – scaffolding and raw sheet rock is used for shelves. Red lanterns hung from the ceiling suggest a dragon boat.
Familiar favorites such as Chinese ceramics, tablewear, feng shui items and lucky cats and buddhas are offered. There are also slippers, paper and stationery and vegetable sculptures, which are extremely popular in China.
The new location will introduce capsule collections and collaborations with a variety of established and emerging Asian-American designers and artists and host a regular program of curated events, performances and exhibitions. Rotating artists in residence will paint vases, saki boxes and more. Chris Mendoza is the inaugural artist in resident.
Long-term plans include opening additional stores in other U.S. cities and introducing new lines of Pearl River-branded merchandise.
Joanne Kwong, a Columbia and Duke University-educated attorney and communications expert, who is counsel to the president of Barnard University, is taking the reins of Pearl River.
The mart’s founders, husband and wife Ming Yi Chen and Ching Yeh Chen, were resigned to begin their retirement when the 30,000-square-foot department store at 477 Broadway was shuttered. The reaction from the Asian community and consumers — an outpouring of support — surprised them.
“The warm reaction and enthusiasm from consumers made me feel that it shouldn’t close,” said Ching Yeh Chen. The couple reached out to investors and other interested parties to see if Pearl River could continue in some form, but they didn’t find a suitable successor.
Then they spoke to Kwong, who also happens to be their daughter-in-law.
“We thought they wanted to retire,” Kwong said of the Chens. “We came to the realization that maybe they didn’t.”
“I have a second generation,” said Ching Yeh Chen of Kwong. “I’m so grateful. My son is an engineer and had no interest.”
Ching Yeh Chen said the assortment will be “very selective. We have apparel with special Asian accents. Bestsellers include carved soaps, towels that say ‘Good morning,’ slippers and parasols.” Kwong’s ideas for merchandise include Jenny Wu’s sophisticated 3-D-printed jewelry, which she was wearing around her neck.
“Seventy percent of this you can buy on Amazon, but people want to see it and touch it,” Ching Yeh Chen said.
“We’re hoping to open additional stores,” Kwong said. “We’re looking at major metropolitan areas such as Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C.”
A new Pearl River web site will launch in two weeks. It will be cleaner and easier to navigate and with more content. Kwong said Pearl River “would love to be a trusted resource for ancient knowledge and culture. For example, we could help advise on how to incorporate culture into weddings. We’d look at Vietnamese and Philippine culture as well.”
Pearl River, which was founded in 1971, was originally conceived as a “friendship store” to introduce Chinese merchandise and culture to New Yorkers at a time when diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China were virtually nonexistent.
“The business has deep meaning and resonance for the Asian community and New York City,” Kwong said.