New Yorkers can once again pick up affordable slippers, paper lanterns and more
Updated: November 16, 2017
When Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen — the couple behind the Chinese-American department store Pearl River Mart — shuttered their 30,000-square-foot SoHo store amid a rent hike in 2016, people freaked out.
Pearl River Mart is closing so I went for a last shopping trip. pic.twitter.com/6gk6UVUrGg
— khoda （こーだ） (@khodazat) December 13, 2015
— Elaine del Cerro Yau (@DameSparkula) February 23, 2016
Where else could you affordably pick up everything from gold Buddhas and embroidered slippers to chopsticks and paper lanterns in NYC?
— Big Gay Ice Cream (@biggayicecream) April 15, 2015
I can't believe Pearl River Mart is closing IS NOTHING SACRED
— fleurdelivres #WouldPreferThatYouBanNazis (@fleur_de_livres) April 10, 2015
Then their daughter-in-law stepped in.
Joanne Kwong, then an attorney and communications executive at Barnard College, and her husband, the couple’s only son, approached the Chens with an offer: Kwong would leave her job and take the reins of the company. Together, they made a plan to reopen the store, albeit in a different location and on a smaller scale. “I think once we had the idea, both kids and parents were really excited and energized by it,” Kwong said.
The family chose a space in Tribeca for the new store. It opened in time for Black Friday, and a second floor of shopping opened at the cellar level in July.
Now they are expanding further with another new store, this time at Chelsea Market. That store is 3,500 square feet will feature “all of the classic Pearl River favorites,” plus an area dedicated to “emerging designers and fun collaborations,” and a space that can be used for talks, readings, performances and demonstrations, Kwong said. The grand opening is set for Nov. 16.
Part of Pearl River’s success may lie in Kwong’s overhaul of the company’s website, ecommerce operations and social media channels. She writes regularly with an aim to bring cultural traditions to the company’s online space, in a recent blog post describing how she incorporated Chinese and Filipino details into her own wedding with the Chens’ son, Gene.
She also launched an in-store art gallery and has sought out Asian and Asian American designers and entrepreneurs for collaborative projects, as well as businesses to partner with on “Friendship Boxes,” themed boxes of Asian knickknacks and treats.
While Mr. Chen founded the store in 1971 to sell goods from China, these days Pearl River carries hot items from elsewhere in Asia, from Korean cosmetics to Japanese snacks. Onesies printed with puns have been popular lately, as have ceramics and silk kimono robes. “We want people to be able to come to Pearl River and see what’s new,” Kwong said.
The elder Chens are back in the game now too. Mr. Chen, 77, works six days a week, doing enough labor and maintenance work to earn him the nickname “The Muscle,” and Mrs. Chen helps out building and freshening up store displays. Both still do store merchandising.
Kwong has been settling into her new role while raising two young sons, who share responsibilities in toy- and snack-testing, according to Pearl River’s website. “Success, to me, is if Pearl River in the next 50 years was still around, healthy,” she said, “and in a good place to be passed on to the next generation.”
This story was originally published in June and has been updated.
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