‘Was the Astor Place Kmart Haunted?’ and Other Thoughts on Its Closing

Kmart opened its doors at 770 Broadway, a commercial landmark where the West Village meets the East, in 1996. Anyone who’s taken the 6 to Astor Place might recall the big red “K” that can be seen from the Subway platform, beckoning riders to hunt for discounts.

For those who actually stopped in, searching for a three-pack of Hanes T-shirts or a clean-ish city bathroom, the store could provide a memorable, and occasionally haunting, shopping experience.

At least that was the case for all those who shared online tributes to the store after it closed abruptly on July 11.

On Twitter, the author Jason Diamond described going to the Astor Place Kmart as “one of the weirdest shopping experiences for reasons I could never quite put my finger on.”

“I never went to the Astor Place Kmart, mostly because I was certain it was haunted,” tweeted Malika Hunasikatti, a 32-year-old policy specialist.

Chris Crowley, a writer for New York Magazine’s Vulture, wrote that it “always felt like a perfect location for a shopping scene gone wrong in a zombie apocalypse movie.”

The store’s announcement of its closure was a quiet one, communicated by printouts taped to clothing racks and windows. There had been rumblings for a while: Three years ago, the department store downsized from three floors to two after Vornado Realty Trust bought out its lease. Even earlier, tech and media giants like AOL and Facebook had set up shop in the building.

Mark Peikert, an editor who moved to New York City from Texas 20 years ago, worked for a few years in one of the offices above Kmart. “Everything just felt weird and vaguely creepy,” Mr. Peikert, 37, said of the store by phone. “I referred to that Kmart as an episode of ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’, but truly, it felt like someone from the Midnight Society was telling a crazy story about consumerism.”

Big-box stores are designed to increase the likelihood of people spending money, taking into account all kinds of psychological and biological factors. Paco Underhill, the author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping,” cited hand dominance as an example.

“Ninety percent of us are right-handed, and therefore it is easier to organize a store with a counterclockwise circulation pattern because we push a cart with our left hand and we pick things up with our right hand,” said Mr. Underhill, who is also the founder and C.E.O. of Envirosell, a behavioral research and consulting firm that counted Kmart among its clients in the late 1980s.

In recent years, the Astor Place Kmart bravely defied all consumer-psychology logic: The shop’s aisles were rearranged so often that it seemed like an ongoing prank.

On any given month, towels might be in the seasonal section, which was usually, but not always, in the basement, or they could be in home goods on the ground floor, or they could be nowhere at all. That seasonal section (wherever it was located) certainly held seasonal goods, but no one ever promised it would do so in a reasonable way.

“I went in October looking for Halloween stuff, and they only had a huge St. Patrick’s Day display,” said Valerie Kamen, a 29-year-old screenwriter living in the East Village.

Perhaps she should have visited around Christmas for her Halloween goods. “I got a post-Halloween-sale doormat,” said Max Henry, a 33-year-old actor and writer, when asked about his most memorable purchase from the store, where he says a woman once yelled at him just for laughing. “It was well after Halloween, completely out of season.”

In addition to showcasing a mind-boggling assortment of items, the Kmart at 770 Broadway aligned itself in the ’90s and early aughts with a mishmash of celebrities and entertainment franchises.

There was the time, in 1997, when U2 played in the store’s lingerie section. According to an article that appeared in the Daily News that February, Bono sat in a reporter’s lap and handed out Kmart merchandise (a detail this reporter was not able to confirm).

A year later, Kmart took out a full-page ad in the same publication to alert the city that both of its Manhattan locations would soon start selling the double-VHS set of “Titanic.” Smack dab in the middle of the ad is a cute little “Titanic Fact” claiming that the Kmart at Astor Place was the site of the first Titanic distress call, with the future head of RCA, David Sarnoff, acting as the wireless operator — an exaggerated rumor at best, started by Mr. Sarnoff’s cousin, according to his biographer, Kenneth Bilby.

Others whose appearances drew fans to the store include Garth Brooks, JoJo, Martha Stewart, Aaron Carter and Sofia Vergara.

Ms. Kamen, the screenwriter, said that for two years in the 2010s, the only song you could hear over the loudspeakers in the children’s section was Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire.” “I don’t know if they had a special licensing thing,” she said. “It was nonstop from 2012 to 2013. One corner of the store.” Why?

Now, left in the wake of those product endorsements and cursed shopping trips are bare mannequins, ladders of varying heights and abandoned red shopping carts. This shouldn’t be all that surprising: Kmart merged with Sears in 2005. In 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy. Stores under both names are now owned by Transformco, which closed nearly 100 locations between December 2019 and February 2020. The list of shuttered storefronts has only grown since. (Transformco did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, knowing something is nearing its end doesn’t make that eventuality any less sad, and this Kmart in particular felt different. It seemed, at times, as though it were modeled after someone’s bleary recollections of a store they’d just dreamed about, where the details shift and morph, and it doesn’t strike you that something isn’t quite right with that until you’re trying to make sense of it out loud.

It was a Kmart, yes, but dustier than any you had ever seen and stranger than you would expect. It wasn’t necessarily reliable, but it was relied upon. If you rode the 6 (perhaps to work at 770 Broadway, as I once did), you could walk from the train right into the store’s subterranean entrance, like a vampire dodging the sun. And even if you never set a foot inside, it was a constant in an ever-changing plaza — a store that existed, despite everything.

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