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Farewell To A New York Icon: The Astor Place Kmart

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A New York institution has closed after nearly 25 years. It's the Astor Place Kmart. The big-box store served as a patently uncool anchor in the East Village, one of New York City's most fashionable districts.

ADA CALHOUN: Kmart just seems so, like, middle-class suburban that I think it seemed sort of like an alien spaceship landing in the middle of this very bohemian neighborhood.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ada Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up down the block. She wrote a history of the neighborhood called "St. Marks is Dead: The Many Lives Of America's Hippest Street." She remembers when the Kmart first opened in 1996.

CALHOUN: There was a lot of grumbling that I heard. Like, what is that doing here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A mainstream intruder into a rarified space of New York cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BONO: Playing on the east side (ph).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rock stars U2 launched a 1997 concert tour in the store's lingerie department poking fun at consumerism. Here's The Edge at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THE EDGE: Well, I think, you know, we're here, basically, to sell our tour to the world. And I don't think there's anywhere better, really, than Kmart to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But concerns about the death of the village were overblown. Over time, the Astor Place Kmart began to reflect the weirdness of the neighborhood itself, says writer Ada Calhoun.

CALHOUN: It wasn't like a suburban Kmart. I mean, you'd look at who was there. And it was punk rockers, you know, getting underwear or artists getting a toaster. So I think it actually really served a purpose.

ADITI KINI: I always saw people going in and out. They had this bathroom I think that you could use.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: New York University students like Aditi Kini would often find themselves at the Kmart.

KINI: Whenever my friend and I wanted to go to hang out, we'd, like, go to Kmart because it was - it felt like a place where there's no pressure to buy anything. But also, there was a possibility that you could.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A possibility you could buy anything if you could find it because the Astor Place Kmart was not the most, shall we say, logically planned store. Ada Calhoun remembers...

CALHOUN: It just got very odd, the things that you'd see, like, you know, the big display of, like, Easter eggs next to, like, a bunch of pool noodles. I don't know - just - like, I remember, like, never being able to, like, find something. Like, I think I went in for, like - I think it was, like, a sleeping bag for my son. And I was like, probably, it will be in the camping section. And then it was just like all volleyballs or - I don't know. It was just - it felt unusual.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Student Aditi Kini remembers a few sections that seemed oddly placed.

KINI: The bra section was near the checkout on the front. I felt really uncomfortable shopping in front of the checkout counter. There's, like, cereal and stuff in the basement, which felt like not an ideal place to keep perishable food.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz, who was a frequent shopper since its opening, found the mess appealing.

JERRY SALTZ: The tragedy and maybe the existential beauty of America is each one of us knows we're sort of on our own. And that's what shopping at Kmart was. You would never think to ask, do you think you have any mediums in the back room? There was no back room. This is the room.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When the store announced its closure, loyal customers and one-time confused browsers alike offered up memories online. Let's hope whatever replaces it ends up being just as weird. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.