Has the Nolita Bubble Burst?

Photo: Jeremy Liebman

When advertising exec Hugh Duthie and his friend Cynthia Ashworth visited Vietnam in 1998, they were awestruck by the beautiful lacquerware there and hatched a plan for a Manhattan store. Four years later, there was no question where to open Saigoniste: Nolita. It had buzz, storefronts, and, they thought, customers. They lasted a year there.

The first of Manhattan’s microneighborhoods to emerge in the mid-nineties, Nolita saw retail rents double by 1998, from $50 to $100 a square foot, as Italian butchers and hardware gave way almost overnight to tiny, precious boutiques. The place is such shorthand for cool that the eatery on Fox’s Kitchen Confidential is called Nolita.

Then why do more than two dozen storefronts now stand empty in its nine blocks? It’s pretty much always been the case: Nolita turnover is unusually brutal.

Somehow the Williamsburg-ish crowd hanging out in front of Café Habana doesn’t translate into sales of the sort of arty luxury goods the shops are peddling. Theresa Ma, whose skin-care line, SCO, had a storefront on Mulberry Street before decamping to Broadway last year, notes, “People who live in Soho will happily pay $4 for a cup of coffee or buy an expensive face cream like mine.” Not in tenement-filled Nolita. “Most buildings are falling apart, with regular water and toilet leaks from the apartments above,” Duthie notes.

And then there’s the nabe’s previous claim to fame: September’s spumoni-and-beer-fueled San Gennaro Festival. “It’s crushing,” says Lindsay Cain of Femmegems, a do-it-yourself jewelry lab on Mulberry. “Those two weekends in September are really important—everyone is back from the Hamptons and women are excited to get shopping again. We tried to stay open during the festival our first year, in 2002, and there were horrid sausages and rats outside our door every morning, so now we just close.”

Many of Nolita’s vanished shops, whether the clothing boutique Boudoir or the Sterile Minds gallery, shut when their owners lost interest. Some moved (Saigoniste lasted another year in Soho). Local retail brokers Edmond Li and Brett Nidel say leases from Nolita’s pioneers have come due in the past year: Most proprietors signed five-year contracts with a two-year extension. There’s little left of that generation. Meanwhile, along Mott Street north of the Euro hangout Café Gitane, rents are up to $300 per square foot.

Now a new wave of mini-chain stores—like Chip & Pepper denim and NIKEiD—are moving in. Ralph Lauren’s RRL Vintage store, which closed its always-empty Mulberry Street location last year, is reopening in a smaller outpost nearby. For brands trying to foster a downtown image, the allure of a Nolita storefront may outweigh slow sales. “Everyone’s holding their breath for the day Banana Republic rolls in, and then we’ll slit our wrists,” Cain says.

Has the Nolita Bubble Burst?