There's a neighborhood in New York City that has always been a mystery to us. Smack dab in the middle of Manhattan, around 29th street, is the wholesale district. There you can find rows of narrow storefronts packed to the ceiling with trinkets. Racks and racks of fake gold chains. Acres of souvenir lighters and walls of belt buckles. Plastic, plastic, plastic toys.
It's not surprising that these things exist. But why would you sell all this cheap junk from stores sitting on some of the most expensive real estate in the world?
It's not as if we make it here. Most of it comes from Asia.
And it's not just to sell this junk to New Yorkers. We just don't need that many key chains.
No, the trinkets are here because this stretch of Midtown is a hub in a vast global network of junk. When stores in Africa, or Latin America or the Middle East run short, they come here.
The biggest reason is one of scale. Small stores in developing nations can't handle a whole shipping container filled with thousands of rhinestone bracelets. They only need a few. So the people in New York's wholesale district order the big loads and sell the bracelets by the dozen.
Still, why does it have to be stored in Manhattan and not in a warehouse in New Jersey? Why can't the buyers just get it over the phone or the Internet?
We ran into a Nigerian businesswoman in a cheap perfume store in the area and asked her. Kemi Alao was buying for her boutique, Lasting Impressions, in the town of Jos. She said that its hard to send money electronically from Nigeria and make sure that you are getting what you paid for. Even when she flew directly to China, she said that she found that she couldn't trust the quality.
Alao says its much easier to bring cash and some empty suitcases to New York and buy stuff in person. That way you can tell if merchandise is flawed or counterfeit. And you can look people in the eye when you do business.
For buyers like Alao, New York City makes logical sense as trinket hub. It's easy to get to this city from the rest of the world. And once you get here everything is close together. Alao can't drive between warehouses in New Jersey. In Manhattan, she can walk a couple of blocks and see hundreds of different stores. The more customers, the more stores pop-up. And the more stores, the better the selection.
But like any hub, this neighborhood is only as strong as the network around it. And in the last few years, the businessmen in the wholesale district say it's been getting tough. It's not just the economy. Since 9-11, it's been harder to move money and merchandise in suitcases on planes. And the City of New York has been cracking down on parking and making it harder to ship in the junk.
In any other type of business, these stores would have already moved out of Manhattan. But the wholesalers fear the African and Latin American customers would never venture out of the city to find them. And so they stay. Better to huddle at the crossroads, than be off alone in the middle of nowhere.