The Romantic Gift Shop Just Broke My Heart Up

Posted by Michael Pinto on Aug 27, 2009 in Hobbies and Collections |

The Romantic Gift Shop

I think I discovered The Romantic Gift Shop sometime in the 90s by pure accident while wandering around Chinatown. Located at 151 Mott Street in New York City this little shop was an amazing oasis of everything Sanrio! Frankly the store was designed for the more youthful residents of Chinatown who were looking for stationery goodies, but if you were a Hello Kitty fiend this little gem was one of the best kept secrets in all of the city.

I can still see it clearly in mind like it was a few minutes ago: You’d enter the store and it crammed with just a few narrow aisles which were wall-to-wall cute. In the front of the store there were stickers, now these weren’t the crude large ones that you see at the Hallmark store — but tiny ones about twice the size of a credit card and placed upon clear plastic. Mixed in were pencils, erasers, mechanical pencils, pens, stationery sets, and still more cool stickers! In the back of the store you had notebooks, photo albums and of course anime posters. There were even a few model kits and other cool items like bento boxes. Yet what made this all amazing is that for a place the size of a living room they had more cool stuff crammed in per inch than the largest Japanese bookstore in Manhattan.

And of course to the little kids this gem encrusted cave of merchandise was completely normal. To them it was just another cool shop in Chinatown, but to the fanboys and fangurls it was a living shrine to cute cartoon characters that inhabit the universe of hard to find collectibles (shy of getting on a jet and taking a trip to Asia).

Now sadly my life the last few years has caught up with me, gone are my careless days of youth when I could just wander about the city for my own amusement. I now live in Brooklyn and my time in Manhattan is owned by my business — so even though The Romantic Gift Shop was just a few blocks away from my subway stop by my studio, I hadn’t been there for quite a few years.

So recently while designing a project I had this need for very cute typography. My mind started going through the potential resources and then it struck me: The perfect place was The Romantic Gift Shop where there had to be dozens of cute puffy alphabet stickers. This morning I made my move, instead of going north to NoHo from the Bowery stop like Civil War general I would march south. And march I did past what is left of Little Italy to where the Chinatown shops start to outnumber the cafes. Now in the back of my head I wasn’t 100% sure what I’d find, this is the big city and retail stores have their run — and sadly nothing lasts forever.

The Romantic Gift Shop in better times at 151 Mott St, NYC

What I witnessed next broke my heart! Yes the store was still there, but the front of the shop was covered in tacky merchandise that’s aimed at the tourists. It was all the typical “I ♥ New York” dreck like t-shirts, and little model yellow taxi cabs. Well maybe this was just the outside of the store I reasoned, inside there had to be goodness waiting for all of my troubles.

But sadly what I found was like the ruins of a great civilization that had passed! The entire store was filled with tourist crap — and not just tourist crap, but really really bad tourist crap. The sort of stuff that’s so bad that someone visiting the city doesn’t buy for themselves but for a relation back home to prove that they had gone to the city in the first place. Searching the store from corner-to-corner I did find some Sanrio goodies hidden against the back wall. But alas it was the worst of their left over stock marked down by 50% to free up room for more bad t-shirts. The few anime posters I found were from shows from at least a few years ago, and they weren’t aging well.

Making matters worse the original clientele has vanished and in their place were a one or two souvenir hunters from suburbia picking over the ruins of my temple to the gods of cute. These sweatpant clad barbarians had no idea of the civilization that had flourished under their feet just a few years ago and they hunted and pecked through the postcards. I wanted to ask the shopkeeper what had happened, but I knew in my heart it would be just be taunting the once proud guardians of Sanrio goodness.

Crushed and defeated I dragged myself back to my studio knowing that any other special corner of the city that I love had vanished. And as I get older I notice more and more of those corners, some are famous like the spot where CBGB use to be (which is now a bad yuppie clothing shop) and others and less know but just as loved like art supply store I use to patronize in the Flatiron district. And today The Romantic Gift Shop broke off just another little piece of my heart.

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