Canal Street Market, a multi-vendor retail and dining concept straddling the border of Manhattan’s SoHo and Chinatown, presents a potential solution for the struggling retail market, which has lost ample foot traffic amidst the e-commerce boom. Of the twenty-six retail vendors that are in the space at any given time, eight are anchor vendors — staying on for three months to a year — while the rest rotate out regularly, including at least a few that are added at the start of each month.
The vendors cross categories, from jewelry to florists, and are set up alongside a permanent coffee shop and nouveau magazine stand (featuring independent pubs like Space and Buffalo) run by Office Coffee. Anchors — all small, local businesses — include Sorelle jewelry and Mast Brothers chocolate.
Located on a particularly bustling strip of Canal Street, the market stands as a clean break amongst the crowded souvenir and T-shirt shops for which the area is known. That was intentional, according to founder Philip Chong and creative director Dasha Faires. “I think the draw to Canal Street is the juxtaposition [here] — the craziness outside versus the cool offices and retail spaces that exist inside,” said Philip. “From the get-go, we were excited about bringing in something new to the neighborhood that would play off what’s going on outside.”
Canal Street Market (Photo by Matt Johnson)
The partners both know the area well. Chong owns a real estate agency called HRCE, located right upstairs, and had owned the space previously when it was a crowded flea market. Faires worked nearby at the fashion brand Veda as sales director for four years before leaving last year to seek out a more creative role. Last July, the two met through friends in the area and began plotting the market — which Chong had initially envisioned as a pure food hall. Faires came on board to build out the retail side.
That 6,000-square-foot area opened in December and has quickly become a respite for fashionable crowds seeking refuge from the hubbub outside. It has a minimalist, airy feel, featuring bleached wood floors and white walls, with congruent signage and furniture across vendor stations.
The food hall is still in the works, due to the added logistics that come with food production, and is slated to open in late spring or early summer. It will be a darker, more intimate space, with 11 vendors ranging from Nom Wah to Fresh & Co, and unlike in the retail space, each vendor will do their own build-out.
The market offers more than a place to shop and snack — there’s also a large open space in the back where regular events are held. “It’s not only important for each of these vendors to [make] day-to-day transactions,” said Philip. “We also wanted them to use the back area to host events, take meetings or just chill.” And so far, they’ve made good use of it. Events have included Record Magazine’s Issue 2 launch party and a Kickstarter campaign kickoff for Keap Candles. Outside companies like Manila Social Club, a local French-meets-Filipino restaurant, have also thrown events.
Canal Street Market (Photo by Matt Johnson)
Vendors have been more than pleased with the results of setting up shop in the market. Leo Lei, the founder of Leibal, a company that sells minimalist furniture and watches, notes that CSM provided him a less precarious opportunity to bring his digital-only brand offline. “[It offers] the perfect middle ground in allowing smaller brands such as ourselves to have a retail location without risking the entire business on a long-term lease,” he said. And it has paid off: “Aside from being able to meet with online customers and fans of Leibal in person, a huge benefit for us has been the opportunity to test the market with a variety of products,” he said, adding that he rotates his collection weekly. What’s more, Lei has bonded with other local designers and shop owners, some of whom he’s now collaborating with on future projects.
Jill Lindsey, who owns boutiques in her name in Fort Greene and Malibu, is equally enthusiastic about the market, noting that it gives the brands she curates more exposure than usual. “We always receive emails and comments from people who live in Manhattan who would like to shop with us but never come to Brooklyn, so we came to them,” she said.
“I think the reason people have been excited about this model and responded to it now is that it’s almost the complete opposite of everything that’s happening in retail, where everything’s online,” explained Dasha, of the market’s success so far. “This is more experiential and immersive. A lot of the people working in the booths are the actual owners of these companies, so customers are getting to actually speak to the person who makes or sources the products.”
But they understand the value of a digital presence in today’s world, too, and to coincide with their Instagram presence, an online platform is in the works (the details of which are still vague).
Other plans include the incorporation of more tech products — an effort to appeal more to male consumers and also a response to feedback the market has received about what the area was lacking — as well as media integrations. The first of those launches next week with Man Repeller, which will be turning the market’s back area into a community hub for its readers and selling branded merchandise on the weekends. In April, Man Repeller will pass the torch to working-girl blog Passerbuys, and in May, the space will be dedicated to Design Week with “a notable curator and media partner” the team couldn’t yet discuss.
While New York City has seen a rise in food halls over the last few years, a retail market of this caliber is still rare — Chelsea Market is comparable, but requires brands to rent out much larger spaces and offers no intentional rotation with which to entice customers. Canal Street Market provides a welcome blueprint for smaller, online-only brands who want to dip their toes in the uncertain brick and mortar world without too much commitment.