Souvenir stores in New York City are a pit stop on every tourist’s itinerary. From “Broadway” street signs to miniature Statues of Liberty and Wall Street’s charging bull, there’s an overwhelming range of patriotic paraphernalia available to visitors who want to memorialize their visit to Gotham — except that none of it is made in the country it celebrates.
“Everything we sell here is from Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and Honduras,” said Mukhtar Ahmad, the owner of Zeeshan Gift Shop at West 45th Street. “America doesn’t make all this; it makes big things like nuclear bombs and jets.”
“Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of our souvenirs come from China. Their goods are very cheap, unlike the products made here,” said Joha, a salesman at Versailles Gallery & Gift on West 55th Street who would not give his last name. “Hardly 2 percent to 5 percent is from the U.S.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. imported $ 311 million of goods from China so far this year and exported $ 79 million. Over $31 million in goods were imported from India, with over $16 million being exported.
Sabine Starzer, a 27-year-old tourist from Austria, said it doesn’t matter to her where the gifts are from. “In my country, most of the stuff sold is made in China. China is ruling the manufacturing market,” said Starzer. “If I keep thinking that I want things from the country I am in, I will end up buying nothing.”
Sifting through the post cards in a gift shop on West 57th Street, Janhavi Dalvi, 26, a medical graduate from India, said the symbolic value of the gift is more important to her than which country it was made in. “The symbol of, say, the Statue of Liberty is more significant for me than where it is from. Being a student, I have to consider the price as well. If I have to buy something electronic, I’d look for quality and durability but not in these small items,” she said.
Though a visit to Times Square might lead one to believe that every day is tourist season, that isn’t the case for many souvenir stores in the area.
“Business has been so bad that everything I made in the last 15 years I have lost in this one year,” said Mohammed Ali, who owns the NY Gifts and Souvenirs store at 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue. “Since last year, my sales haven’t crossed $20,000 a month; in all I have lost almost $100,000,” he said, standing near a display of snow globes depicting the Manhattan skyline.
Rent is a large chunk of each store’s monthly expenses. Depending on the location, the rent varies from $15,000 for 500 square feet, the size of Ali’s store, to $35,000 for the same footage closer to Broadway.
A block north of Ali’s shop is Gifts and Luggage Gallery, where M. Shahie has been the manager for four years. “Our store is 1500 square feet and we pay close to $25,000 in rent every month, we’re just about breaking even,” he said. “The souvenir business is seasonal – January and February are always slow months, so during that time we cut down on staff and business hours to minimize any losses we might suffer.” He said that November and December are the best months for his store.
Owners fortunate enough to have more than one store can use income from one to cover expenses at another location that isn’t performing as well. But for single-store owners like Ali, it isn’t easy.
“My daily expenses add up to $900 – that includes rent, employee salaries, electricity bills and other miscellaneous expenses,” he said. Ali has had to cut down from four full time staff to two and change his store hours to be more cost-efficient.
After using broken French to help a tourist find her size in the ubiquitous “I heart NYC” t-shirts, Ali explained why he thought the souvenir business was slow: “It’s all about the economy. Fifty percent of my customers are European – why will they spend money when the economies in their countries are slow?” He said the same is true of Americans, with domestic tourists not spending as freely as they once did.
“There was a time when people would buy $22 t-shirts without thinking twice. For the last six months I have been reducing the price of almost all items in my store by a dollar a month, hoping to sell more, but it hasn’t worked so far,” he said.
Shahie had a different explanation for the tourists’ behavior. “From what I’ve seen, domestic tourists want to support as many businesses as they can. So rather than buying everything from one shop, they will buy a little from me, a little from another shop down the street and so on.”
Unfortunately for Ali, “down the street” wasn’t in the direction of his store. “If business continues like this I will have to shut my shop,” he said. “There have been some months when I haven’t drawn a salary. I can’t go on like this.”