RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The great cities of the world were often built at the crossroad. A place where trade routes came together and people could do business face to face. But even in this Internet economy, new crossroads pop up all the time. Our Planet Money team found one in a neglected stretch of midtown Manhattan. NPR's Robert Smith had a look.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The corner of 29th Street and Broadway features one of those classic New York splits. On one side of the street, we have the Ace Hotel. It's a boutique joint with $500 rooms. On the other side of the street, is this collection of tiny stores that sell the cheapest trinkets and stuff you can imagine. But it turns out the two sides of the street are actually both in the same business: getting people together.
I'll show you what I mean over here on the cheap side. David Hong has a brand new store. It's packed with wigs and hair extensions. And his big plan is to buy fake hair from one side of the world, Asia, and sell it to the other side of the world, Africa.
DAVID HONG: From Africa, West Africa.
SMITH: Why do you need a store? Can't people just buy these on the computer?
HONG: Because this kind item is hard to figure out, you know, quality.
SMITH: So people want to touch it. They want to see the hair extensions. They want to flip through them, hold them, look at the exact color in the light.
HONG: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
SMITH: OK, so why open a store on 29th Street if you want to reach Africa? Hong tells me it's not the location. It's the customers. African businesspeople fly across the Atlantic to come to this corner to buy cheap products, to sell in their stores back home. And they can get anything: candy-colored watches. Embossed lighters, belt buckles, fake gold chains.
Around the corner at a perfume store, I ran into Kemi Alao. She lives in Nigeria. She's looking for stuff for her boutique.
It would seem crazy to people to fly all the way across the ocean to the United States to buy perfume. Can't you call them up on the telephone and say send me a package?
KEMI ALAO: Yeah, you can. You can do that. Though sending money sometimes is so difficult from Nigeria. And then, sometimes you want to know who you're dealing with.
SMITH: Alao wants to use cash. She wants to look people in the eye. She wants to make sure products aren't shoddy or fake. As inefficient as it seems to use 29th Street in Manhattan as this global crossroads, she hasn't found better way.
Now, oddly enough, the cool crowd across the street at Ace Hotel, they're doing the same thing. The lobby of the Ace Hotel, in the mid-afternoon, seems like an outpost of one of those new media conference. There're cool, young people lounging on sofas tapping away on laptops.
For instance, Ariella Cheskis-Gold is planning a music festival. She's not staying at the hotel, she just uses this lobby for meetings. And just like at the hair extension shop, it's not the location. It's the crowd.
ARIELLA CHESKIS-GOLD: Any one of these people I could strike a conversation up with and we'll find something. And, you know, it could lead to another job. It could lead to another freelance opportunity.
SMITH: And this lobby did not happen by accident. Alex Calderwood, the co-founder of the hotel, says he set out to create a crossroads here. He can fill his rooms and charge a premium, if it feels more like a creative scene. So there's the free Wi-Fi, the curated music.
ALEX CALERWOOD: You want the hotel overall and the public spaces to be sort of a catalyst for interaction. I personally have just always believed that, like, energy attracts energy.
SMITH: Energy attracts energy. That could be the motto for either side of the street. The bracelet stores attract the hairweave joints. The Ace Hotel attracts new clothing boutiques. Real estate being what it is, you could predict that maybe the hip stores will push out the wholesale business.
But both side of the street actually face a common threat. When you build around a crossroads, the big risk is your customers will find a shorter route, that they'll bypass you completely. The trinket sellers, they're already seeing fewer customers, as China figures out better ways to get their products directly to Africa.
And the Ace Hotel, they have to worry about what happens if they lose their cool. Ariella Cheskis-Gold says she used to work at another hip hotel lobby, but the vibe changed, so she picked up her laptop and she left.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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