Most New Yorkers have a little Century 21 brag — a bit of retail pride that came from finding a high-end piece of clothing or accessory at a steep discount in the now-shuttered Financial District department store.
For Denise Filien, a human resources worker for the city Department of Social Services, it was a Kate Spade belt.
“I bought it for $20 and they usually cost $70,” she said Thursday afternoon while grabbing lunch across the street from the outlet’s old Cortlandt Street location. “It needs to come back.”
On Tuesday the owners of the store announced that after two and half years, Filien’s wish will come true.
After going bankrupt in 2020, a new incarnation of the department store, called Century 21 NYC, will reopen in a pared-down version in its old space at 25 Church Street in spring 2023.
The company announced it will partner with Legends, a global “experiences company” that specializes in e-commerce, pop-up stores and managing in-store operations.
New Yorkers looking for a return to normalcy after the pandemic found hope in the announcement, but Century 21’s return is more of a real estate story that may be hard for other retailers to replicate because it’s more about the landlord than the retail concept.
The Gindi family that owns Century 21 also owns the site where the store will be located, making the retailer mostly immune to the volatility of commercial rents in Manhattan.
Our flagship store has been a long-time symbol of this city's resilience and unwavering spirit.
Century 21’s bankruptcy filing in 2020 came as a shock to fans of the store, which saw brisk business leading into the pandemic, making $747 million in 2019. The co-CEO Raymond Gindi blamed the bankruptcy on insurers for not covering the business interruption during the COVID-19 lockdown measures, but in court filings, the company admitted that e-commerce and diminished foot traffic in lower Manhattan had hurt trade.
“Their business has been heavily dependent on in-store traffic, which has declined in recent years as a result of broad market factors as well as decreased tourism to downtown Manhattan, the site of the Debtors’ flagship store,” CFO Norm Veit wrote in a bankruptcy filing.
The Gindi Family closed 13 stores in New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania during the restructuring. They sold off all the merchandise to pay off their creditors and sold the name and intellectual property for $900 million to the family’s real estate business, ASG Equities, and a silent partner.
The problems identified by the CFO have not gone away and if anything they have gotten worse.
The plan to reopen flies in the face of trends away from brick-and-mortar stores, the continued disruptions in the supply chain and the slow death of the department store. Even before the pandemic, Manhattan has seen the closure of many popular stores and restaurants that could not afford to keep pace with the cost of rent — most notably Barneys, the luxury department store on Madison Avenue that saw its rent jump from $16 million to $30 million a year in 2019.
Century 21’s owners “can determine their destiny because they control that particular real estate, because they own it," Nina Kampler, a strategic advisor in retail real estate, said. “As opposed to Barneys which actually was cannibalized by the rent structure. If Barneys was not strangled by those economics, they might still be alive. Barneys was killed by the rent."
The family’s real estate company acts as a backstop for those problems. Their portfolio stretches from Canada to Florida and from New York to California. They also own property in London, but it seems clear that the retail outlet is the sentimental heart of the Gindi family.
Century 21 was started in 1961 by the family patriarch, Al Gindi, the son of Syrian Jewish immigrants.
“Our dad built this business 60 years ago. We feel obligated to keep the legacy going,” IG Gindi, co-CEO, told Women’s Wear Daily on Thursday. The family declined to speak to Gothamist.
The only other time the Financial District store shut down was after 9/11 when the merchandise was covered with ash from the twin towers. The family has said they reopened then as part of an effort to rebuild the city after the attack.
“Our flagship store has been a long-time symbol of this city's resilience and unwavering spirit,” Raymond Gindi said in a statement this week. ”But like the true New Yorkers we are, we have persevered.”
The company promises that it won’t be changing its basic concept of high-end brands at rock-bottom prices.
Cynthia Furman, who works with Filien at DSS, said the comeback will be a boon for shoppers.
“I think it’s important for it to open back up,” she said. “People have been missing Century 21. If a store like that comes back, it’ll bring back the foot traffic.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the rent increase at Barneys' Madison Avenue location. It was increased to $30 million a year, not a month, in 2019.