Luxury Retailers Prepare for the Apocalypse

A Chelsea resident is angered by boarded-up storefronts

30 Mar 2020 | 02:15

There’s so much that enrages me these days that I’m sure I overacted last week when I spotted the boarded up storefront of the luxury skincare store on Ninth Avenue in my Chelsea neighborhood.

My partner and I were on our way back from our early-morning fast-walk in Hudson River Park (super-early to avoid having to be vigilant about staying six feet away from other walkers and runners). The sight of the raw plywood stopped me in my tracks. At first I thought perhaps someone had broken a window, but on closer inspection I realized that the corporate entity that owns Aesop had decided to prepare for the apocalypse.

When my partner and I moved to West 20th Street in Chelsea twenty-six years ago, it would have been laughable to think that luxury anything would be sold on the east side of Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st Streets (the west side was still occupied by a General Theological Seminary building that had no street-level retail). It was a homely block of hyper-local stores that included a long-time butcher, a vegetarian takeout place frequented by South Asian cab drivers, a tiny florist shop, and I can’t remember what else. Over the years this little stretch of our neighborhood has been transformed along with so much of Chelsea, but until Aesop arrived, all the stores on this block were still locally owned; Aesop is owned by a Brazilian company and has 225+ locations around the world.

What infuriated me about the boarded up storefront was the message it sent: we don’t trust you NOT to loot our store. As if the first thing people think of in a pandemic is stealing luxury skincare products. It struck me as cowardly and shameful and wrong. I quickly discovered that Aesop wasn’t alone, that the virus of fear had struck at the heart of luxury brand retailers with stores across town in SoHo, and in high-end shopping districts well beyond New York.

Maybe these retailers know something I don’t about what’s to come. But what I know is that the crime rate here in New York has fallen even further as the pandemic has unfolded and I can’t find a single news story about looting. So what are these multinational luxury goods purveyors afraid of? And why would they do something that adds to a sense of fear at a time when we’re all scared out of our wits? And what does it say about how much these companies care about our communities?

I never thought I’d quote Ronald Reagan or even paraphrase him, but here goes: Aesop, tear down your plywood wall! If the apocalypse comes, the plywood isn’t going to make a difference anyway (I was in NYC for the 1977 blackout — even metal gates didn’t keep out looters). In the meantime, you’re just making people like me resent you and your presence in our neighborhood.

Just one final question for Aesop’s parent company: Now that you’ve secured your inventory behind plywood (or at least take comfort in that illusion), what are you doing to protect the salaries and health insurance of the lovely people who worked in your Chelsea store?

Eric Marcus is a journalist. He co-produces and hosts the "Making Gay History" podcast.