The New York Times
The three men stood in a ragged row on the sidewalk, backs against the shop fronts, baseball caps pulled low. Their eyes twitched toward the street corners, alert for the police, as they murmured promises of sought after and quite possibly illicit merchandise, clutched under jackets or stashed around the corner.
A shopper can find pretty much anything else here, too, on this strip of Broadway a few blocks south of 34th Street. Sports jerseys. Sunglasses. Perfume. DVD’s fresh maybe a little too fresh from the big screen. Name brand sneakers that are probably not. And, of course, Louis Vuitton handbags of uncertain provenance.
The police call it Counterfeit Alley, and say it is the city’s top haven for knockoff, no name, and flat out phony goods. In the last two years, the city has seized close to $50 million in counterfeit goods in the area and shut down, under the same nuisance abatement laws used to clean up Times Square, 15 buildings in the area that they said were once occupied almost entirely by counterfeiters.
But thousands of people still pack the area on weekends. Many are New Yorkers, but some travel hundreds of miles via tour bus, dragging suitcases and rolling duffels full of clothes back home to North Carolina or Pennsylvania. To them, it is a poor man’s shopping mall, an admittedly seedy and therefore affordable alternative to the gleaming, teeming Herald Square stores a few blocks away.
Though sidewalk vendors abound in the area, most of the shopping in Counterfeit Alley takes place in a handful of old office buildings along Broadway and the side streets. Most have been divided and subdivided into warrens of dingy boutiques and record stores, run more or less like speakeasies. There are no signs or billboards advertising their presence, only clusters of men at the building entrances muttering questions “CD’s? Sneakers? What you want, man?”
Answer in the affirmative, and you will be led through the maze to your chosen destination. It is not quite the Galleria. The illicit thrill of entering a room full of $40 faux North Face jackets, for example, is easily sapped by the sound of the door being locked behind a shopper’s back.
“Scary, scary,” said Marlene Scott, 48, from Pittsburgh, who stood outside one of the buildings recently. “I’m chicken.” She sticks to the street vendors and the wholesale stores, asking other shoppers for tips.
But on weekends, a steady stream of customers can be seen leaving the office buildings, blinking in the sunlight and clutching the unmarked blue plastic shopping bags used by many of the stores.
“Almost everything around here is a knockoff, man,” said Reginald W. Singleton, a street vendor, on a recent weekend. “So everyone’s a little tense. Anytime they see a white man in there, they assume he’s a cop.” The buyers and sellers on Counterfeit Alley, he pointed out, are typically black.
Mr. Singleton returned to plying his wares. He sells legitimately, he hastened to say T shirts. Big T shirts. “I sell XL and up,” he said. “2XL, 3XL, all the way to 6XL. I don’t even carry larges anymore.”
Nearby, a fellow street vendor, Carlos Joseph, 50, sold perfumes, his city issued permit dangling from his neck. Like most of the vendors on Broadway, Mr. Joseph drew a fine distinction between name brand scents and imitations, which he sells, and counterfeit perfumes, which he does not.
“I do it the legit way because I don’t want any trouble with the law,” he said.
Mr. Joseph sells bottles of Jean Paul Gaultier perfume for $15; it can cost up to four times more in a store. He said he buys it in bulk from a wholesaler. “That’s real,” he said. Mr. Joseph pointed to another bottle of perfume, unlabeled, but shaped like the one sold at fine department stores under the name of a certain pop star. “The Britney, that’s not.”
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Off the street, within the confines of the old office buildings, the boundaries are less clear. Some of the stores sell only legal off brand products, overstock merchandise, and niche products Rastafarian religion books, say, or CD’s of traditional Senegalese music. Others sell a mix of off brands and counterfeits.
“We don’t sell anything illegal,” said a vendor who gave his name only as Dem, and who runs a shop in a Broadway building near 30th Street. “I deal with the closeout companies.” Two year old Rocawear jeans, for instance, might sell for under $10. “We’re just trying to make some money,” he said.
But law enforcement officials take a less benign view of the trade, describing the area as rife with crime and counterfeiting. A 2004 report from the city comptroller’s office estimated that New York loses about $1 billion in tax revenue a year from the trade in counterfeit goods, though some analysts say the figure is inflated. The police say they are just as concerned with public safety as lost sales taxes and ripped off tourists.
“These buildings violate every code in the book,” said John Feinblatt, the city’s criminal justice coordinator. “The exit signs are obliterated, or the fire exits are locked or blocked by boxes of merchandise. They’re firetraps.”
They are also, not infrequently, the scene of burglary, shootings and even murder. Early last year, one vendor was killed and another wounded during an altercation with customers in a building on West 27th Street. Later that summer, a tourist from Baltimore was killed in crossfire when a second floor CD warehouse on West 29th Street was robbed.
It is partly because of the crime that some local merchants, especially those who run the jewelry stores in the area, say they support enforcement efforts.
“Too much of the avenue is involved in that business,” said Saif Khan, who sells costume jewelry and sunglasses out of a street front store on Broadway. “If you are selling fake things, you are hurting the city, hurting legitimate businesses.”
About a half dozen buildings in the vicinity continue to contain some amount of the counterfeit trade, the police said. But as enforcement efforts have shut down buildings where the counterfeit stores were heavily concentrated, officials said, entrepreneurs have been relocating, setting up shop in smaller spaces farther up Broadway.
Meanwhile, some of those who run shops in the old office buildings complain that the police, in their zeal to crack down on counterfeiters, harass even legitimate businesses.
“They make life hard. They arrest you for nothing,” said Boubacar Savadogo, who sells no name fleece jackets and jeans out of a boutique in one Broadway building, where on weekends men stalk the hallways selling imitation iPods. “For me, they find a living, I find a living; you know what I mean? You don’t know if it’s real or not.”