The soft Indian music in the background, the smell of incense wafting lazily in the air and the seemingly endless rows of colorful saris adorning the shelves transport you to a different part of the world in just a few minutes.
“It’s not just the quality of our saris, but the whole experience. It makes people feel at home,” said Ratan Sharma, 62, who has worked at Indian Sari Place since it opened in 1971 and is now one of its senior managers.
Located on 37th Avenue and 74th Street in Jackson Heights, the Indian Sari Place is every sari-lover’s dream. The constant stream of customers and the massive volume of sales is a testimony to the store’s remarkable growth from a mail-order business to a chain spread across California, Chicago and different parts of New York, during the past five decades. In the middle of one of its busiest seasons before Diwali, a religious Indian festival on Oct. 26, the store was abuzz with activity as its staff works to assist the influx of customers.
On a typical day, women stream into the store, usually in groups of three or four, and are welcomed warmly by one of the six saleswomen waiting behind the counters. They exchange greetings and the conversation usually begins with an inquiry about the well-being of family members, staying true to subcontinental traditions.
According to Kiran Bdarji, 43, a saleswoman at the store for the past 20 years, “This is how things are done in India,” she explained. “You shop, you talk and you make friends. And they want the same when they come here.”
And it is no different here thousands of miles away. Amidst the chatter, several yards of different fabrics — including cotton, silk, chiffon and French lace — are measured. The neat countertops are transformed into a painter’s palette, coming alive with shades of red, gold and blue, patterns and embellishments like threadwork, sequins and beads, within a matter of minutes. Each sari is then draped across the contours of the customer’s body in front of a full-length mirror so that she may scrutinize the way the material falls and its quality. The saleswoman offers casual advice regarding the right fabric, color and look.
The store’s clientele is comprised of mostly married women, usually between the ages of 30 and 45. “Previously, it was a traditional thing. Women used to get their nose pierced and wear saris, only after getting married. But now, young girls just find it inconvenient to wear ethnic clothes in this fast-paced city,” explained Ratan Sharma, the store’s senior manager.
While the age of shoppers has remained consistent, the composition of the clientele has changed significantly. The customers, who were once limited to South Indians and Pakistanis, now also include a large number of Nepalese, Bengalis and West-Indian immigrants.
Mita Ola, 47, a Harlem resident from Bangladesh, has been coming to the store for the past 18 years. Even though Ola goes to Bangladesh almost every year and does the majority of her shopping there, she still likes to come to the Indian Sari Palace once a month.
“Back home I can only get a certain kind of sari,” she said. “But coming here, you have everything in the world from Indian to French to Japanese fabric.” She admits, however, the slightly higher prices do not always allow her to shop as freely as she would like.
The prices of the everyday saris made of cotton and synthetic fabric range from $16 to $45, while the fancier ones of chiffon, lace and silk can cost anywhere between $125 and $550. Despite the slightly higher prices and the immense competition from several other sari stores in the area, the store has managed to thrive successfully. According to Mano Khiantani, 66, another manager at the store, its advantage lies in its handmade merchandise while most other stores rely on standard factory-made products, allowing them to sell at lower prices. “It takes a lot of experience and financial backing to stock the variety that we have here,” he said.
Laal Heeranand, the founder of the Indian Sari Place stores, initially owned a successful garment business in Hong Kong. He decided to open up the first store in downtown Manhattan in the early 70s based on the high number of orders from New York. However, the increase in duties at the time made it unfeasible to send merchandise on a regular basis.
America was also an unexplored market, as not many knew about the craft. “It gave us a justification for our green cards. We were not replacing local labor because we knew something that they did not,” explained Sharma.
Sharma and his co-workers have no qualms about working extra hours during the busy shopping season because they know that once temperatures drop sharply, so will the number of customers that walk through the double glass doors every day.