Two years ago, I saw it for the first time, but a part of me wishes I hadn’t. Crushed against the window from the inside were bodies upon bodies of baby dolls—their jumbled limbs piled into a mass grave, unblinking eyes staring up in supplication. Looming over them was a congregation of zombies, skeletons with colored mohawks, and a giant, grinning Mickey Mouse dressed like Uncle Sam.
Paralyzed in a kind of horrified rapture, I stood gaping at the scene. By my feet read a sign: “Search and Destroy: Dangerous Clothing Store.” It might as well have read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
I stepped toward the entrance.
Once the gritty home of punks, anarchists, and experimental artists, St. Mark’s Place has changed a lot in recent years, and not necessarily for the better. Its last record shop, Sounds, closed its doors for good in 2015, and the beloved St. Mark’s Bookshop followed a year later. Even the iconic rock-and-roll clothing store Trash and Vaudeville had to relocate after its rent spiked. For every tattoo and piercing shop still on St. Mark’s, you’ll also find a yoga studio, a Mac repair shop, or a bored street vendor selling sunglasses to tourists.
Look hard enough, though, and you’ll discover some survivors from the street’s radical past, and the unruly starburst of savage curiosities known as Search and Destroy (located at 25 St. Mark’s Place) is easily my favorite.
A sense of nauseating fascination washed over me on my first visit. Surging from the walls and hanging vampirically from the ceiling were untold thousands of exotic clothing items and horror-punk paraphernalia. The space is compact, so as you pick your way through the racks of bomber jackets, kimonos, and patch-covered denim vests, you also brush up against bloody monster masks, BDSM accoutrements, and dismembered mannequins placed in suggestive positions.
I imagine it looks sort of like the prop room of Sesame Street—if the Muppets hung out with Rob Zombie.
On a recent visit, I approached the woman by the register and explained that I was writing a piece about the store. As punk standards blared through the speakers above, her disinterest morphed into suspicion.
“We…don’t like to be online,” she told me. “You’d have to ask the owner if it’s OK.” She glanced nervously over her shoulder.
“Oh, is the owner here?” I asked.
“No,” she said hesitantly.
She didn’t tell me much, other than reminding me of the store’s strict “no photos” policy—itself a strange fact in our selfie-mad age—but she did say that the shop was founded 25 years ago, and that it gets its wares from all over the U.S., Europe, and Japan. The Japanese influence is especially strong and feels right for today’s St. Mark’s, with its many ramen spots and karaoke bars.
I then began exploring the store in all its peculiar glory, starting with a rack of new and secondhand leather jackets, each priced somewhere between $200 and $400. A row of latex horse masks was mounted high on a wall, their mouths agape in an eternal, panicked neigh. I checked out some $30 jeans, fur coats on sale for $20, innumerable graphic tees. And then there were the $85 bondage harnesses, any of which would make an excellent purchase alongside a pair of “boob slippers” and a My Little Pony sweatshirt.
I had brought a friend with me on this particular trip, and he soon rushed over from the back of the store: “Dude, get over here. They’ve got the best ugly sweater collection I’ve ever seen!”
We were about to step around an assemblage of cowboy boots when we saw, hovering like a vision in the air above us, the holy grail of punk-rock leather vests.
Making our way over, we were about to step around an assemblage of cowboy boots when we saw, hovering like a vision in the air above us, the holy grail of punk-rock leather vests. With dozens of metallic spikes covering most of its jet-black material, it looked old, worn, and almost antique. An employee told us that it was an authentic piece from the ’70s, and I could only stare up and wonder about the wild nights it had survived and the legendary stories it could tell.
I reached up to check the price tag. And folks, this vest can be yours for the low, low price of $1,800. I kept browsing.
As captivated as I am by Search and Destroy, the truth is that an environment like this would have been unbearable to my former self. I didn’t exactly grow up as a bold, daring kid. I was afraid of loud noises, developed separation anxiety from my parents, and briefly went to therapy for some nervous OCD habits. By the time I reached high school, I was still totally risk-averse: Riding a roller coaster was my idea of “going totally wild.”
Then I attended my first rock show. As I strode through clouds of weed smoke, felt the ecstatic rush of the mosh pit, and almost got tipped over in a Porta-Potty by drunken strangers, I realized that this was it, this was me pushing myself to the brink of the safe and the familiar.
And to my surprise, I loved it. It felt good to shout Avenged Sevenfold lyrics at the sky and brave the night’s wild unpredictability. Maybe, I told myself, I was inching closer to an edgier existence, one in which I didn’t feel so intimidated by the world around me.
Over the years, I took more steps in that direction, even going so far as skydiving, which made roller coasters seem quaint. But I always feared that becoming an “adult” in the “real world” would mean losing what little edge I had gained, that a 9-to-5 job would block me from novelty and adventure until an unremarkable death predictably capped off an unbearably vanilla life.
Search and Destroy makes me pretty uncomfortable—in a good way.
Now having somehow found myself an adult, I’m grateful for Search and Destroy and its dangerous approach to retail. Just as that first rock show did back then, the store makes me pretty uncomfortable—in a good way. As a signifier of the violent, sexually deviant subconscious of New York City, it shakes me out of my routine and reminds me that life can be so much more exciting if I wade into its strangeness.
As I’ve grown more comfortable, I need that crucial reminder. So does St. Mark’s, to be honest. Hell, we all do. And if we’re willing to try that audacity on for size, we might each emerge as the more worldly, open-minded, and self-assured people we know we can be.
Search and Destroy gets its name from the title of a song by legendary proto-punks Iggy and the Stooges. As I exit the store and step into the New York City night, I raise my chin high, keep my voice low, and sing, “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm….” I may be one of the few people left on St. Mark’s singing, but even as the neighborhood changes, the song remains the same.
Jeremy Price is a Brooklyn-based journalist and the associate editor at the Next Big Idea Club, powered by Heleo. He is also a workshop leader in the Columbia Publishing Course and a contributor to Vice and Ozy, among other media outlets.