In the heart of New York’s East Village, a small fabric shop's exterior almost disappears into the crowded cityscape. Its hand-painted sign framed by orange molding looks like it might have been plucked from the streets of an Indian metropolis. Inside is a place to get lost.
Dress Shoppe II has been Saroj Goyal’s sanctuary since 1977. It’s where she eats, makes her chai, does poojas on holidays and earns her living. It’s a home in a sense, and everyone who enters becomes like family. Goyal, 72, is hard to reach by phone, and if you visit the store, you’ll see why. Barely taking time to sit in one place, she shuffles around the front room, folding vintage fabrics and directing her staff.
It’s a visual nonpareil that’s taken years to build. Saris and dupattas of every color, some a century old and woven with silver threads, are stacked to the ceiling. Antique radios, cameras and children’s toys are tucked away in odd corners.
The store is a reflection of both her and her late husband. Goyal talks about him with a teary-eyed smile — one that hides two years of sheer calamity. Since 2019, she’s lost her partner, taken a back-breaking fall, been diagnosed with breast cancer and faced a lawsuit from her landlord. Then the pandemic came and decimated foot traffic to the shop. She was going under. But a social media campaign that included celebrities like Bella Hadid and Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton managed to raise nearly $500,000 to save her.
Business improved for a while, but come January, it will all be gone. A landlord’s demand that Goyal vacate means there will soon be an empty space on the ground level of 83 Second Ave, she said. After putting her life into the beloved store, she isn’t ready to say goodbye.
“After 46 years ...” she told NBC Asian America, with tears in her eyes.
Built on a half-century love story
Goyal never imagined her business would go out this way. Entrenched in debt and living with cancer, she saw a glimmer of hope last year when she was featured on Humans of New York’s Facebook page. In the post, which has over 116,00 likes, Goyal spoke of the man with whom she created it all.
When she was first introduced to Purushottam Goyal in 1970, her father had already arranged their marriage. But she took one look at him and was prepared to turn him down.
“I rejected him right away,” she said. “Because he had a lot of oil in his hair, loose pants. I told my mom, ‘I’m not going to marry him.’”
After an assurance from her father that Purushottam, whom she lovingly refers to as “Goyal,” could clean up well, she came around. The two were completely different, she thought at the time. He was a musician at heart — an outgoing jokester, fiercely independent and carefree. She was shy, quiet and dependent on her close-knit family.
But after almost 50 years of marriage, she admitted she “got lucky” with her family’s choice.
Her husband made it easier to laugh, she said. As the years with him passed and they had their two sons, Saroj and Purushottam became like two sides of a coin. When they moved to New York, in 1974, it was his idea to open the store. He was the front man, greeting customers with a bouncing energy and permanent grin. She was in the back, organizing and keeping things in order.
She left everything she had known back home, and her father died a few months after she moved. She said the first few years were lonely and depressing, so she and her husband visited India often. He would use their time walking from village to village, meeting with local artisans who wove fabrics and made trinkets that would eventually cross the ocean to Dress Shoppe.
“I never knew any boy before in my life,” she said. “So he was everything.”
On the checkout counter in Dress Shoppe II, there’s a book with handwritten notes that customers started to write after Purushottam's death in September 2019 from kidney failure. Working at the store feels emptier without him, Goyal said.
“He used to say, ‘We will die together,’” she said. “But I didn’t die.”
Going it alone
Purushottam spent three months in the hospital, where Goyal stayed with him almost every day. He handled the financial parts of the business, even from his bed. She said she wishes she had asked him more questions about the logistics of owning a business in those final months.
“I didn’t know anything,” she said. “How much rent we pay, any bills, because he was taking care of everything.”
Two months after her husband’s death, a grief-stricken Goyal fell outside the store and broke bones in her back. Recovery took a while, and in February 2020, she made an appointment with her landlord, Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, to discuss how much rent she owed. She went to the appointment, a big cast around her body, and the representative failed to show up, she said.
Cooper Square MHA has not responded to NBC Asian America’s request for comment.
Goyal said she never got a single bill in the mail, either. But one day, someone with the company came into the store yelling and demanding the missed rent in a lump sum, she said.
“I was just watching her face,” she said. “I was crying, and I didn’t say a word.”
The MHA sued Goyal for $265,000, she said. The same year, the pandemic started, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She said a hopelessness set in; the business was floundering, and she alone was responsible for fixing it.
Becoming a viral sensation
Goyal never used social media, and she had never heard of Humans of New York, New York Nico, Bella Hadid or any of the pages that first told her story as a solo businesswoman. It started with a customer’s Instagram post, and documentary filmmaker Nicolas Heller (@newyorknico on Instagram) caught wind of her story.
He made a post supporting her, and before she knew it, business began to pick up. When Humans of New York featured her, Dress Shoppe II’s phone exploded.
“I called my son, ‘My phone is broken, Prashant,’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Let it ring, mom. If you give a million dollars you won’t get this kind of ad. You don’t know who is endorsing you.’”
The weeks that followed turned Goyal into a citywide sensation. Celebrities began posting their support for Dress Shoppe II; Hadid even paid Goyal a visit and texted her good luck before her lumpectomy later in the year.
What she didn’t know was that Brandon Stanton, of Humans of New York, had set up a GoFundMe page in her name, and it was quietly accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars. She wasn’t familiar with the concept of crowdfunding, and when he informed her, it was pure confusion.
“My age group people, they think I begged,” she said. “That I’m a beggar.”
She said shame and condescension erupted from people in her life.
“One of my friends, she called me and said, ‘Saroj Ji, it looks like you’re begging people,’” she said. “I didn’t even know what is GoFundMe.”
She confronted Stanton, she said, but he stood by his decision, saying that without the money she might be struggling for life. At first reluctant to accept, she eventually used much of it to pay Cooper Square MHA and settle their lawsuit. More still went to business expenses. With the store now entering its final few months, she’s in the process of hiring movers and web designers to transition to online sales.
The store’s last months
Goyal is worried. The sheer number of things that need to be moved out is dizzying. Her husband was a collector, and his life’s passions are housed in the shop’s back storage area, reminiscent of the Room of Hidden Things from "Harry Potter."
But for now, it’s business as usual. The shop is still a colorful, warm haven for regulars and the city strollers who happen to stumble inside. With a small team of employees, she’s keeping the spirit alive while she can.
“Going in there is such a good experience,” customer Ahana Kaur, 21, who moved from Delhi, India, to the U.S. for college, said. “It feels very familial and comfortable. It reminds me of home.”
South Asian spaces in Manhattan are rare, Kaur said, so when she found Dress Shopp II, its singularity captured her. She had an immediate connection with Goyal — they both speak Hindi and have roots in Delhi. Though the closure is a bitter pill, she said she hopes whatever happens is best for the shop owner.
“It’s sad because there aren’t a lot of Indian stores that offer such a personal experience,” she said. “I know that there are some big brands that have a store, but the way that Saroj Auntie has built this is very unique. She has crafts from different places, clothing from different regions.”
In the back of the store, where Goyal keeps a picture of her husband for everyone to see, customers can still find her folding saris and regaling her employees with stories of where they came from. One of the reasons she still loves running the shop is that she carries her husband's memory in all the peculiar pieces he brought to it.
“We were together 24 hours a day,” she said. “He loved one-of-a-kind things so much, rare pieces.”
She said she still feels her husband — in Dress Shoppe II, of course, but also at home on Long Island. An altar to Krishna in their living room reminds her of how much faith he had. She said she thinks she even heard him recently when she was laying down on the couch.
“I heard the piano playing in the other room,” she said. “I went to sleep. It felt as if he was with me.”
The future of Dress Shoppe II is uncertain. Goyal doesn’t know if she wants to open another location in person for a while. Since she has breast cancer, the time home might be good. “We’ll see,” she said. “If I get bored, then maybe.”
Her customers and employees await, and she knows they’d follow her anywhere. She said she's sad to leave when things finally seem to be going right: Business is good, and she’s standing on her own two feet for what feels like the first time in her life. But filled with an immense gratitude for those who got her here, she knows she’ll bow out with a community behind her.
“I feel good,” she said. “I am very lucky.”