The Joy of Shopping

I suppose when it all comes down to it, I’m a crass materialist. I like things and I’m fine with it. I’ve learned to be. It’s an admission: objects bring me joy.

This is as story about shopping and New York City. Specifically the enjoyment that comes from finding an undiscovered treasure. This is also about my mother. 

Jeffrey, the boutique, like me, arrived in the city in 1999, so far west on 14th street, I can still remember the wind whipping right off the Hudson. On the block was that awful bagel place… Dizzy Izzy… and a few nightclubs. (The idea was that you’d leave the nightclubs so late that it would be morning, and voila! Bagels! There was no meaner place to get a bagel than Dizzy Izzy’s.) Around the block, on Gansevoort, was Florent but not yet Pastis. No one could have conceived the Apple store on the corner, much less an Apple store at all.

My roommate, Jason, dragged me there one freezing weekend day. We couldn’t have been nearby for any reason, though to be sure we prowled around, considering as our territory any block from ours in the East Village, to, well, Jeffrey in the West. Perhaps we had just finished a cozy brunch at AOC over on West 4th. Did we ever go there? Maybe it was Chumleys and later in the day? Maybe it was Veselka? And then straight across 9th Street, to Christopher, and then Bleeker, then down desolate 13th? Maybe we stopped for drinks on the way? Maybe we just trudged?

There is no better thing than wandering in a city like New York or London or Paris, when you have what seems to be all the time in the world and no idea what you are going to see. It is a feeling of being young, and full of energy, open to the world, and with maybe a cent or two to spend, but not many dollars. 

It’s all lost now, except the feeling. We all have maps in our pockets, and a sense of destination. What must we do? What must we see? What must we share? Then we spoke, now we see.

Well, west we walked, and walked and walked. We knew it was here somewhere, and finally when there was no more here left, there it was. 

A handsome man in a beautiful coat was stationed at the tall, heavy, glass door. He must have been freezing, but his smile was as warm as summer, even in the heavy coat. As we approached, he gave us a friendly nod, and opened sesame. We gave him a friendly nod back, and climbed the clean white steps, up into a fashion dream. 

The room was essentially a big white box, but it was filled with so much that was delightful. There was wit and joy in each piece. It wasn’t bare or stark or intimidating, even if I couldn’t afford a thing on my editorial assistant salary. This didn’t matter a jot to the people who worked there. They were friendly. They were funny. They weren’t pushing you to buy, just to try. It was… dare I say… fun? Shopping as a party full of beautiful people who were interesting too. Which is to say, a fantasy.  

We wandered through, fondling the merchandise, and wandered back out, like a couple of fashion pervs. It was lovely, and unaffordable, and I’m sure I referenced going there to anyone I could drop the name to, but I didn’t go back for at least another year, maybe more. Until I brought my mother there.

When the mood struck, my mom was one of the great shopping buddies of all time, especially if you were her daughter.

Now,  if you got her in not “the mood,” you could forget it. Everything was too pricey and looked terrible and should you really even eat that piece of bread? And woe to you if you got the nose wrinkle. It invariably happened if you stepped out of the dressing room in a piece that you had fallen in love with, that was probably a little weird but that you thought could make work, if it only it would lay flat across here or there… I lived in fear of the nose wrinkle. It was a repudiation of your taste.

But in the mood? It was Christmas and the last week of May and heaven all in one. Others will and can and do attest to her terrible and wonderful influence. Her ability, when in the mood, to convince you you don’t just want but NEED get the thing that you absolutely shouldn’t get, the more expensive pair of jeans, the insane pair of heels, the incredibly rich cashmere sweater- and heck, get it twice in another color because it’s a classic and you’ll love it and wear it forever. 

“Will you wear it? You should get it! It’s a classic. You’ll wear it forever. Just get it!” I think the thing that pushes it over the edge is her implication that buying the thing is your idea, not hers. 

 And as her daughter, she often threw all caution to the wind and bought these things for me. And I did NOT say no. No, indeed. I love clothes and shoes and getting dressed, and I made between approximately no dollars and very few dollars, whereas she and my dad were quite comfortable, and so if she was buying, I was too. And boy, did we have fun, darting in and out of boutiques, trying on everything that caught our eyes, with no regard for utility, and, in those days, not much for price. (This was before the great price hikes of the mid aughts, where everything suddenly cost like a literal thousand dollars.) In the year of our lord, two-thousand-and-three, you could get a pair of Louboutins for roughly three hundred dollars or so, and feel incredibly luxurious and silly, because you knew your feet would be dead to you by the end of the day, and also be in love with the shoes and not care. Carrie Bradshaw, c’est moi. The thrill of the purchase was real, and the prices scary but not terrifying or even simply gross. 

One of my best days ever in my life was- surprisingly, given the proximity to trauma- about a month after 9/11.

 I was 23 years old when the planes struck the buildings. I watched it all from my bedroom window on the corner of E10th street and First Avenue, where I had a cherished view of the towers shining above the tenements of the East Village. The view was a constant reminder how New York can be both a small town and a global hub all at the same time. I loved gazing at them, as I daydreamed of what my life would be, glimmering in the distance. Watching them simply collapse into dust was incomprehensible. I cried for days and days, my heart broke for my city, my home, for the people who died, some strangers, some friends, for their broken families, and my own shattered sense of safety. 

I was lucky too. Not knowing what to do on 9/12, I went to the office. I was an Associate Producer at VH1, and devoted. Also, what else was I supposed to do?

“What are you doing here?” Asked our Director of Development and Production at the time.

“I have no idea!” I told him.

A week or two later, they put me on the production team for the Concert for New York City, and in a whirlwind of two weeks, we put together that amazing event. I had a huge responsibility for one so young; I was in charge of all the images that went behind the performers. I worked actual twenty four hour days, scouring archives and bookstores for iconic imagery of New York and figuring out how to clear it for use (confession: some of it remains uncleared to this day! Don’t sue!)

I went to Barnes and Noble. I went to the Public Library on 5th Avenue, and experienced the thrill of greeting my old friends, Patience and Fortitude. Desperate, I even went down to the sidewalk vendor that sat outside the building in Times Square, and bought all the postcards of the city I could carry.  

In those olden days, we didn’t have digital archives the way we do now. We had to physically scan each image onto a disk. I found a willing helper in the nascent digital department. He sighed with irritation every time I came by his desk with arm loads of pictures. We’d scan and export to CD ROMs, which I then brought to the edit. There, they were ingested and put to tape. It was arduous and stressful, and fun, and healing, and thank goodness for it. To be in Madison Square Garden that night in early October, on the floor, surrounded by first responders, singing along to Billy Joel, and the Who, and Paul McCartney, and David Bowie was cathartic.

After that, I slept for two days. And then my mom came into the city for the first time since the attacks; she took the train, and met me downtown, and we went shopping. 

Can you remember the last time you had fun shopping? It seems to be something that’s fallen out of fashion, shopping as a pastime. I think that’s because, thanks to our devices, there is no sense of discovery. Everything is on social media. Everything you see dream of can be searched, found, and purchased in the time it took to write this. There’s a funnel, there is data, and it all drives you, down down down, until you click and wait by the door for UPS. And every high street, and neighborhood, and department store selection look the same from London to Hong Kong to New York, and even Paris and Rome. 

But the clothes you love the most are sometimes the ones you find by accident, on a side street, on a perfect fall day after a tragedy. The ones you have to see, smell, touch, try on. The ones you would never give a second glance at online because online you are only ever looking for items (ugh, item, what an ugly word, from the Latin for “it’s all the same”) for what you  perceive is your sense of your own style. It’s harder to experiment when your shopping buddy is your screen, and you don’t have a friend or a mom there saying “but it’s so cute! Try it!”. No one to lead you down the garden path. Instead of pulling the different, the eye catching, the weird, the offbeat, we tend toward the same, the trends, the iterations of what we have.  Personal style is hard to find in a sea of influencers with hot lights, a french terry sleeve details sweatshirt, and swipe up to shop. 

Whatever happened to Alice Roi? 

Anyway, it was a glittering fall afternoon, and we traipsed around NoHo and NoLiTa, which were full of beautiful jewel box boutiques. Katayone Adeli, Selima, A Detacher, Darryl K. Everything fit. Everything looked amazing. We laughed and tried things on and had so much fun. We kibbitzed with the shopkeepers, who were warm and friendly, and with our fellow shoppers too, all in on the secret of the beautiful day. New York was still here! Scratched, scarred, but itself, a small town hiding in a big city. And we were all happy and grateful to be there. There were few tourists and few locals, but those of us that were there all New Yorkers, no matter our country of origin. We loved and love our city. 

A leap of faith is required in shopping. 

There is undoubtedly a thrill in having that new thing sit on your doorstep. And there is an equal thrill in coming home from a day of shopping and chatting and being with people, and unwrapping your finds and placing them in the context of your closet. The new items are like a hope of who are and can be. The places you’ll were they. How you will feel. What they will emanate about you. You are artsy! You are chic! You are bohemian! You are classic! You are constructing the you you want to be and maybe even are (if all the empowerment memes are to be believed.) The only thing as close to as satisfying, as far as I’m concerned, is going to the Farmers Market and coming home to plot dinner.

Not long after that day was my birthday, and again my mom came into the city. This time we headed west. To Jeffrey. 

Of course we didn’t need anything. We hadn’t needed anything the last time she’d come in. But we were riding that high, or I was. She was in the other mood. The non shopping mood. The nose wrinkle mood. The souring the milk mood.

The handsome man opened the doors for us. She was friendly, as she always was when faced with a good looking gentleman, but I could tell, as we climbed the stairs, she was skeptical. It was emanating off of her, the negativity.

We glanced through the clothes, and the nose wrinkled as wrinkled as could be, at the styles and more, at the prices, though on a different day she mightn’t have balked. Drooping as we went, I steered her through the beauty, where she dismissed the beautiful Diptyque candles (a new thing in New York at the time), past the bags where she blanched at the MSRP, and past the clothes where she shrugged at the style. 

“I like TG-170 better.” Ok fine.

TG-170 is part of this story. It sprouted on Ludlow Street, in the late 1990s, and was one of the greatest boutiques of all time, and perfectly curated with the latest and greatest independent designers. I still have clothes I bought there; pretty dresses, amazing pants. But on this day, it could not have been further away from where we were and still be downtown. It wasn’t on the agenda!

On our way out, we stopped at a rack of shoes, and funny thing, there was a pair she liked in her size. On sale. On big sale. Our jaws dropped. There were never shoes in her size. My mother wears a 5. An actual 5. 

As she lifted the shoe to examine it further, a man materialized by her side. This was Fred. We didn’t know it, but Fred would a part of our lives for years to come. He lightly whisked the shoe away, and returned with boxes stacked to the sky, all in a size 5, all flat and chic and lovely. By then, I had gleaned the magic too and away he went again to find things for me. (Size 5.5 or 6, depending on the designer, though these days thanks to boys 1 & 2, more consistently a 6.) 

In an orgy of paper and leather, we tried on and on and on, putting the “no”s to one side, the “maybes” to the other, while the yeses became a small satisfying pile in the middle.

I can’t remember how many pairs of shoes we got that day; maybe two each. One was a pair of perfectly chic black kitten heeled Louboutins, perfect for every occasion to this day. And, from that day forward, the moment we showed up at Jeffrey, it was fun, even if we didn’t buy a thing.

Fred was tall, handsome, thoughtful, and Parisian. I have never met a better salesperson. Within moments, he would have piles of boxes for each of us, in our exact style. He knew my mother preferred flats, low heels and sandals. And that she had the tiniest feet. 

He knew my sister and I would try anything, and with great sensitivity, as time went on, he also knew that I stopped trying everything, and started veering to black, mid heel, with a preference for boots. From Fred I bought (on sale, always on sale, and mostly at like 75% off!) my favorite stack heeled Prada sandals, my Chanel moto boots, my Balenciaga riding boots, a cheeky pair of gingham wedges that I did pay full price for because they were adorable and only about $100. I have handmade sandals, with thick wooden soles and beautiful leather straps,  by some guy in Spain who is like an astrophysicist for his day job, that are stunning but that I only ever was able to wear once, because they give me terrible blisters. I have sculptural MiuMiu slides, and perfect Isabel Marant booties. But mostly what I have from Fred are a series of amazing days with my mom and my sister, where we would have lunch, and shop around, sometimes with great success, and sometimes with nose wrinkles, fights, and tears, until we got to Jeffery where everything was wonderful, and we all found comfort in shoes, and trying them on together, and thrilling together with our finds, all soothed by Fred and his kindness.  

Fred texted me to let me know about sales. Once, after a wonderful day of excess, he dropped my shoes off at my apartment on his way home. When his first son was born, I stopped by and brought him “The Red Balloon” as a gift. He met my older son, and sold Rob shoes too. Fred was- and is- my friend. I kept in touch with him when he moved on to Barney’s (or rather, was poached) when they reopened downtown. He let me know when he went to Hirschleifers

Then, about nine years ago, my mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Almost six years ago, I had the first of two children. And my sister has a life. We don’t have the time to jaunt about like we used to. Mostly, though, it’s simply uncomfortable for my mom. We go on short excursions on the Upper West Side, but her discomfort is mine and my sister’s. The world has turned on its axis as it does, unrelentingly impervious to what we want to keep, which is sometimes to go back in time to when things were easier. So we keep trying. But it’s not easier. It’s harder. 

I miss Fred and Jeffrey. And I miss myself in those days too, and my sister, and my mom.

We stopped shopping. It got too hard. 

My mom still has the glint- the mood. Now she lavishes it on her grandchildren, showing up with a bounty for them from the toy store in town. This is a different sort of joy as shopping, and I hold it to my heart.

But when I heard that Jeffery was closing, my heart hurt; it hurt for New York, and the time when a witty, fun, joyous store could not just be- but flourish. My heart hurt for all those little designers, all those little boutiques, for Alice Roi, and Katayone Adeli, and Darryl K, and TG-170 which died in 2008. I miss the experience of discovering fashion in the moment, by accident, on a sunny fall day when you were just trying to breath and be happy again in the world. 

(photo credit: Ellen Konisberg, NY TIMES)