Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Day In The Country, With Stores

Hunter-Gatherer Mel has returned to her lair to eat of her kill...of Career Sportswear.

I left for the Shortline bus at the Port Authority Tuesday morning carrying that ubiquitous piece of New York City luggage, the J&R Music World shopping bag. In it was a light jacket in case the air conditioning was at Warp Ten, and a Key Lime flavored Luna Bar, which is tastier survival food than dried pemmican. I would have taken my iPod or a book to read on the way up, but I knew that within the first hour of shopping, it would have felt like a cinderblock.

I made the 9:30 bus, which was so popular that they had had to add a second 9:30 bus. The people on the bus wore an air of happy anticipation. We would have broken out into camp songs if we could have found a language we all knew. Most of my fellow passengers were tourists from Europe and Asia, taking advantage of the strength of their currency. Guidebooks in various alphabets extolled the pleasures of day trips from New York.

The bus made good time through Bergen and Rockland counties, and deposited us at Woodbury Common at about 10:30 . The air smelled like honeysuckle, and oldies wafted out of loudspeakers placed at regular intervals. Having picked a Tuesday to go up there was a good idea, perhaps too good. The stores were nearly deserted, and eager salesclerks would come up to me one after the other saying "Can I help you?" They'd look crestfallen whenever I'd answer, "No, just looking." Either that, or they were looking at me like I was nuts. Who comes to an Outlet Center to just look?

After a few stores, I knew what the cousins had meant when they said it wasn't a real factory outlet. It was more like a fairly decent sale at the average mall. I had downloaded the map from Woodbury Common's website the night before and spent an hour drawing circles, stars and arrows as if I were planning the Normandy Invasion. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss any place that might conceivably have something I'd like, and I was also afraid that I would get lost. This last fear turned out to be groundless, because there was a Colonial Williamsburg-type tower at the entrance that could be seen from just about anywhere in the place. Also, all paths led to the Food Court in the middle, where I replenished myself throughout the day with salads, sandwiches and Starbucks.

Since I hadn't come up by car, my search was limited to what I could carry, i.e., clothing and accessories. So this eliminated Le Creuset cast-iron saucepans and Mikasa china, as well as the lawn furniture line from Crate & Barrel. And my other condition: If I had any doubts, don't get it. Most of the stores will not let you return anything at their regular branches, and I didn't want to have to spend thirty bucks to bring back a $20.00 shirt.

Conversely, I discovered after the first hour or so that if I saw anything I really liked, it was best to buy it on the spot rather than say, "Eh, maybe later." This is because with 220 stores, not only was it possible that I wouldn't have time to go back to any of them, but that after 220 stores, I'd forget where I'd seen whatever it was I'd liked. Ergo, there was a necklace of semi-precious stones for $15.00 that will remain just a fleeting memory.

I surprised myself by checking out all the high-end places that I'm usually not interested in. When in Rome, etc. In fact, at Zegna, an Italian clothing outlet, I saw this great little black dress that was so expensive that at first I'd thought the price tag was in lira. The only way I could have justified this purchase to myself would have been to have worn it every day, all day, like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Every women's clothing place seemed to feature capri pants, which are frowned upon at the conservative company in which I work. And whatever pants weren't capri were low-cut, which make most adults look like Homer Simpson no matter where you buy them. So I think I would have found more clothing that I liked at the outlet if there were more clothing being made to my taste in general this season.

But I did have a couple of enlightening moments of "Zen in the Art of Shopping":

One, I go clothing shopping at least once every weekend. I joke about shopping until I drop. But the fact is, it's usually about four hours of shopping interspersed with other errands and appointments: dropping off stuff at the thrift shop or the dry cleaner, going to the library, getting a haircut. However, being faced with eight hours of enforced clothes shopping soon takes on the characteristics of a lost "Twilight Zone" episode. ("Melinda Bruno, doomed to wander about a shopping center for eternity.") And the 90 degree heat didn't help, although it was a better-smelling 90 degrees than in Manhattan.

Two, although shopping alone in the City may be the smarter option than dragging somebody with me as I zip around town like a pinball, an excursion out of town can be more enjoyable when shared. For one thing, by three in the afternoon I was starting to feel like a bag lady. For another, if you separate when you get there and then agree to meet at, say, noon for lunch and three for coffee, you get to do the ever-popular, "Where did you get that?"

"From that place over there!"

"Oh man, I've gotta check that one out! I missed that one."

I realized this on the return bus. The young Japanese woman sitting across from me had a Williams-Sonoma bag with a cute and colorful child's lunchbox sticking out of it. I would have liked to have bought one, but hadn't even bothered to look in Williams-Sonoma because I'd figured they only had heavy kitchenware.

The young woman also had a Zegna bag which held something black. Perhaps she's going to live out her own Holly Golightly fantasies back in Tokyo.

The next outlet to explore will be the one in Secaucus, New Jersey, where there is no sales tax on clothes and where I will live out my Carmela Soprano fantasies.

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