The Solitary Shopper (An Ode to Lord & Taylor, RIP)
Say it ain't so!
Lord & Taylor's Fifth Avenue store, the sanest place to shop in New York City, is closing its doors in early 2019, thanks to a sluggish sales, an online economy that it cannot compete with, and an $850 million purchase of its landmarked building. It's been around for more than 100 years. The lack of crowds led to its demise. Perhaps in another 20 years, when someone has the brilliant idea that we should shop in department stores, will we see it again.
Three generations of my family shopped there. My grandmother, my mother, and me. We traveled into
"the city" for school clothes where we each picked out a few outfits. I remember eating at the Bird Cage restaurant which has seen a few incarnations as a place for a bite for the weary shopper. We would wait for my father to bring the car around as we waited at the front, on the inside, where the Clinique displays are now set up. In the beginnings of my career as a sportswriter, I was in dire need of professional clothing for an awards ceremony and with some prodding from my old friend, Stephanie Arcel, who never traveled without a scarf around her neck, jewelry, and the axiom "Always cover your ass," suggested using a Personal Shopper, which I did. I wound up with an Katherine Hepburnish ensemble with sleek pants and a jacket and a couple of suits which set me back the better of $1,000. The jacket, in a lovely shade of grass green, had the fabric rubbed through on the right side where I carried my pocketbook. The beautiful wool gray pants became itchy and scratchy and wound up at the bottom of my closets. If I had moths, they would have had a feast. The two suits, impeccably tailored and adjusted, became out of style with too long jackets and too tight pants. But I loved the personal experience and would recommend this to everyone. Since then, I've been back without professional counsel to purchase items from every department. Once I even scored Dylan's Candy on sale, chocolate covered graham crackers at 15% off. Woo!
The shoe department has expanded to almost three fourths of a floor and now there are racks of workout gear. I think the lady who still measures for bras is still there. But not for long. Now, there are two televisions in the men's department tuned to sports and soft comfortable chairs to sit down and text on your phone. I suspect that there will be those coming into town for the next few years looking for the holiday displays in the windows.
Shopping at Lord & Taylor, for me, is always a quirky experience. is like shopping with your college friends: there was and is always someone around for advice, a friendly, intimate camaraderie among loyal shoppers. Just two weeks ago, I assisted an Italian tourist in selecting a pair of designer sunglasses and just last week I stocked up on Clinique with an almost unheard of 15% discount.
Sales were on and even with 30% off on almost everything, the aisles were filled with just a few customers on a weekday evening. It was like walking through a warehouse filled to the brim with clothing, floor after floor, rack after rack, but not many sales. Sometimes I rode the elevator by myself, Only the shoe department seemed to be busy and sometimes, not too busy. Two friends of mine said they loved shopping there because "It's never crowded!"
I wish there were some sort of compromise. At one point, the first floor was going to remain. But word came out recently that no, that was going to. I'd like to see at least one floor open, maybe two, with the shoes and seasonal items and perhaps kiosks so that people can order online and still have the experience of walking in the store.
This story was originally published on December 27, 2010. With a few slight tweaks, a new introduction, and a few photos, this seems like a good time to resurrect it. Almost like an obituary. Flowers may be left on the site after it closes, like mourning an old friend.
RIP Lord & Taylor. I will miss you. And so will so many other New Yorkers.
Three minutes into my adventure, I am spotted, much like Brad or Angelina attempting to blend with the crowd.
I am one of those people to whom many stories are told.
From dusty tales of laundromat folders who drink too much on Saturday nights to one very nervous cop aiming his gun at me as I exited my apartment to dispose of recyclables, to my traveling companions on overstuffed M100 buses, to under appreciated and aggravated secretaries, public school teachers with unruly students, to Wall Street workers coming off an exhilarating trade, the shopping bag of disclosure is open and ready for unpacking.
It happens most often while I shop. From tomatoes to turtlenecks, the hordes corner me like some sort of exalted celebrity when I’m preoccupied with finding the right size, shape, or shoe. Dapper shoe salesmen complain about women who spend their weekends being waited on hand and well, feet, and who send these hard working men scurrying to the storeroom; chubby cashiers at Target, Saks and Duane Reade point out their swollen ankles; and the chic who shop at the Gap and Henri Bendel invite me into the operating room as they describe gallbladder and appendix removals. I’ve listened to tales of cheating boyfriends, sloppy husbands, and dirty landlords from the minions who purchase and pander at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; epic reveals about painful shoes, poor diet, bad bosses, and better days ahead as my bunions and I stand on line to pay in the world’s most remote shop or tugging on a too small skirt in a dressing room separated from the sales floor by a curtain. I keep thinking that if I set up a series of couches near cash registers I can get the chats and complaints over all at once.
Move over, Dr. Phil. I’m hanging out my shingle for retail therapy.
So here I am, the queen of sound bite confessions. The fascination of speaking with me is no more evident than alongside of sales racks from Manhattan to Minneapolis, and in front of cash registers from 7-Eleven to Saks Fifth Avenue. And nowhere is my expertise more in evidence and my patience tested than when I shop at Lord & Taylor, a calm and soothing shopping experience without the hordes and gaggles of gigglers, fluorescent lights, and the hamster mazes of aisles of its more flamboyant sister, Macy’s.
The lineage of women among the sales racks can be traced back, I’m convinced, to the early days of hunters and gathers. Women waved goodbye while their mates went after dinner, and this communal commiserating, companionship, and co-parenting kept the community alive. And thus began the origins of the group shop. I know there’s a shopping bag from the Ice Age hidden deep in the core of our planet just waiting to be carbon dated.
In the evolution of women, torched bras and nylon stockings have been replaced by Spanx, spandex, and credit cards. Women still gather but they also hunt; two or three women in a department store with big game in sight, from Manolos to sequins to sassy skirts and scarves, descend on department and specialty stores everywhere in the world. This portion of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is still with us. A few women, like myself, mutate from this genetic claim and strike out on our own to go shopping. Others require my validation.
How does this make me look?
I’m a size 14 and this dress is a size 6. Do I look good or what?
My intersection with the shopping sisterhood creates a Venn diagram of dialogue to the point where I’ve considered wearing a wig and glasses and hiring a bodyguard. Let me serve up a taste of my shopping life.
Shopping can be divided into several categories: in the name of bargains, camaraderie, the boredom pack, the curiosity group, “I wonder what size I am now” collection, the triage trio, the demanding duo, or let’s get it over with, I can’t stand the crowds for another minute – and let’s face it, shopping with friends can be a frightening phenomenon. When I shop with friends, I buy clothing I would never, in my wildest dreams, consider bringing home, like the plaid linen dirndl skirt or grape poncho with tassels. A straight line can be drawn from the manufacturer, to the shop, to my wallet and to my closet and then slam dunked into the thrift store donation bin.
It begins on the escalator, next to the sign indicating that we have ascended to the third floor.
“Is this the fifth floor?” Two woman with over processed blond hair and Bermuda shorts inquire.
I give this some thought.
“Could be,” an answer designed to throw them off my trail and to discourage any lingering conversation. I rappelled to the fifth floor and spotted a familiar sign, 40% off, which means that swiping the bar code on my coupons would net me an additional 20% off. I’m cookin’.
Racks overflow with marked down Ralph Lauren, Tommy Bahama, Eileen Fisher, Lord & Taylor’s house brand, Kate Hill, Liz Claiborne, Kate Spade, and the labels of others who cloak and cover our bodies from a size 0 to a size 24 plus, from extra small to three times as large. A number of women like me envision themselves a lot smaller, holding up what should fit and then being disappointed. You can blame it on the manufacturer for poor sizing but a three way mirrors holds no illusions.
My shopping companions poked through the racks and a few poked me with their purses. Now, mind you, the floor was loaded with idle saleswomen. I was hoping to leave via early decision but not today.
“What do you think of this color?,” asked one woman who looks like a model, holding up a yellowish-brown sweater with orange stripes.
“I’ve never seen this shade before,” I admitted.
“How much is this with markdown? Is this too much for me to pay?” a woman carrying a briefcase checks in, holding up a Ralph Lauren skirt with the priced mowed down from $200 to $119.
“I think it’s worth it,” I replied. Well, not really, but a little encouragement can go a long way.
“What do you think my husband would say?” asked another woman, already wielding enough shopping bags to incite a hernia, and armed with a vertical valance attached to a denim skirt.
“I think he’d love it,” I offered with conviction. Although I’d never met the man, I was convinced he would be overwhelmed.
“Why not give it a try?” I suggested diplomatically.
“Do you think this sweater will match my skirt that’s hanging in my closet at home?” demanded one woman with a large perm and even larger purse.
The floor seemed to close in on me.
“Where’s the ladies room?” demanded a woman in a pink tracksuit (they seem to be everywhere).
“By the elevator but not on the 6th floor,” I answered mechanically, digging into my purse for my water.
“Can you zip me up?” asks one gray haired woman with her back hanging out of a white blouse.
I put down my water.
“You may want to inhale,” I noted. “And go back into the dressing room.”
After inching my way toward the center aisle, I was almost free.
“I’m going to a wedding. Do you think the bride’s mother will like this? She’s really quite particular,” wonders one woman holding up a black and white dotted dress.
“She’ll love it,” I yelled, waving my water.
“When a gun is pointed, I’ll put on anything,” I snarled.
I slip into an empty dressing room and lock myself in. I grunt and groan getting in and out of too tight blouse that gets stuck under my armpits and cuts off my circulation. It’s a bit like wrestling with a bear until it finally pops off and I pop out, able to catch my breath again. I look around. There I am, at all angles. My hair appears to be windswept in the airless cubicle and, is my behind really that large? A suspicious mole comes off in my hands; it’s just an M&M from an earlier snack. I tune in to the sisterhood.
These shorts are gorgeous, comes from the room to my right.
Mom, why are you buying that? cries a embarrassed teenage voice that could have been my own from years ago.
Because I want to.
I don’t want to be seen with you wearing that.
Fine. Don’t look then.
There’s a rap on my white shutter-like door. Doorbells and a peephole, anyone?
“Do you think this costs too much?” inquires an older woman with glasses holding a poodle and a v-neck t-shirt with a $49 price stag.
“Yes,” I said. “If you have to ask.”
“Does this make me look fat?,” demands a woman who says she’s a nurse. She turns around twice in a pleated skirt that makes it look like there’s air under her skirt. But those are her hips.
“What about my hips?” She smoothed down the pleats but they don’t move.
“What about them?” I raised my eyebrows.
The petites are one floor up and I quickly ducked behind three slinky mannequins. A couple of women haven’t discovered me - yet. Both petite, with white hair, overdressed for a day out shopping, and smelling of mothballs and musky perfume, they push their way through jumbled racks of marked down clothing.
“It isn’t beautiful?” cooed the taller of the two, holding up a dirt colored sweater. “It was made just for you.”
After following them for about 20 minutes, I hit the lottery. A black skirt made of silk and wool carried a price tag of $86 down to $49.97. I quickly did the math – 40% off would be close to $25 minus an additional 20% off would be about $20. Or so I thought. The friendly saleswomen looked at me over her glasses and scanned in the tag. The skirt was reduced to $9.56 not counting the 40% off and 20% discount coupon. My grand purchase accumulated to $3.99. The saleswomen said that her son just graduated from college and that someone must have coded the tag improperly in the computer. This never happens to me.
A woman carrying four bags stopped me.
“How do I look in this?” she demanded
I looked her over and asked her to turn around. And turn around the other way. And the other way. She started to topple, her black and white polka dot dressed swirling in a hypnotic pattern.
“I’ve never seen you look better,” I gushed. “I would buy two.”
Time to move on.
A shopper came my way on the third floor.
“What’s that thing?” she asked, pointing to the scanner near the sale priced Dana Buchman outfits.
“It checks radioactivity," I replied, moving on.
I hustled into another dressing to try on a very expensive skirt by Ellen Tracy. The dressing room was larger than my living room. I tossed my jeans onto the upholstered chair, dropped my handbag on the floor, draped my blouse on the table, and examined my cellulite from all angles.
Perfect. I bought the skirt with my coupons.
I have yet to wear it.
My day is almost over. The few men I’ve seen shop early and leave furtively even when they are in the men’s department. I decided to check out the handbags. I wasn’t in the world of purses, clutches, and carryalls more than five minutes when three saleswomen asked me if I needed help. I began to get annoyed.
One woman confronted me.
“How do I find the sizes?” she asked.
“Look for S-M-L-XL,” I growled. “Those are clues.”
An older woman leaned against the racks. I gently tilted her so that she stood upright with her cane.
I prepared myself for the rest, as they waved clothes at me from one end of the store to the other.
How does this look on me?
This is the most fabulous thing I’ve even seen you in. Run to the register before someone else picks it up.
Does emerald green go with red?
Absolutely! Go stand next to the elves.
Does this make me look young?
By at least 30 years.
Ms. Jones, one of the saleswomen on the 5th floor, spotted me in my disguise. My ruse was up.
“What do you think of this jacket?” I held up a blue Eileen Fisher cotton jacket.
“Fabulous.” she whispered. “You couldn’t have made a better choice.”