Saying Goodbye to Lord & Taylor

LTselfie

I went to the city last week for a few meetings. To those of us who live in its orbit, the city means New York City, with its unique urban quirkiness, culture, and pulse. It has so much to offer, but one of my favorite things about it has long been its potential for shopping serendipity, especially in tourist-jammed midtown this time of year.

Nearly all of that’s gone now –  the costume jewelry, hand-knit puppets, used books, and all kinds of items for sale on tables set at random intervals along the sidewalk. They have been replaced by “I Love New York” merchandise, $10 knock-off watches, and pashminas, identical displays without much character on every corner. It’s a shame, too, because shopping on the sidewalks of New York was once an adventure, the source of some wonderful finds.

On the other hand, Lord & Taylor’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue was where I went when serendipity would not do. I was devastated when I first heard the news that the store, which opened in 1914, would close its doors after the holidays. It feels like a seismic shift, the loss of a landmark on my personal Manhattan landscape.

I, like so many others, made a pilgrimage to its holiday windows nearly every year since childhood. Later, it would become my go-to place when I began to shop for myself. The Saks I could afford, it’s where I bought my first professional wardrobe and nearly all of what my mother and grandmother called foundation garments.

In December 1991, I purchased an outfit at Lord & Taylor that would launch 1,000 ships in my life. I wore it to an interview at the Joint Distribution Committee, a position that brought me to Zagreb in 1992, where my career changed direction and I met my husband. When we married, I bought outfits for our sheva brachos there. When I was pregnant with our boys, the store’s ladies room was my public bathroom of choice. Later, after we’d already left the Upper West Side for the suburbs, I’d return to search its racks for a dress for their bar mitzvahs.

It’s no surprise, then, that after my meetings last week, I felt compelled to bid Lord & Taylor farewell on my walk back to Penn Station. I wanted to say thank you, and to pick up a souvenir to remember it by. I happened upon the perfect thing as soon as I entered the store.

See these geese? Smitten, I wanted to take one home.

geese

Although I was on a tight budget, I knew the evening gowns were selling for $16.99 and figured a goose wouldn’t run me too much. I got giddy envisioning the ideal location for it in our living room, where it would allow me to wax poetic about the Lord & Taylor of yore. Plus, I wanted the fun of walking down Fifth Avenue with a large goose under my arm, though I was somewhat concerned about getting it on the train.

I asked a saleswoman at one of the makeup counters for help. She had no idea whether the geese were for sale or not, but she smiled at me like nothing was odd about my request and went off to inquire. She returned with the disappointing news that the geese were destined for other Lord & Taylor stores in the suburbs.

I told her in earnest, “These are New York City geese. I can’t imagine they’ll be happy there,” forgetting for a moment that I now live in the suburbs, too. Still, believe me, that goose would be loved and cared for in our home, not ignored in some dark storage closet in the bowels of a mall.

Anyway, she was lovely about the whole thing, reassuring me that I’m not alone in my feelings of nostalgia for the store, though she admitted I was the only person who’d asked her about the geese. She suggested I head to the 10th floor, where fixtures and staging items were for sale, figuring I might find the right souvenir up there.

This eerie display of mannequins greeted me as I stepped off the elevator.

mannequins

Everything Must Go!  Ha! Everything but the geese, apparently.

I roamed around a bit, curious what I might find. There were large frames, light fixtures and ornaments, oversized flowers and miniature chairs, as well as an array of miscellaneous items that once beautified the store’s display tables and windows. In the end, I found this wounded bird – not quite a goose, but a little something with feathers and character.

bluebird

With my new .50-acquisition in the tiniest plastic Lord & Taylor bag, I boarded the train bound for home. Yet I haven’t stopped thinking about the goose that got away, and also about the fact that this is the end of an era. Until the store closes after the holidays, I’m going to dream that one of those geese takes flight and finds its way to me. We belong together in the embrace of our shared retail memories.

If not, I guess it will be off to the mall next December to pay them all a visit.

Finding What I Needed in a Thrift Shop

thriftstore

I love shopping for things I don’t have to try on – books, housewares, craft supplies, antiques. Clothing is another story. At some point, you have to get undressed and dressed again in a fitting room. I can’t be bothered, which is why I default to loose-cut, solid black dresses and matching black cardigans. I hold them up against me in front of a mirror and that is that. And I don’t do it unless I have to.

My monochromatic dressing scheme is also the result of drinking the black-is-slenderizing Kool-Aid when I was young and living and/or working for years in New York, where black is the official uniform. I can get dressed in my closet in the dark, a fact I find funny. My husband, sons, and friends do not. As a result of their intervention, I’ve let a few colors in recently. But mostly, I stick to black. It’s my comfort zone. Also, I like it.

My friend Lela, on the other hand, is a colorful, inventive dresser. She could shop in a regular store if she wanted to, but prefers the thrill of the search in a thrift store, which is where she buys most of her clothing. As a treasure-hunting sort of shopper who likes the serendipity of clearance racks and used book sales, the idea of thrift store-shopping intrigued me.

So when Lela and I met for the afternoon in her charming hometown of Doylestown, PA, she took me for coffee in the loveliest of coffee shops and then we walked down the street to In Full Swing. I thought I might add something unique to my wardrobe, something with a surprising burst of color. After all, black goes with everything.

The shop is laid out with displays of donated evening gowns, purses, and scarves, as well as circular racks of clothing for men, women, and children. For someone who has never been able to stomach the vast expanse – or the sounds and smells – of a mall, the place was perfect in size and atmosphere.

In Full Swing is a labor of love for the women who run it. The proceeds support A Woman’s Place, which assists victims of domestic violence and their children, helping them make positive, life-changing decisions. They also have a community-based prevention project that aims to break the cycle of domestic violence.

I found a bracelet ($7) on a display of costume jewelry, all 50% off that day, and a pretty, floral scarf ($8) I’ll use as a tichel. Then Lela led me to the $1 clearance racks. In no time, her arms were full of interesting pieces – sweaters and a bohemian outfit that she’d later describe as itchy.

“Even if I decide not to keep it all, it was still a donation to a great cause. Besides, each item is only $1,” she told me.

She was right. I really couldn’t go wrong.

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon a simple black dress on one of the racks. Old Navy, my size, tag on – an opportunity to replace one of the black dresses I’ve worn so often they’ve faded. The store manager pointed out the fitting room/bathroom, but you already know how I feel about that. Given the price, it was certainly worth the gamble.

An optimist, I threw the dress into the wash without trying it on first. I just put it on the next day and have worn it often since. It goes with everything. It certainly doesn’t owe me money.

I know, I know. You’re wondering what happened to my burst–of–color plan. Well, I tried. Besides, change is good, but being true to myself is, I would argue, even better.

Photo Credit: Lela Casey