LEAD: EVERY TIME I’M ASKED ABOUT MY HOBBIES OR special interests, I am tempted to say white-water rafting, Etruscan vase painting or good old stamp collecting. But the truth is that one abiding passion has remained constant from my high school days to the present. Shopping. I am a shopper. There is no department store, specialty shop or even supermarket that doesn’t whisper to me, ”We’re open.
EVERY TIME I’M ASKED ABOUT MY HOBBIES OR special interests, I am tempted to say white-water rafting, Etruscan vase painting or good old stamp collecting. But the truth is that one abiding passion has remained constant from my high school days to the present. Shopping. I am a shopper. There is no department store, specialty shop or even supermarket that doesn’t whisper to me, ”We’re open. Please come in.”
Shopping for me has always been synonymous with growing up in New York. During my childhood, 34th Street came to mean summer camp at Orbach’s, and visiting the tree at Rockefeller Center was a prelude to Christmas shopping at Saks. And no matter how many towers William Zeckendorf Jr. erects on Union Square, that site will always be to me the home of ”The Best For Less,” S. Klein-on-the-Square. It was a graying discount department store, but there were those of us who loved it.
As I am writing this I can hear my mother saying, ”Why must you always bring up Klein’s? You’ve never admitted to shopping there.” I’m afraid this is true. Whereas a friend of mine once defined her mother as a woman whose hands would fall off if she shopped retail, I am the complete opposite. This is partially due, I’m sure, to the discovery at an impressionable age that my own mother had sewn a Bergdorf’s label into a Klein’s original. Therefore, at 12, for my first solo purchase, I bought a swimsuit at Bergdorf’s and saved the box, the bag and the label.
In high school, my favorite extracurricular activity took place on Fridays when we were dismissed at 1:15 P.M. to shop. Looking back, I’m sure the school’s intention was that we use our free time in the city to experience Monet’s ”Water Lilies” or to explore the New York Stock Exchange. But instead, every Friday, my best friend, Kathy, and I went to see Henrietta, our favorite saleslady on the second floor at Saks. We never made enormous purchases, but we each learned to sign our name on a credit slip and in parentheses to write ”daughter.” As time went by, we expanded our horizons with Friday visits to the ”Bigi” department at Bergdorf’s, the third floor at Bloomingdale’s and, at the peak of our sophistication, senior year, we entered Bendel’s. Fittingly, at least three of my high school classmates have become buyers.
Over the years, I have convinced myself that shopping can indeed be educational. A department store is like a museum, except you get to take home the display. Furthermore, shopping, much like surgery, can be divided into two general areas: emergency, which tends to be frenetic and goal oriented, and exploratory, which is a way to reassess life needs. You never really know what’s missing from your life until you see it in a shop window.
Personally, I can never find anything when I’m trying to fill a specific need. I have never found a gift or ensemble for the next day’s wedding or graduation. But when I’m not looking, I become a magnet for random Krups coffee makers and Christian Dior stockings.
For an exploratory shopper, there’s nothing like a midweek browse. It’s a way to see the city, to stay in touch with the men who buy $80 Armani ties and the women who have figures that rival Carolyne Roehm’s. It’s also comforting to know there’s still a contingent of ladies with hats and gloves who appreciate a hot fudge sundae at B. Altman’s Charleston Garden.
Browsing, surveying the territory, isn’t necessarily confined to store hours either. There’s no cure for insomnia or a 2 A.M. work block like a quick flip through an L. L. Bean or Tiffany catalogue. There’s also something very satisfying about not having to postpone gratification. If I happen to see and like a Priamo nightgown at midnight, I can dial an 800 number rather than break into the lingerie department at Bonwit’s. Frankly, I spend weeks gazing at emeralds in the Tiffany catalogue and wondering who makes those phone calls and when. Who feels the need for a $26,000 pansy brooch at 3 in the morning?
THESE DAYS, WHEN I’M feeling slightly anxious or a little blue, and the last thing I want is to find myself in a dressing room, I buy a friend or a member of my family an unexpected gift. Purchasing a present gives that lift, the ”mission accomplished” feeling that only buying will bring.
Gift shopping is not acquisitive, it’s almost humanitarian. And it really hones the crafts of consideration and selection. I pick out a target store, say Barneys, and then stroll through it, surveying plates, napkins, leather goods, any nonintimate apparel. As Paul Rudnick explains in his novel of shopping, ”I’ll Take It,” it’s very important to visit a potential purchase a few times, eye it carefully and then take some time for deliberation.
Department store eateries can lift the gift-shopping experience from the realm of a simple exchange to a complete afternoon’s outing. A slice of orange cake and a cup of cappuccino are very helpful when debating what the giftees need, what will make them laugh, what they will keep and what they will throw away.
Finally, at the end of the shopping process, is commitment. The willingness to put your name on the line. The completed gift shop – from the selection of characters to the chase and then to the ultimate resolution – is like a very satisfying, well-made play. There is always a beginning, a middle and an end.
Admittedly, there are negative aspects to shopping. Prices can be astronomical, and, conversely, sizes can be minute. A month or so ago, I was looking for a simple party dress and came across a blue linen item for $7,000. I realized that if a friend or stranger spilled a drink or mayonnaise on me while I was wearing that dress I could become a homicidal maniac. Moreover, as a New Yorker, I know that there are far more important causes than my obtaining another apple-shaped vase or purple sweater. I’m training myself to get a shopper’s lift by writing late-night checks to various pressing social and artistic causes.
BUT IT’S HARD TO BREAK old habits. And there’s nothing wrong with just looking. For instance, the other Friday I had some time on my hands, and I decided to meander through Saks, look around, take in the Ellen Tracys. I had no plans to buy anything and my mind was on my next appointment.
It was one of those days when I had convinced myself that not only did I not need anything, I really didn’t deserve anything. Therefore I had no temptations and decided after a brief tour to head out. But just as I was walking through the perfume department, a voice called to me.
”Miss Vasserstein! Miss Vasserstein!” An attractive blond woman with a Swedish or Swiss accent was beckoning me.
Well, to a born shopper there’s nothing like a saleslady who remembers your name. Especially one in the perfume department at Saks. Suddenly I felt transported to the world of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and ”The Women.”
”Yes, dahling,” I wanted to answer, but I just said, ”Yes.”
”Miss Vasserstein, I have something for you.” ”You do?” ”Yes, remember when I helped you try the Fracas?”
”Of course.” Actually, I did remember. Perfume is a spur-of-the-moment shopper’s delight. You never have to go into a dressing room to try it on and the size always fits.
”If you liked Fracas, you will love Carolina Herrera.” She sprayed my wrist. ”I promise you will love this.”
Suddenly, I was purchasing not only the eau de parfum, but the body lotion. I was Carolina Herrara! The saleslady handed me her card. All I have to do is call her in case I run out.
Frankly, I could have made it through the rest of the afternoon, and most likely the rest of my life, without that purchase. But the helpful saleslady’s suggestion certainly perked up the day. It was very nice to get an unexpected gift for myself. And I’ve saved the box and the shopping bag. I only wish there were a label.