Taking the Fifth

Theme Stores Eat Manhattan

The last drip of Thanksgiving gravy will shortly be wiped from the chin, every streetlamp is groaning under the weight of a Styrofoam Santa, fake piety oozes from the lips of daytime talk show hosts: the holiday season is upon us. Soon, college roommates you've all but forgotten and distant relatives you've never heard of will arrive in Manhattan for their annual visit, begging you to take them to places you have heretofore avoided like the plague. If you're especially unlucky, your guests will demand a trip to the theme stores that now dot Fifth Avenue between Tiffany and Saks. Here is what they will find:

NBA Store (666 Fifth Avenue): The door handle, a muscular bronze arm dribbling a basketball, may put you in mind of Ghiberti's Florentine baptistery doors, but inside it's a combination of Madison Square Garden and the Guggenheim Museum, with circular ramps, pomo video screens, and salespeople friendly in that too, too helpful, glassy-eyed sort of way. In addition to the usual suspects—insignia-laden T-shirts, sweaters, boxer shorts, drinking glasses, snowglobes, key rings, etc.—there are more esoteric items like the $500 tie tack with pavé diamond basketball and the updated version of a 19th-century carriage clock sporting a Lakers logo. Just when the utter charmlessness of the whole enterprise is about to suffocate you, the shop partly redeems itself with a miniature Statue of Liberty wearing a New York Liberty uniform and holding a basketball and clipboard instead of a torch and tablet. Even though this is just the sort of item destined to be left behind when you move to a new apartment, it does capture a certain special late-'90s New York Liberty moment.

Museum Company (673 Fifth Avenue): Quite a different atmosphere prevails at the Museum Company, where the shoppers carry their copies of The Nationin Channel 13 tote bags and covet items like "The Opera Houses of Europe" calendar. Despite the highbrow pretensions, the merchandise is not particularly tasteful: there is a 13-inch replica of Rodin's "The Kiss" made out of something called Alvastone and available in bronze-or white-marble finish for $159; Degas's little dancer has been shrunk to charm-size and strung on a chain for use as a pendant; and Starry Nights and Sunflowers are splattered over kitchen canisters and coffee mugs in a move that would surely have driven an already unstable Van Gogh right over the edge. Any lingering notion that this place is a bastion of refinement is demolished with one glance at the Last Supper sculpture, also made of Alvastone: it sells for $189, and could reside just as happily outside a glittering electronics store on 14th Street.

Disney Store (711 Fifth Avenue): The usual complement of shrieking toddlers and assaultive video screens attacks the senses, but, unlike the nine-story WB store up the street, there are mercifully a mere three floors to deal with. The ground level offers treats like Eeyore sweatpants, purple Minnie Mouse holiday stockings capacious enough to carry coal to heat the Empire State Building, and fake Beanie Babies in incarnations that include Piglet and Donald Duck's nephews. (They're only six bucks, but are hardly a wise investment next to the gold mine real Beanie Babies turned out to be.) Remembrances of Disney past, and not just the Snow White–Dumbo era, also surface: Buzz Lightyear is now a large, soft doll, and even bombs like Mulanare memorialized with backpacks.

The iconic Mickey himself doesn't lose his dignity when he'sdressed as a Statue of Liberty (it's better than having to wear Eeyore sweatpants). His Liberty is available as stuffed toy, china figurine, or slotted to serve as a bank, though the symbolism of Disney as financial institution as American emblem is a heavy load to lay upon one little mouse's shoulders.

Coca-Cola (711 Fifth Avenue): Disney has 70-odd years of characters ripe for what is now called branding, while poor Coke has only a treacly brown liquid. Forced to relentlessly pillage its own illustrious past, the store has come up with $10 tin trays featuring cola-related pastoral scenes, which look suspiciously like the trays hawked as authentic at the 26th Street antiques market. The $24 red tattersall sweatpants with a subtle Coke logo are ugly, but in the end will probably prove more useful than the $25 soda fountain straw dispenser, a silver-topped cylinder with that apothecary-shop feeling that now survives only at beauty parlors and medical offices. (The overly fetishistic will insist on stuffing it with genuine Coke straws, available at $3 for 50.) A Warholesque rhinestone Coke-can evening purse, designed by rhinestone-meister Judith Leiber, is a staggering $1790, but a soda fountain glass can be had for $1.75, and for $12 you can purchase a commemorative gold or silver Coke bottle (commemorating exactly what isn't clear), which is sure to be left behind along with that Liberty doll when the moving van arrives.

Warner Brothers Studio Store (1 East 57th Street): The wistful presence of the young Judy looms from every cranny of the Warner Brothers store, which is noting the 60th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz with a promotion that includes plastering Garland's sad visage on everything from Madame Alexander dolls to salt and pepper shakers. (Toto conveys the pepper.) "Follow the yellow brick road!" chirps the luckless employee posted at the door, and the promotion extends to sequined ruby slippers for little girls; the de rigueur video screen busies itself broadcasting Munchkins. For shoppers who are not just friends of Dorothy but wish to embrace the entire WB stable, the merchandise is by this point depressingly familiar: gray Tasmanian devil sweatpants for $24, rhinestone minaudières sporting a Batman logo for $1650, and, perhaps least surprising, a Bugs Bunny trussed up in Statue of Liberty drag and carrying a "What's Up Doc?" tablet at $22.

Prada (724 Fifth Avenue): If Prada didn't want to be compared to the Disney store, why did it open a swanky four-level shop diagonally across the street from the WB store? The pale pistachio interior teems with stroller-pushing mommies and sweatshirted tourists, a far cry from the sullen sub-debs who populate Prada advertisements and runways. Maybe it doesn't have video screens, but otherwise this place bears the hallmark of a theme store: fairly undistinguished merchandise—keychains, slippers, and basic nylon bags—is redeemed by its association with greatness, which at Prada is symbolized by a little metal triangle. In the last several years, the company has expanded to include sporty clothing, and this season, having eschewed sweatpants, it is offering puffy skipants for men, made of Teflon-coated nylon, for $420. In place of Eeyore's face or cola logos, the word Prada is embossed on multifarious snaps, zipper pulls, and the red leather binding that decorates the posh wearers' ankle.

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