The Way We Shop Now

One Month Later

"I dreamed there was a dog and it was being cooked, you know, on the stove," the salesperson is saying into a phone at the empty Chanel outlet in Woodbury Common. "And then the dog jumped up and ran away down the street half burned. It was horrible. I don't know why I dreamed it." Her words, puzzled and sad, seem oddly at home in a glittery shop filled with marabou-trimmed sheepskin coats and quilted handbags and spectator pumps that, despite the jauntiness of the merchandise, is about as cheery as a mausoleum.

Two and a half weeks after the World Trade Center blew up, the concrete caverns of Woodbury Common are creepy and nearly customer-free. A Potemkin village of 220 factory outlets—everything from Salvatore Ferragamo to Socks Galore, Versace to Vitamin World—Woodbury, with its treacly piped-in music and inedible food and streets named after fruits, seems to exist outside normal time, to be a million miles from Manhattan. In fact, it is only an hour away, in Orange County, and 16 days after the catastrophe the Shortline bus, far from full, is running as usual from Port Authority.

At the Fendi outlet, the salespeople gather in a corner of a shop where last year's polka-dotted rabbit coats and jeweled hibiscus-trimmed baguette bags languish untroubled by shoppers. "I can't sleep at all," one salesman is saying to the other. "Can you?" In Wolford, a lingerie shop, the $120 nylon bodysuits are marked down to $30. There are tears in the saleswoman's eyes when a shopper says she lives in view of the Trade Center. "Did you know anybody?" she asks, looking up from a stack of half-price tights and gazing out the window at Grapevine Court.

This is not the kind of talk that has traditionally accompanied panty hose purchases. In the old days, before September 11, there were basically three modes of behavior governing the fleeting relationship between buyer and seller: wary fawning in expensive stores, bored cordiality in the mid range, and pure class hatred in the cheapest places. You could ignore the strain of these transient encounters, but it never entirely disappeared: At the much mourned designer discount store Century 21, now barely standing across from the ruins, the pleasure of finding things like a Gaultier shirt for $49 was always somewhat mitigated, at least temporarily, by the exhausted, furious faces of the people behind the cash registers.

Now, the unspoken rule that conversations in stores be limited to sophistries or silence seems as ephemeral as consumer confidence. At a Fifth Avenue shop with a daunting gold and black entrance whose elegance is guaranteed to frighten away unserious customers, there's a flag pin on the manager's exquisite lapel and a catch in his voice. "You like our things, madame?" he says, waving a manicured hand in the direction of a white mink minidress trimmed with lace, an item of such intense cold-hearted frivolity it seems to have come from another century. To a customer actually purchasing something he is profusely grateful: "Thank you, thank you! If you will buy something and I will and then he will and she will, we will get back on our feet again."

Even at the flea market, a place that exists at the very edges of the retail world, where genuine friendships between buyers and sellers have been known to spring up (after all, it's not every day two matchbox collectors find each other), things are not as they were. At 2:30 in the afternoon on the day of the memorial service at Yankee Stadium, the dealers at the Garage, a damp and drafty antiques center on 25th Street, stood and sang "God Bless America." "Can you imagine those freaks singing?" recounts a market habitué, in affectionate appraisal of the crusty retirees, hard-eyed pickers, and genuine misfits who set up there every weekend.

Or maybe people are just talking, or singing, out of fear. Late last month, a memo went out to store owners on Prince Street in Soho asking them to come to a meeting and admitting that "the mood and atmosphere of Prince have reached an all-time low. . . . Prince Street has become a ghost town since the city's tragic events on September 11. . . . We have two options: We can either sit back and let external influences drive our economy directly into a recession or we can take back our community and forge ahead. We need to get back on our feet and bring life back to our streets."

But even those streets, once so solid, seem suddenly to be shifting under one's feet. Last week, in the main section of The New York Times, in the space that a year ago offered ads from international airlines trumpeting low fall fares, there was, for the first time in recent memory, a full page ad for "Your Westchester Dream Home," featuring pictures of fancy houses in Rye and Larchmont and Scarsdale. Though it didn't say so, it was no doubt, at least in part, directed at loft owners and Battery Park City residents who are rethinking their contempt for the suburbs.

Still, it's hard to believe that all these reclaimed downtown neighborhoods, the once dreary cast-iron district that is now Soho, the no-man's land that in the last half dozen years became Tribeca, are not really here to stay. "We're open!" says Allison on the phone from Shack, an arty clothing store at Duane Street and West Broadway, five minutes on foot from ground zero, that specializes in roomy smocks and high-styled woolen overalls favored by museum curator types. "Everyone's OK! Please come and buy something! Please."

 
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