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Those $14.99 red devil bears sitting in dumb contentment on the main floor of the Astor Place Kmart may in fact be dimly aware that their world is falling down all around them. Why else would their box brandish the plaintive "Try Me!" and advertise their willingness to perform all kinds of tricks? A mere touch of their paws sets them wiggling their horns while the tune "Hunka Burning Love" resounds from somewhere deep in their belliesboth good reasons why they make respectable, if not overly intellectual, Valentine's Day presents.
The spirit of Cupid careers everywhere over the retail landscape this season, from the vaunted coffers of Tiffany & Co., with its diamond-encrusted hearts, to the cluttered confines of Dee & Dee (22 West 14th Street), where a scarlet teddy, albeit without all the bells and whistles of the Kmart ursine, is $1.99. At Duane Reade (all over town), sure to be open late on the night of the 14th if you're caught up short, there's a gift that might go well with that poor Hunka Love beara box of $9.99 Russell Stover Elvis chocolates that has the King's portrait and autograph on the cover ("Valentine's Greetings, Elvis") and also plays "Love Me Tender" when you lift the lid. For $4.99 you can get a smaller box with a picture of Elvis dressed as a soldier or a Hawaiian tourist, but for that price a collectible magnet stands in for the music.
Underwear, along with candy and flowers the traditional Val Day tribute, is also available at Duane Reade, in the form of 100 percent cotton boxer shorts ($4.99) that don't exactly break any new ground theme-wise: They're printed all over with predictable hearts, the hardly fresh "I love you," or pictures of those pastel candies that say stuff like "Be mine." (Duane Reade has little boxes of these Necco sweethearts, with a variety of slogans"Got Love", "Only You"for 44 cents.) Over at Anthropologie (85 Fifth Avenue; 375 West Broadway), whoever is adjudicating the lingerie debate has come down firmly on the thong side of the controversy. (Instylemagazine's latest issue devotes five pages to the discussion.) In any case, at least one example manages to combine the salacious with the virginal in equal measureit's $12, made of lace-trimmed white cotton, and it's embroidered across the front with the vaguely sinister "mine." (Well, it couldn't be embroidered across the back, since there isn't any.) A matching camisole is $24.
Anthropologie also has something for couples who've faced a rocky time of late but are determined to get through it: It's called a Wash Away Your Sins Bath and Body Sampler, and it's intended "for liars, cheaters, and wrongdoers." The kit includes the following remedies for redemption: two cleansing bars, one bottle of bubble bath, lip balm, and a quartet of towelettes ($20). Someone whose love life is in even dicier shape might nevertheless appreciate being remembered on the 14th. For this friend, Alphabets (47 Greenwich Avenue; other locations) has something called the love voodoo doll, made of soft red cloth, presumably to accommodate pins, and covered with phrases like "cold shower" and "gold digger." It comes with a Spell Book of Romance and Revenge and makes the dubious claim that "you can take charge of your love life with voodoo" ($9.95).
At Mxyplyzyk (125 Greenwich Avenue), it's possible to avoid completely the sticky sensibility that threatens to bury this holiday in a flood of stale chocolate and putrefying flowers. A group of determinedly austere brushed-metal picture framesfrom $12 for a small rectangle to $45 for a triptychrefuse to slide into bathos no matter how corny the picture you force them to display. For couples with a scholarly bent, the shop has a book called Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions From the Golden Age of the Paperback, by Susan Stryker. The generously illustrated text concerns itself with pre-Stonewall days, when the carrying of a particular paperbackclassics like Ann Bannon's Odd Girl Outor John Rechy's City of Night provided a signal to fellow travelers ($19.95).
Any number of more obvious erotic indicatorsfootless fishnet tights, feather boaspresent themselves at the jaunty, remarkably inexpensive Girlprops (33 East 8th Street; 153 Prince Street; 203 Spring Street). The store also has a plethora of items with a lower sizzle content, including a bunch of those charm bracelets so popular this season, suitably tricked out with hearts and all in the under-$5 range. Rhinestone nameplate necklaces manage, at $3.99, to evoke the louche elegance of the young Madonna. On tap are "master," "devil," "hot," "kinky," "angel," "baby," and "slave," and "We also have 'slut,' 'dirty,' and 'brat,' " offers the salesperson, who has a Louise Brooks bob and a winsome manner that belies her multi-pierced lip.
If your loved one is similarly punctured, there is plenty of Valentine-appropriate body jewelry at Cassioppia (38 West 8th Street). Two styles of what the shop calls tongue rings, though they look more like tongue studs, offer a red heart under a clear dome. A plain, very tiny version (but how big do you want something in your tongue to be, really?) is $18; a slightly larger example, with a border of silvery beads is $24. On a recent gray afternoon, the shop, which seems to function as a meeting place for piercing enthusiasts, was filled with chatty visitors. "You're not healed yetit's going to really hurt it if that gets inside the septum hole!" warned the woman behind the counter to an overeager, freshly pierced young gentleman. Though she was speaking of his newly perforated nose, she could have been musing on the whole subject of love: "After all, piercings are never really just exactly what you expect them to be."