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Odd-Job (230 Fifth Avenue) is but the first stop on our cut-rate sojourn, a tour that takes us from Herald Square to 14th Street to Astor Place. And though it can be dispiriting to forage through endless piles of bottom-of-the-barrel merch, please remember that even the silliest gift is a huge improvement over showing up empty-handed. So why not bring everyone in the house Odd-Job's Santa hat trimmed with fake mink ($2.59), or even cheaper, a set of 99-cent reindeer horns with jingle bells? If the company includes genuine grown-ups who can't be fobbed off with a stupid hat, Odd-Job also has perfectly respectable Mikasa crystal at ludicrously low prices: A bud vase is $2.99 (for that, you can also supply the bud); a fruit bowlit could also accommodate eggnogis $14.99.
The neon sign outside Jack's (110 West 32nd Street) may flash "99 cents," but in fact only the first floor of this mart has items for a buck; upstairs, where it's called Jack's World, tariffs are higher. Still, they're nothing to complain about: During a rapid sweep (you try it and see how long you can stand hanging out in any one of these places) we turn up a velveteen dreidel, plush but spinnable, for only $1.99; surprisingly fashionable picture frames, encrusted with pearls to give them a Chanel-ish air, are $5.99.
Fourteenth Street, once discount heaven, now boasts only a very few true cheapies, the most compelling being Dee & Dee, which has several branches between Fifth and Sixth. Along with the requisite bins of panty hose and plastic shower curtains, the outlet at 39 West 14th offers that holiday staple, the animal-head bedroom slipper, enhanced here with sound chips and labeled "talkable." Squeeze these shoes' ears, and meows and woofs fill the room; there's even a yellow and white slipper with a beak that emits a substantial quack. The original tags, still attached, read $24, but at Dee & Dee they are a far more palatable $6.99.
As it turns out, Dee & Dee is a virtual Vatican library compared with the wildly anarchic Bag Man (261 West 34th Street), where a frenzied holiday spirit informs the cheerful squalor. When you're on the main floor, a guy over the loudspeaker chastises you for not shopping in the basement toy department; we resist his blandishments, settling instead on a display of makeup that would gladden the heart of someone just starting to experiment with cosmetics. A package of 12 lipsticks is $2.99; half a dozen nail polishes are $1.99. (Get these for a six-year-old! Make its parents mad!)
The Bag Man also has a particularly strong showing in the snow globe department, including a group at $2.99 that features the Manhattan skyline with the late World Trade Center rising from a sea of glitter instead of the traditional snow. Though they may seem kitschy and mawkish, we find them as touching, in their humble way, as any of those memorials being bandied about downtown.
Kmart (770 Broadway) doesn't lack for snow globes either, only here they play music and bear, for better or worse, the imprimatur of Martha Stewart. These globes ($14.99) are superbly tasteful in the Stewart fashion: A celadon-colored base holds a Christmas tree and plays "The First Noel," while a globe with three snowmen trills "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Too bad these snowmen didn't opt for something more secular, like "Let It Snow," so that Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist snow globe lovers, inevitably a bit adrift at this time of year, could join in the fun.
Still, all is not lost: Kmart also has a doll who does indeed croon "Let It Snow"($9.99). She's called a Snowflake Baby, and she's afflicted with a visage right out of a horror movie: poppy eyes, toothy grin, and a frill of lacy plastic surrounding her face. The whole effect is so creepy it would keep Martha up nights if she didn't have better things to worry about.