You could dazzle your beloved with a Tank Française watch, plucked from Cartier’s glittering Fifth Avenue showcases and retailing for $2700 in stainless steel. Or you could go to the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway, to the far less intimidating environs of Rahme Discount Jewelry, and get an exact replica, in an indeterminate silvery metal, made by a company called Rumours and priced at $19.77. Both timepieces have in common a reliable quartz movement; though the Cartier comes in a spectacular red leather box, what is to prevent you from rigging up the Rumours in a pretty presentation case of its own?
Bargain-basement shopping is all about removing objects from their squalid surroundings, lovingly repackaging them, and sending them off to new homes. With this in mind, we set out to conquer the season by becoming connoisseurs of the cheapest of the cheap.
At the Astor Place Kmart, the merchandise is a blend of the predictable: a $10 automated Mrs. Claus doll in a scarlet gown; the sensual: a sheer golden $15.99 baby-doll nightie suitable for Lolita Haze or Lady Bunny; the functional: an $8.99 ersatz Coach bag in the traditional bucket shape; and the mercurial: an electric-blue feather boa, the last gasp of the fizzled glam rock revival, extremely affordable at $9.99.
The holiday goodies at National Wholesale Liquidators (632 Broadway) share space with jars of Jiffy and gallons of Wisk. Still, we managed to locate a cache of china with a Fiestaware feeling in a variety of attractive styles, including oversized teal coffee cups and marigold tumblers with spindly art moderne handles, each under $2. Upstairs, the classic winter gift of silk thermal long underwear— leggings, turtles, crews, etc.— is priced under $20. If drinking glasses and skivvies are entirely too practical for the gamine on your list, an ankle-length stretch velvet skirt in a delectable shade of midnight blue is $9.97.
At Dee & Dee on Chambers Street, a few blocks north of Century 21, $2.99 will buy a pair of infantile rabbit, bear, or lion bedroom slippers that are sufficiently commodious to accommodate grown women’s feet. A creepy silk pillow of Goofy or Mickey’s head (the ticket calls this thing a Play Face) looks like it emerged from the workshop of Jeff Koons and is well-priced at $4.99. Those Furbys of yesteryear, the Cabbage Patch Kids, are now available in abundance for $16.99: Dee & Dee’s stock includes Marcia Blanche, a Kid who comes boxed with a real working shower, which is more than can be said of a lot of the tenement apartments plenty of New Yorkers still inhabit. Just as we were leaving the store, we spied an item that is bound to induce nightmares before Christmas: Frank E. Post, a silver-faced singing lamppost who looks slightly inebriated and sells for $29.99. In a daring mix of the sacred and the profane, Frank croons, among other delights of the season, “In excelsis Deo, dooby dooby doo.”
The best automaton at Bradlee’s (40 East 14th Street) doesn’t sing, it feeds: it’s an anthropomorphic M&M figurine that costs $19.99 and bills itself a Blues Cafe Limited Edition Collectible. (You pull on its arm and M&Ms pour out.) With his jaunty saxophone, sunglasses, and general air of rotund resilience, this fellow can’t help but remind one of poor Mr. Clinton, were he a limited-edition candy dispenser instead of the commander in chief.
Near the escalator on the second-floor landing, Bradlee’s continues to sell interesting boxes printed with pictures of yellow roses, Victorian cherubim, and the like— though not too successfully, it turns out, since the store is currently embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings and is looking to unload its Union Square location. Anyway, while it’s still open, hatboxes decorated with angel-violinists are $8.99, photo albums in the same pattern are $5.99, and a heart-shaped variant in bubblegum-pink enlivened with portraits of Barbie is $8.99. (Do stick something, even if it’s only a bunch of candy canes, inside the box, though— there’s nothing more disappointing than opening an empty carton on Christmas morning.)
Odd-Job, which has lately replaced Paterson Silks on the corner of University Place and 14th Street, may be less thrilling than its restored facade suggests, but it does display a dazzling assortment of yet more mechanical objets. The ones here have lots of moving parts, light up, play music, and generally put Frank E. Post and Mrs. Claus to shame. Alas, these fanciful if useless items are quite pricey by 14th Street standards: a musical Ferris wheel featuring couples in Edwardian costumes evokes the holiday classic Meet Me in St. Louis at a cost of $99.88. For roughly half that amount— $49.99— the by now all too familiar cast of Mickey, Donald, and company can be had twirling relentlessly round a lit Christmas tree. On the other hand, if you’re going to part with $49.99 for one of these things, you might as well go for Christmas in Bethlehem, which lovingly recreates in miniature a parched biblical landscape. While 20 Christmas ditties play, three wise men and a couple of shepherds spin in perpetual motion around a nativity scene that is as motionless as Lot’s wife.
The Herald Square area, home to Weber’s and Conway, is also the site of Jack’s 99 Cent Store (110 West 32nd Street) where, unfortunately, not everything is 99 cents. On the upper level, $2.99 will buy a pair of My Very Own Movie Star shoes, transparent Cinderella mules embellished with rosettes, which the package recommends for those age three and over. (It doesn’t say how much over, but they don’t look like they’d fit the gal who’s getting those rabbit slippers.) A $2.99 picture frame with undulating metallic flowers might, in dim light, make the recipient believe he or she has received a gift from ABC Carpet & Home; a $9.99 bedside lamp with a beaded shade could also conceivably hail from that emporium.
The lamp and the frame are perfectly nice gifts, but some relationships call for more intimate tokens. If this is the case, Jack’s offers astonishingly delicate panties in shades of pink and celadon, made of fake silk and distinguished by floral panels that have been richly enhanced with chiffon. But for their naughty thong, they might have delighted the Gwyneth Paltrow of Shakespeare in Love, had Will a mere $1.99 with which to create a little holiday magic for his dark lady.