The Cheap Detective


“I found a good place, but it’s kind of cheesy,” S. confesses to us, a fleeting look of shame crossing her lovely face. “It’s at 14th and Third, right where I get off the subway, and it is cheap—really, really cheap.”

Really, really cheap was for decades the hallmark of 14th Street, but in recent years the beloved discounters have begun to vanish, replaced by condos and megastores. Or have they? Curiosity impels us to take a second look, and we are happy to report that the bargain beacon is still burning bright.

We start our odyssey at BIG DEAL (202 East 14th), the place S. tells us about. As soon as we enter, we are plagued by a situation that will impede our note-taking in all subsequent stops: a thuggish guy at the door, ostensibly to thwart shoplifters but none too happy to see a journalist either.

Which means we have to write down prices surreptitiously, but it’s worth it: At Big Deal, a halter top whose print clearly references the Italian designer Marni is $10; a chiffon dress with an exaggerated handkerchief hem is $14.99. At our next store, the always chaotic STRAWBERRY (38 East 14th), a tie-dyed chiffon mini with a denim halter top is not unlike the Stella McCartney tie-dyes so popular this season. (Indulge in this fleeting fad here for $12.99, not further west on 14th, where Stella coincidentally has her flagship in the meatpacking district.)

We pop into DIESEL (1 Union Square West), but when we see undistinguished denim jackets for $229 we pop right out again. At Foxy Lady, the draw is T-shirts, all around $20, with slogans that straddle the thin line between prurience and feminism: Among the sentiments are “Please don’t feed the models” and “I fake my orgasms.” Our initial enthusiasm for the $19.99 ballet flats at SHOE OUTLET (6A East 14th) is tempered when we see the dreaded words “all man-made materials” stamped inside; having had a bad experience with this sort of sweatbox in the past, we repair to DAVID Z. (12 East 14th) and are just about overcome by the cleft-toed flats inscribed “pink bitches!” in cartoon letters, though at $95 they represent a commitment that our 14th Street jaunt is seeking to avoid. But our very next stop restores our faith: At DEE & DEE (22 West 14th), one of the last of the old-time bargain basements, a bevy of sundresses in prints that include a trompe l’oeil lace are causing a stir at $5.99 each.

Though most of 14th’s stores are what could kindly be described as underdecorated, two new shops charmingly defy this rule. EVE BARI (22 East 14th) may be light-years ahead in ambience, but thankfully the atmosphere hasn’t resulted in higher prices: A large tote whose watery, Utrillo-esque print offers a view of the Café de Paris is $27, or $525 cheaper than the smeary Prada print bags that no doubt inspired it. At the similarly genteel LAILA ROWE (2 West 14th), a plastic bubble ring that traps a flower is $6; a bracelet that looks like it’s made of rhinestone-studded ice cubes is $15.

We now come to a point in our journey where we are forced to comment on a disagreeable phenomenon: the penchant of stores that boast “every item $10” to flagrantly break their promise and sell things for more. One such place is COSMIC CLOTHING COMPANY (31 West 14th), where just such a screaming awning stands in direct contradiction to the items in the window, which include an admittedly very nice strapless dress in a ’50s print for $12.99. So arrogant is this place that it won’t even give you a simple white cotton blouse for $10; it’s marked a greedy $10.99.

The bad feeling engendered by this trickery quickly dissipates, however, when we find a place at 67 West 14th called TANNERY HOUSE (well, that may be its former name, but it’s still on the building) with a sign reading “Ladies Clothing Grand Opening.” It’s grand indeed: A rack outside holds, among other buys, a fruit-print skirt that boasts red bead fringe around its hem, and a pair of blue-and-white polka-dot capris; either can be had for an honest $7.99.