Century 21 is many things to many people, but under wraps it is not. The discount wonderland’s motto, “New York’s Best Kept Secret” may have been accurate once upon a time, but what kind of delinquent New Yorker isn’t at least aware of the “off-price” institution? Although it’s been there since 1962, what many people are not aware of is the store’s Brooklyn outpost (There is also a store in Long Island and two in New Jersey, but we like to stick to the subway). Recently, I got to wondering, what if that is New York’s best kept secret?
I set out for some comparative shopping and borough hopping to get to the bottom of this. Of course, it was hardly my first visit to the Cortlandt street location—I love Century for its fantastic deals and kind return policy, which can justify almost any purchase. On the Manhattan leg of the tour, I elbowed other ladies while rifling through the Salt and Ernest Sewn jeans in the “Contemporary” section, engaged in (and lost) a stare-down with a miniscule Japanese fashionista in the midst of some velvet and plaid by Marc Jacobs (labeled “Famous Maker”), and desperately searched for something fabulous in the section I like to save for last: “European Designers”. I stepped over someone’s long forgotten husband, fast asleep on the floor, to check out a Michael Kors toggle coat, which would have been great ($159.97, down from $349!) if it weren’t baby blue.
The only thing I really drooled over was a black velvet Paul Smith blazer with chintz-style flowers all over it and big sailor buttons. Unfortunately, it was inseparable from the matching skirt (the suit was priced at $849.97, reduced from $2,465), and furthermore, this section is so fancy that everything is shackled to the racks with unbreakable cables, a clear sign for peasants like me to back off. As I stomped my feet and petted the soft jacket, two teenagers passed by and one asked the other “Don’t you wish you were a socialite, so you could dress up all the time?” Yes, yes I do, and I have a feeling socialites never have to try on clothing in open stalls, either.
The outing was a bust, full of crushing false leads. With no red-and-white shopping bag and a big hole in my heart, I got on the R train and headed to the Bay Ridge shop (just down the block from the 86th street stop), trying to keep hope alive during the trip. Almost an hour later, I was through the looking glass—it was Century 21, with the same signs and utilitarian décor, but everything was in the wrong place. Why are the cheap tracksuits creeping into the fancy department? What is all this ugly lingerie doing near the precious famous makers? The space is smaller, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing—all it takes is one little patch of buried treasure to make a girl’s day. Plus, tourists don’t often get out to this distant strip of bodegas, fast food restaurants, and electronics stores, so the competition—a significant factor at the Manhattan location—is a lot less threatening here.
I started to get my bearings when I located familiar collections—the jeans were the same, but this time, I was edged out of the Marc Jacobs section by a Hasidic mom. I circled the floor several times, finding only a $40 leopard print camisole. Hope was waning when I stumbled on my pot of gold: two little racks of Missoni sweaters. But just as I began to thumb through the dizzying stripes, a voice came over the loudspeaker: “Attention Century 21 Shoppers: The time is now 8:55. The store will be closed in five minutes. Please make your way to the register.” No! I threw my bag on the floor and started trying on cardigans, vests, shells, etc., at record pace. Then, the voice came back, telling me the store was officially closed. I was so relieved to find out I could still make a purchase that, before I knew what was happening, I had purchased a sleeveless zigzag-striped thing for an unjustifiable $169.99.
Back on the R train, I vowed to bring it back. Then again, I did save $410. Not bad.