The Friday shopping crowds are thick on the pavement outside Jack’s 99 Cents Store on 31st Street, but inside, Michael Musto is already elbow deep in the $1 video bin, digging for buried treasure. “This is good!” he says, holding high a copy of Santa Claus Defeats the Aliens, with Pia Zadora. “It’s a good extra gift for someone, not the whole gift! Well, maybe the whole gift . . .”
Every year we spend the day after Thanksgiving with M., and it’s always a revelation: Among his many other attributes, the famed gossip columnist manages to turn up gold where other see only dross.
We linger briefly on Jack’s main floor, drinking in all it has to offer—the basket-wielding plaster squirrels, the Santa bowl covers—”For the toilet bowl?” M. wonders—and then escalate upstairs to Jack’s World, where the prices exceed 99 cents—but usually not by all that much.
On the second floor there are Hanukkah candy-making kits and silverware sets and herb caddies: “Nobody wants a spice rack anymore,” M. observes wistfully. When we stop to admire a Fairykins Cinderella—sort of a diorama with a pumpkin coach, etc.—M. pounces, “Is that what you want for Christmas? Because I’d love to just buy it now.”
He takes out a scrunched piece of paper, which lists the various aunties and friends he’s buying for, and looks down into his basket where one lonely Pia Zadora video currently resides. “I’m not doing too well . . .” he says sadly.
But he brightens in a minute when he spies a green velvet item labeled “Christmas Stalking”. A Pooh nightlight is considered briefly and then rejected: “Everybody’ll think it came out of a gift bag.” A flower-painted glass soft-soap dispenser is rejected as too fragile. “You drop it—it breaks—otherwise it is just flawless.”
M. pays for the video and we head out onto the street. “Weber’s surpasses this place anyway! Weber’s is, well it’s like somewhere between the first and second floors of Jack’s! It’s like the missing second act of Edward Albee’s Seascape!” Two seconds after we enter Weber’s, a place so chaotic it makes Jack’s seem like Bergdorf’s, M. grabs a Santa with long dangly legs incongruously made of printed toile de joue fabric. “Now we’re in business!” But a second later he’s viewing its $3.99 price tag skeptically. “Maybe it’s not all that cute.”
A plastic flower lamp is deemed too heavy to carry home—otherwise it’s flawless—but M. wants to see it lit up before he makes up his mind. “I can’t just throw $4.99 to the wind.” A duck napkin holder is perhaps too bulky; the box purse decorated with the glitter zebra brings up bad memories of previous gift purses that were not as well received as M. had hoped.
Ever eagle eyed, M. spots three tiny purses decorated with the Lion, the Tin Woodsman, and the Scarecrow (no Dorothy in sight) on a shelf marked $4.99. “No way! These have to be 99 cents apiece! This has gotta be a mistake!” He rushes to the register and asks, “How much for these purses?” The bored cashier does indeed ring them up for 99 cents each. Triumph.
Though we are having a passel of fun, M. hasn’t even scratched the surface of his list. So we repair a few blocks west to Bag Man on 34th, which makes Weber’s seem like Bendel’s. “Oh God, they have really good stuff, especially when you haven’t been here for a while,” M. remarks, scooping up a Santa cake plate for his Aunt M. He pauses at a display of Mrs. Santa Claus creamers (her head and torso come off to pour the cream, her nether regions hold the sugar) marked $1.25. He remembers with a catch in his voice that last year this item was only $1. Oh well. After a few minutes deliberation, he decides Aunt A. is worth it, A rendering of the Last Supper held in a pair of crystal praying hands that light up seems perfect for Mom, though it’s a splurge at $10.99; two packages of Santa chair covers—$3.99 each—are judged too adorable to miss.
M.’s trademark oversize glasses are now just barely visible over his stack of parcels. As he trudges to the register, he lets out a contented sigh. “Every time I think I’ve reached my kitsch threshold they come out with things like this and I just have to break down!” he beams happily.