If you’ve never seen a haul video, you’re probably not a teenage girl who loves to shop. For those not in the know, a haul video is typically made by adolescent girls who go out to their local malls, buy as much clothing and makeup as their allowances afford them, and then show off all their neat stuff on YouTube. And given that stores like Forever 21 (a hauler favorite) are so cheap, the videos can be rather long because there’s so much to share.
A while back, Blair Fowler, a leader of the haulers, who lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, posted on her Facebook page that she was coming to New York City and wanted to know which stores to visit. The commenters chimed in:
“go to forever 21!! its HUGE there!!”
“cold stone creamery!!! Juicy Couture, Forever 21, abercrombie!!”
“go to h&M its huge i love!!!!!!!!! I can live their.. well mayb not haha”
“So Ho also has the BEST and most sheek shopping.”
Yes, a girl from Tennessee can feel right at home in a city that offers all her mall favorites. But it got me thinking: If I wanted to experience that exhilarating hauler rush of bragging about all my inexpensive clothes, but didn’t want to buy anything from a chain, did I have any alternatives in our “sheek” city? With $150 in my wallet, I decided to find out—but quickly learned that concessions have to be made. Lesson No. 1: Forget about organization.
When I first enter Kaufman’s Army & Navy (319 West 42nd Street, 212-757-5670, kaufmansarmynavy.com), my instincts tell me to turn around and leave. The city’s oldest surplus shop, it’s a musty, intimidating jumble of boxes and clothing piles. Feeling hopeless, I stumble down the shop’s one narrow path, past mounds of gear, and spot my first gem: an olive-green mesh jacket with a drawstring hood—the perfect light jacket for that transition period from summer to fall. As the shop’s owner, Jim Korn, tells me, it’s an insect-repellent jacket, intended for long days in the jungle. What about the concrete jungle? I bend down to pick up off the floor what appears to be . . . a fantastic long mesh camouflage scarf? “No, that’s a sniper veil,” he says. I take them both for $45.
With $105 left, I head to the ultimate cheap-goods neighborhood: Chinatown. Walking past store after tourist-trap store of I Heart New York mugs and souvenir T-shirts and paper fans, I finally come across the martial arts shop Bok Lei Po Trading (63 Mott Street, 212-233-0935, bokleipo.com). Lesson No. 2: Just because something is made for kung-fu fighting doesn’t mean it’s not fashionable. At the back, I find 100 percent raw-silk drawstring pants with elastic at the ankles. They’re not only designed to withstand heavy amounts of Bruce Lee–style abuse, but they have the potential to be very chic with heels and a silk top. And they’re only $25. Other gems include adorable sneakers by Feiyue for $18 and sturdy black split-toe “ninja socks” for $5. I take the pants and the socks, which puts me at $75.
I can hear New Yorkers saying, “Go to Century 21, already!” But there’s something about it that’s too close to Marshalls or T.J.Maxx for me. Apparently, what’s more my speed is the dingy cramped confines of East Village Shoe Repair (1 St. Marks Place, 212-529-8339). There’s something that’s so quintessentially New York about this shop. And this is where we arrive at Lesson No. 3: Don’t judge a store by its mutilated Barney doll out front or by the ZZ Top beard on the salesman. The man with the beard is Boris Zuborev, who has run the shop with Eugene Finkelberg for about 15 years. The shop is a favorite of local stylists who count on them to custom-make shoes for runway shows and high-fashion photo shoots (Kate Moss even wore a pair for a spread in W magazine). Piles of old Converse, heels, and boots are precariously stacked along either side of the shop, which is maybe six feet wide. I attempt to pull out a black heel and down comes a mini avalanche of shoes. None of this should be conducive to a successful shopping experience, and yet I end up with some antique-looking purple leather heels, black boots, and white sneakers with rawhide shoestrings—all for $30!
With $45 left, I head out to the Artists & Fleas (129 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 917-541-5760, artistsandfleas.com) market in Williamsburg. Open only on the weekends, the indoor market is bustling with vintage dealers and indie designers. I stop at the stall of the Brooklyn Charm Shop, where people are hunched over little containers of charms and chains. Lesson No. 4: Sometimes you have to do some of the work yourself. I pick out a $10 chain and a $4 charm (it’s a little golden ruler, perfect in case I ever need to measure really tiny things), and the woman puts it on for me with a $1 clasp.
I’ve hunted everywhere for vintage shops that charge less than $20 and hit upon Urban Jungle (118 Knickerbocker Street, Brooklyn, 718-497-1331) in Bushwick, where the average price is $10. The only drawbacks: not as much women’s clothing as men’s (my male friend found almost-new Ferragamo shoes for $10) and a whole lot of polyester. Which takes us to Lesson No. 5: Sometimes it’s just best to go straight to the Salvation Army (436 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-834-1562, salvationarmy.org).
A lot of people will tell you that the thrift stores here are too picked over to be any good, but I firmly believe that they are actually the best in the world. I assure you that the thrift stores near Blair’s house in Tennessee are not stocked with wealthy people’s castoffs from Barneys or Bergdorf’s. It takes me about an hour of hunting, but finally I find a perfect-condition Marc Jacobs blue military shirt for $5. As Blair often says when she shows off a super-cheap purchase, “I feel like I’m stealing!” And I do. I also “steal” a classic plaid Pendleton skirt for $12, a cream cotton Brooks Brothers blouse for $6, and a long ’80s tweed coat for $17. I’m $10 over. But since rules were made to be broken, I get them all.
True, Blair, shopping at her neighborhood mall, might have brought home a bigger haul. But a better haul? Not for my money. And this is Lesson No. 6: Blair, next time you visit NYC, keep in mind, it’s HUGE here!!