One of My Favorite Places
I'm not one for retail therapy. I don't find shopping relaxing. It's not something I tend to do just for fun. Generally speaking, I shop if I need something, and then it's always a strategic strike. Pinpoint the most promising source, then in and out as quickly as possible. I shop online whenever possible. Why spend precious time visiting a mall or driving from store to store if you can avoid it?
There are, however, a few major exceptions. One is wedding-gown shopping (a topic deserving of its own blog entry). And the other? Well...
Ever been to Bergdorf-Goodman? Just south of The Plaza hotel in New York City? Same side of the street and just a bit north of Harry Winston (Rare Jewels of the World, sigh)?
Oh, what a glorious place. Walk through those doors and it's like entering an enchanted land where everything gleams. You know how in commercials for cleaning products, the sparkling kitchens and bathrooms make your own reasonably tidy rooms seem dingy? Well, like Dorothy opening her door onto the colorful Land of Oz, when you cross the threshold at Bergdorf-Goodman, the outside world turns sepia. Want to heighten the effect? Do it on a sweltering, mid-August afternoon. An oasis!
It's not ostentatious. And it's not overwhelming. For one thing, the place isn't all that big. Smaller than most modern department stores, and downright puny compared with the mega-marts most of us are accustomed to. And back when I first started haunting the place, before menswear booted F.A.O. Schwarz from its spot* directly across the street, the stuff that made me swoon took up even less real estate.
It's not a matter of quantity. It's all about quality. And presentation. Can I afford it? Mostly, no. But that's not really the point. I don't go there to buy. I don't even go there to shop. I'm not looking for a specific item and I am most certainly not rushing in and out. I go there to escape into a world of subtly glimmering superlatives. You know how a non-denominational hospital chapel offers respite from the sterile chaos? Well just feast your eyes on this:
Talk about a house of worship! Be still my beating heart. And that's just one small length of a single rack in the pale pink section of the gown department. Step off the escalator on the third floor, turn to your right. You can't miss it. It's just a small salon with a low sofa in the center (probably for people like me who, at the sight of these exquisite gowns, simply must sit for a minute or risk hyperventilating). But it may be one of my favorite places in the entire world. The room is arranged by color. And whether you're looking for an emerald green satin or a smoky gray chiffon, there is sure to be a dress that will bring tears to your eyes.
It's been a long love affair, mostly unrequited. One evening when I was about 10 years old, my father came home from work and handed me a 5-inch-square silver box with Bergdorf-Goodman on the lid. I don't remember the occasion, if there even was one, and I couldn't imagine what he might have bought me there. Inside was, of all things, a foo dog. The body was fuchsia silk, the stylized feet were little brushes, and the head and tail sat on hidden springs. The world's fanciest bobble-head doll. I adored it.
Years later, mom, thinking destitution loomed, grabbed the credit cards and took me and her best friend for an afternoon of "last hurrah" shopping. Where else but Bergdorf-Goodman? I remember they served coffee in the dressing room (yes, there was space to do so), while I tried on swimsuits. Our sole purchase? This Norma Kamali maillot which, at the time, and by our standards, was outrageously expensive (about $80). Here it is on a Freeport beach in April 1982:
The other nice thing about Bergdorf-Goodman? No glances down the nose. No airs of superiority. Just friendly service. You are treated as a valued customer until you prove yourself otherwise. Granted, I have always known that if you really want to get into a dressing room with a $10,000 gown, you had better act the part.
Thus, my best friend (the purple ballerina in this earlier blog entry) and I, decked out in our finest velvet-collared princess coats, trekked into the city on our poofy-dress pilgrimages. With impeccable manners and suppressed giggles, we sought help finding appropriate gowns for concocted "coming out parties" and "galas." How I wish we'd taken pictures of our many adventures! But this was long before cell phones or pocket-size cameras, and we really didn't want to push our luck. We just wanted to try on the dresses. And we did.
Upon entering the hallowed dressing rooms, it took every ounce of self-control not to give ourselves away. We stifled squeals of joy and amazement at each fabulous frock. But we were always extremely careful, never discourteous, and fully intended, some day, to come back and buy one of those gowns. Trust me, it's still in the plans. And I'm getting closer.
Flash forward to June 2011. It's "Mommy & Me Week in New York City" with daughter number two of three. A post-Kindergarten family tradition. Not only is this kid a wonderful travel companion, she's a budding Annie Leibovitz. Here I am, as photographed by my 6-year-old, in the very same dressing room where my best friend and I spent so many wonderful, pre-teen afternoons. It's just as magical today as it was then. I can't wait to go back. Who wants to go with me?
* So several years ago I was walking down 5th Avenue with one of my closest friends. We arrived at the corner of 58th street where, all through my childhood and young-adult life, we'd have been looking across at a toy soldier, guarding the corner door to F.A.O. Schwarz. I said, "Oh, no! Where did F.A.O. Schwarz go?" She pointed to the left and said, "Right there, duh, where it's always been."
Now, my friend and I were both born and raised in and around Manhattan. We both worked there after college. But while I commuted from the suburbs, she lived in the city. And while I moved away in the late 1980s, she has remained firmly ensconced all these years. She married there, had her kids and is raising them there. A true city girl. But oh, she was so wrong about this.
Feeling that down-the-rabbit-hole disorientation, I said, "You are so very wrong about this, Bear. I know where F.A.O. Schwarz is, and it is supposed to be (pointing straight ahead) right there!" She flat-out refused to accept that F.A.O. Schwarz had ever been housed anywhere but The General Motors Building. She would not be swayed by my argument that an 1800s toy shop could not have spent its youth in a steel-and-glass tower. She said, "That is and always has been the Bergdorf-Goodman men's shop." I said, "Except there is no Bergdorf-Goodman's Men's Shop! Who the heck cares about men in Bergdorf-Goodman? I need to sit down. But first, let's just ask the doorman."
So across 58th we went. "Please tell my confused friend from Atlanta," she said, "that this has always been the Bergdorf-Goodman Men's Shop, and that that, over there, has always been F.A.O. Schwarz." And (sounding quite a bit like the horse that gave directions to Marty the Zebra in "Madagascar") he said, "Well, you see, this has been the Bergdorf-Goodman Men's Shop. Since 1990. Before that, since 1931, it was F.A.O. Schwarz."