Have I got a way to spend a weekend for you. And at prices you just will not believe, darlings.
After a wonderful and "woolly" Sunday on New York's Lower East Side, I picked up the lingo plus a lot of bargain-hunting tips that combine to make a day in the Big Apple profitable as well as colorful. It's a classy delight during double-digit inflation: a high-quality/low-price ratio on men's, women's and children's clothing and merchandise of all varieties.
Would you believe that for just $33, I got not only a round trip Sunday in New York, but also coffee and miniature Danish on the way up and chilled champagne on the return trip? In addition, the fee included a map and a detailed rundown of some of the best places to buy fabulous discount designer clothes and other items within a few blocks plus an additional 10 percent discount coupon for some stores whose prices are already some 35 to 60 percent below retail. Now, that's what I call a bargain.
This was like giving a groupie the key to Mick Jaggers' hotel room. I thought I'd died and landed in a Grade D version of "Scruples" -- great clothes without t,e glamor, glitter or gorgeous surroundings.
My mania started on early shopping excursions with my mother, who bargained ("How much of a discount for this damaged blouse?") and hunted to get the best value during tight times. As fathers and sons relate by playing football and going to baseball games, my mother and I related by shopping together. After waiting in the street with thongs of women for Cleveland's Bonwit Teller to pen the doors for its phenomenal annual sale, I was certified into the ranks of Bargain-Hunters USA when I walked off with a formal for my junior-high prom for only $7.20 (including tax) and a cashmere sweater for little more.
A later two-year stint as a business reporter for Women's Wear Daily, the Bible of the Fashion World, did me in as I shopped "for work." When I eventually couldn't pass up a sign that said "sale," I joined Bargain-Hunters Anonymous. My support group encourgaged me to buy a silk shirt at Bloomie's for -- gasp. -- full price. Forgive me, Loehmann's back room.This was not only painful but also lacked the great "shopper's high" that comes only after hours of searching and finding The Great Buy.
But I was reformed, on the wagon and could surely go the original "I can get it for you wholesale" territory, record impressions and come back with only my notes.
For support, I took along a friend who was dying to buy a couple of smashing new versatile fitted suits -- the major look of the new season. She would be my mannequin and try on things while I watched. She had no trouble winding up with a Harve Benard suit for $129 and a Gare for $150 -- both of which retail for well over $200.
Up before the joggers, we got to Carter Barron by 7 and were met by the two hunters of cut-rate haute couture who arranged the monthly shopping sprees: Bertha Thompkins, a foreign service reserve officer for the International Communications Agency, and Carol Beadle, a PR consultant. Like efficient stewardesses, they thought of everything, including huge labeled bags for each passenger's puchases.
Shopping courses through the veins of Thompkins and Beadle, who've formed B&B Tours (for Bertha and Beadle) to help support their expensive habit. "My arms are so long from carrying shopping bags and reaching up to racks all these years," Thompkins says, "I could shop every day." A lover of Anne Klein and Calvin Klein clothes in particular, she discovered that these designers were becoming too expensive even in supposedly good sales. "So one Sunday in June, we hopped the Eastern shuttle to New York (weekend excursion rate) for a shopping escapade, and even with plane and cab fares came out well ahead financially with this fall's high clothing prices."
Feeling that others would like to share the wealth, the two women initiated successful Sunday July and August bus trips, which have mushroomed into followup trips September 16 and October 14.
The chartered bus (with bathroom) dropped us off some four hours later on the corner of Orchard and Delancey Streets, permitting about 5 1/2 hours for shopping, eating and sightseeing in a few blocks jammed with some 300 tiny, family-owned shops before the 5 o'clock reassembly time.
Its shops bustling on a Sunday (many close Saturdays), Orchard Street is closed to vehicular traffic and belongs to the people -- people in yarmulkes, people in dashikis, tall Texans and short New Yorkers in the Western look, and women (whose derrieres don't always match those in the current sexy ads) in their latest Calvin Klein jeans. Washington, even with its surfeit of tourists and foreign visitors, somehow still looks more homogenized.
This is Manhattan's answer to the Casbah or to the Arab souk in old Damascus. Aromas mingle from carts preparing shish kebab, hot dogs with chili and egg creams (seltzer, chocolate syrup, cream) with thick, old-fashioned pretzels. Hawkers distribute flyers to promote their stores. Shoe laces, jeans, coats, rugs hang in the street.
The trip is worth the price for the tastes, smells and sights alone. Hungry, we passed by Weisman's restaurant -- where I could have searched for my roots in a hot tongue sandwich -- and Ratner's, a great diary restaurant, and headed for Katz's Delicatessen on Houston Street. The ambiance was divine: Photos of salamis, of Bella Abzug, of an African headhunter and of Egyptian pyramids lined the windows to indicate that "Katz's salamis are known worldwide." Walls of the huge fluorescent deli advised, "Send a salami to your boy in the army" and displayed not-too-comforting instructions on first aid for choking victims.
We passed up their supposedly super hot dogs and knishes for traditional corned-beef sandwiches and Dr. Brown's cream soda, which can't be found in Washington. "I didn't charge you that extra cream soda," the waiter said with a wink -- his gambit for a higher tip.
Many stores will take plastic money -- rare for such discount operations -- with Mastercharge, VISA or check most accepted. For better deals, bargain with cash: Merchants then most often knock off at least the 8 percent New York sales tax and even more -- particularly noteworthy at stores that already give B&B people an extra 10 percent discount.
At Breakaway Fashions, Inc., which has not only designer clothes but full-skin furs (and takes orders for furs of your choice), I succumbed and tried on a lucious white lamb jacket, $425 at discount.
Salesman: "It looks stunning on you."
Me: "It's lovely, but I need the money for a condominium."
"Listen, you won't be able to walk out on the price I'm gonna give you. Just $350."
Virtuously: "I still can't justify the purchase. I came here to look, not to buy."
Whispering: " $300. You can't walk out on that."
I did -- but even a reformed bargain-hunter like me knew it was a beautiful buy.
Next stop M. Friedlich Inc., whose basement offers designer clothes and French imports. "The best store on Orchard Street," says proprietor Morris Friedlich, who's been there for 22 years. "Customers from South America come here. I go myself to Paris and carry only the finest designers. You're writing this for a Washington paper? Then I'll tell you my favorite designer is Anne Klein. I wouldn't say that in New York, but who knows from Washington?"
Friedleich's merchandise doesn't carry price tags; ask the red-headed saleswomen who spends more than her earnings at the store. Our fearless tour leader, Tompkins, was already there. She'd sworn she wouldn't buy anything on this trip -- "otherwise I'll eat up my profits" -- but couldn't resist a burgundy suede suit and colorful dress.
Separating the wheat from the chaff, we wandered through small shops whose inventive multiple racks and shelves display clothing that's in beautiful shape. Almost everything one could want discounted is service at o Cohen's Fashion Optical with designer and other frames), men's clothes (check Hammonton Park Clothes, Anthony and the Pioneer Shirt Company for designer clothes), children's clothes (Klein's of Monticello for French imports and Alou Kidde Shop for sizes three months of six years), designer lingerie (A. W. Kaufman), foundations and bras, luggage (Carry On Luggage Inc.), comforters with matching wallpaper (Harry Zarin Co.), fabrics and crafts, religious silver items, handbags (hit Fine and Kline) , shoes, lamps and tables, crystal, silver, dinnerware (Universe Imports).
Hunting for shoes should be done at the beginning of the day before shopping strains the feet. There are good buys on shoes -- a great saving, since the hide market has gone sky high this year affecting prices of all leather goods. Check out specifically Chaussures Saint Michel Inc. for imported shoes and bags, Flair's Edge, etc.)
It was 4:30 and I hadn't bought a thing. I broke into a sweat and broke down at Designers Connection, a new shop for both men and women, and -- blush -- bought two shirts by Geoffrey Beene and Givenchy. I couldn't leave with just my notes to show for such a trip.
Show-and-tell on the ride home was half the fun of the trip. Many bought beautiful things; some thought everything was too expensive. College student Jo DuBoise was "looking for even better buys," though she had her arms full and bargained a coat down to $100. Her boyfriend, John Glenn, plans to "come back in September to buy four pairs of slacks I should have bought today." IRS attorney Nancy Schuhmann was pleased with her Kenio silk blouse from A. Altman's, "which I say for twice as much in D.C." Cecilia Brown, with the Navy's congressional liaison office on Capital Hill, found it a "great opportunity to take a trip into a different world" and find fabric to transform into a dress of her own creation.
The only one who didn't buy anything, PR assistant Gloria Lowe, said she's saving money for the September trip after further casing out retail and discount prices in Washington and New York stores. "If I have to sell my car," she said, displaying an advanced case of shopper's fever, "I'm coming back September 16."
So am I. But it's okay: I'm really not hooked. Really. I'm just going up to celebrate my birthday with a friend over brunch and a jaunt through the art galleries of So Ho, my favorite stomping grounds. After all, I'm still enough of a bargain-hunter to know that $33 for a quicker trip than the train is a good deal even if I don't shop.
And maybe I'll also treat myself to a designer birthday suit.