The Nordstrom Rack on 18th and L streets NW launched last week, and the heavens opened and the angels sang and there were 300 people waiting in line — some of whom arrived at 5:30 in the morning — for the 9 a.m. opening, because now there was a place to buy pantyhose.
Emergency pantyhose. The “there’s a giant run on my knee” replacement-pantyhose.
The store also sells “I spilled coffee on my other sweater” sweaters, “I forgot today was my performance review” blazers, and “Why did no one tell me this shirt was see-through?” bras.
Artifacts, all of them, of the perilous expedition known as the Urgent Lunchtime Shop (ULS).
At noon on a weekday afternoon, a week after the grand opening, the store — which used to be a Borders, but that’s a lament for another time — was still bums-to-tums customers, shambling through the metal racks and grayish carpet squares that define such stores.
Near the checkout line, a beaming employee herds women toward open registers; there is a frenzied, dazed quality to the air.
“There really hasn’t been anywhere,” says Pam Davis, perusing the store with her friend. “Not since Filene’s.”
“Filene’s,” her friend Tina Spellman sighs.
“People,” Davis explains, “are still in recovery over Filene’s.”
Filene’s Basement was located a few blocks away, on Connecticut Avenue, before closing in 2011. Filene’s used to be the ULS run-to location in the Farragut Zip code. Its absence has required office workers in the neighborhood to make desperate calculations: 1. Risk the selection at the nearby Gap, or 2. Risk the commute to the Macy’s at Metro Center, a daring distance to complete in a lunch hour.
Today, Spellman and Davis are seeking a white blouse. A particular white blouse. “I saw it through the window before the store opened,” Spellman says. But she is not sure if it’s still here.
This is the trouble with a store like Nordstrom Rack, whose name brings to mind a specific and cruel torture device: She spent too much. Put her on the Nordstrom Rack. The chain — a discount alternative to the regular department store — has a whole ad campaign built around the fact that women might enter the store and spend the next 24 to 36 hours of their lives stalking the particular white blouse: “Happy Style Hunting,” signs say.
“This one?” Davis shows her friend a white blouse.
No. Not that one.
Places like Nordstrom Rack never have exactly what one is looking for on one’s lunch hour. Or they do, but in the wrong size. Or they do, but in the wrong color. Useful black pumps are an endangered species here at the Rack — Happy Hunting! — but there are an abundance of pastel espadrille wedges, and one shoe that appears to be half snakeskin, half wicker chair. Shopping at a place like this on one’s lunch hour requires convincing oneself that snakeskin/chair shoes will absolutely work for the last-minute afternoon presentation that prompted the shopping expedition to begin with. It is the land of good-enough.
(Scene: A woman in a T-shirt runs into Nordstrom Rack, paws frantically through several racks and emerges with what appears to be a coral-colored blouse and an olive blazer. Would you like those in a bag? the helpful cashier offers. “No,” the woman shakes her head. She needs them now.)
“These are a bunch of fun shirts I have literally no purpose for,” says Laura Payne cheerfully, brandishing the armful of clothing that she has found herself carrying around.
“And these are jeans that are not the ones I was looking for,” says her friend Ashley Schmidt, who had hoped for a certain brand but is making do with another brand.
And on and on, purchases are made that will later disappoint, that will later prompt another visit to the Rack, in search of whatever it is we are so desperate to find, during lunch hours with credit cards.
“I like these strappy things.” A woman in the shoe department holds forth a magenta stiletto of considerable height and formidable shape. She nods, definitively, as if trying to convince herself. “I do.”
“Oh, girl,” her friend shakes her head and clucks. “You will never wear those.”