Retail heaven and hell

I’ve gritted my teeth, the day has arrived. I’m going shopping. Hopefully I will be mugged on the way and I can spend a relaxing day in casualty being looked after by nurses. In case you haven’t guessed I’m not usually a good shopper. I’m hoping that the week long mental run-up will set me in good stead.

The destination is SoHo which in a cartographic flight of fancy all too common for New York comes from a street name abbreviation – South of Houston Street. There’s also a NoHo – no prizes this time. Interestingly and irrelevantly, locals pronounce Houston Street as “Howston Street” which seems odd as they pronounce Houston Texas as “Hooston”.

The temperature is up ten degrees on yesterday and I dodge an early shower by sitting in my beloved Amrita until late morning. Lunch and a yoghurt smoothie (they do know how to do a smoothie here) at the perimeter of Greenwich Vilage and Soho and then the retail extravaganza commences.

Soho contains more headline brand names than you can shake a credit card at. You just traverse the streets and it’s one name after another. I have never been that blown away by the more established global names (Armani, Gucci, Versace, D&G, etc, etc) but there are some sensational native New York and American retailers, including Ari of New York. I love almost everything I see in this store – especially a jaw droppingly gorgeous leather jacket that I discover is listed at $1400. The shop assistant is raving about my Pac Man T-shirt (Burton – £8) and I consider suggesting some kind of swap deal.

Although it pains me to admit it I have fallen for this area because there is so much choice within such a small area you just move on if you don’t like the styling or pricing of the store you are in. I’m actually enjoying the whole shopping experience and before long I am clutching bags from Lucky Brand and Banana Republic just like the next retail whore. On every street corner I expect to see a photo poster of some female shopper last seen in the area weeks ago, missing presumed still shopping. It’s not just about the acquisitive buzz however. It is also very much an area to be seen in and expensively dressed people are obviously desperate to be seen by other people as they saunter in and out of the most laughingly extortionate shops. The irony is that I seem to be getting a lot of attention today from people admiring my Pac Man T-shirt! Who needs Paul Smith?

Soho Street - before it got busy

It looks innocent from the outside (apart from the two sales guys wearing nothing but trunks and the girl in just a bikini) but Hollister on Broadway – a kind of Fat Face for American Jamie Olivers – serves up the scariest retail experience of my life. Let me try and explain; it’s going to be hard to do this justice…

Walking into the store is like entering some kind of nightclub after having consumed industrial quantities of alcohol. There is almost no lighting. I don’t mean it’s dim I mean there are areas where it is simply black, so you just head towards areas with the dim coloured spotlights, some of which flash disconcertingly. The store is a labyrinthine warren of small rectangular rooms containing beach clothes. Each one is packed with stock and just to prevent easy transit from room to room (for those with night vision goggles) they have left an assault course of large pot plants and furniture in the passageways. In a final assault on the senses they pump music around the entire store at near nightclub volumes. The overall sensation is like being drunk in a Laser Quest assault course in the bowels of an ocean liner without stabilisers.

Hollister yesterday
Hollister yesterday

I see a top that I like affixed to a dummy but I can’t see the item on the shelves, although technically I can’t see the shelves. I yell at a shop assistant to ask where I can find the top and he shouts back that he has seen a pile of them somewhere but can’t remember where. Fine then, I’ll just stick with the green T-shirt I have in my hand, at least I think it’s green, and I’m fairly sure it’s a T-shirt. Where are the tills? He points skyward and shows two fingers which I take to mean the second floor. If anything things get worse in the stair well. There are hordes of lost customers milling around interspersed with scantily beach clad sales kids but you can see the stairs because they are lit from beneath. Unfortunately you can’t clearly see the edges of each stair and people are tripping up all over the place. They may be screaming for all I know – you just can’t hear yourself think. Holding onto the hand rail I edge my way to the second floor and soon I’m lost again in what could be the ladies section or possibly the stock room. Everywhere looks the same. I find a supervisor and ask them which direction the tills are in. They look a bit puzzled and slowly turn 360 degrees before telling me that they think I should go right. Two rooms to my right is a dead end and I eventually find the tills simply by following somebody else. I’m not making this stuff up!

Goods paid for and exit eventually found it occurs to me that such a place would never be allowed to operate in the UK. Never mind DDA infringements but able bodied people are at risk in there and if there was a fire people wouldn’t know how to exit. I can only imagine it’s exempted from Health and Safety regulations because the FBI take terror suspects there for disorientation now that Guantanamo is on the wind down. Funnily enough I recount my Hammer House of Hollister ordeal to a supervisor in another store (one that now seems so well lit, spacious and customer friendly) and she rolls her eyes and tells me she always order from them online even though they are just across the road.

Postscript: I checked the website myself. You can chose the playlist to listen to as you surf their stock. Enough said.

My newly found shopping addiction reaches its peak in a store called UniQlo. That seems wrong even as I type it but that’s what it’s called. Perhaps that was the only domain name left. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it. The stock appears to be western styles aimed at Japanese customers. Basically it’s fairly simple well designed but unbranded gear at fairly low prices. Think Primark with a little designer input, stir in a touch of Manga and multiply by 10. The bottom line as I exit the store after some considerable time is that I’m straining under a weight of bags I never expected to be carrying in a sweat inducing street, hot and sticky with the sun and traffic fumes. My intention to go directly onto the Brooklyn Academy of Music café for a free gig tonight is no longer practical, which is a shame because I had been looking forward to it but now I just want to get fed and showered.

Chinatown joins onto Soho so food won’t be a problem. How many shops selling tourist tat can an area like this sustain? The answer is “a great many”. There are also a plethora of herbal stores, massage parlours (legit I think) and fresh seafood stores. It’s an intense mix of sights/sounds/smells, only a shame the close sticky evening air is making life uncomfortable, although it’s still not in Hong Kongs league in any of these respects.

Fresh seafood in Chinatown
Fresh seafood in Chinatown

Where to eat in Chinatown? Conventional logic would be to find the venue packed with Chinese people and go there. Instead I squeeze myself onto a table for one in an otherwise deserted restaurant. This because (a) it has a recent positive review posted in the window and (b) it has air conditioning. The place next door was packed with sweaty looking tourists and the myriad of glowing reviews were dated from 1998 to 2003. Maybe the last good food they produced is now seven years old?

My order of soup, dumplings and sea bass will not be too much for one person my waiter assures me. Turns out he was wrong (or maybe he thinks I AM Pac Man) and when my order arrives the half dozen unoccupied serving staff are all looking over at me and laughing in a way that is intended to be discrete but fails, making it really blatant. The dumplings are superb and the bass is great too. The soup is OK but mostly untouched. By the time a very modest bill arrives the place is half full of people who look like they have been here before and not been deterred from returning so I’m feeling vindicated.

Evening plans scuppered by my earlier extravagances it’s the B-train home for an urgently needed shower. Tonight’s subway entertainment: the snappy MTA official who told me my week long metro card didn’t work because it expired on the 8th but eventually let me through when I explained that not only had I only bought it on the 8th but I had successfully used it two hours ago. She was really having a bad day. Also, the shifty looking dude in my carriage with a sports bag, surreptitiously folding up a huge wad of money who suddenly realised that everyone sat nearby was watching, then got really edgy and almost ran off at the next stop with his bag of drugs, erm, I mean sports items.

Sorry for short changing you today on the photo front. There’s only so many pictures you can take of shops. Besides, they don’t tell you the full story.

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