Many people greeted the recent news that several major retailers are going out of business by pondering what this means for the broader U.S. economy. Those people make more money than I do. Big bankruptcies mean big sales, and for me, the timing couldn't have been better. Armed with a few clippings from the Wall Street Journal and a sense of dignity as slender as my checking account, I set out to see whether I could find suitable presents for everyone on my list at liquidation sales—the cheaper, the better.
Steve and Barry's
The first stop on my bankruptcy bonanza tour was Steve and Barry's, known primarily for selling college T-shirts and downscale clothing lines by celebrities like Venus Williams, Amanda Bynes, and Stephon Marbury. Earlier this year, word that Sarah Jessica Parker would be creating a line for Steve and Barry's occasioned admiring coverage from the New York Times, which praised the company's ambitious but bare-bones business plan. By late November, the company had announced it was liquidating all of its stores.
The first sight that greeted me at a forlorn S&B's in midtown Manhattan was a shelf full of battered wooden hangers. Previously used proudly to display Michigan Wolverines sweatshirts and FDNY tees, these little pieces of retail history were now on sale, five for $1. They seemed positively overpriced, however, compared with some of the other stuff on offer. T-shirts were on sale at the cut rate of two for $13. The selection, however, wasn't fabulous. Determined to take advantage of the twofer deal with an Ohio State (I'm from Cleveland) and a Georgetown (my sister's a Hoya), I was left swimming in a sea of XXXL disappointment. Why couldn't anyone on my list have gone to Fordham?
I had better luck in the women's section, where I discovered a pair of red patent-leather heels for $12.98. Test-driving the surprisingly stable shoes, I sashayed over to the wantonly ransacked jewelry section, which was offering two pieces for $8. I settled on a bright geometric ring and delicate gold wire-hoop earrings that I could convince my sister I'd bought from a Soho vendor. There are no 12-year-old-girls on my shopping list, but I could have stuffed stockings for an entire sixth-grade clique with plastic bangles, sparkly hairclips, and "I Heart SATC" shirts. I also could have picked up some basics (cotton underwear for $2.98!) but decided it was too early in the game to give up on dazzle.
With shiny things on my mind, I headed over to a Whitehall Jewelers in Jersey City, N.J.; the store is in the process of shuttering all of its 375 stores. I'm not in the market for fine jewelry myself, but I'm frequently consulted by my hapless father about my mother's taste in such things. As it turned out, a simple way of describing her taste to my dad would be to say "Nothing they sell at Whitehall Jewelers." Tennis bracelets and diamond cross pendants abound at Whitehall, the sort of generically gaudy pieces my mom would never wear. And yet, while no one on my list needs a diamond-encrusted Tiffany heart necklace knockoff, Whitehall was the most fun I'd had shopping in a long time. The sensation of having a salesclerk hold up a bauble, punch a large number into a calculator, and then reduce it by 60 percent or 75 percent is a thrilling one. Over and over, I made the clerk complete the ritual. The markdown was astonishing every time: Simple freshwater pearls, formerly $502, now $191! A killer onyx cocktail ring even my mom might like, formerly $326, now just $110! A large diamond ring, down from $8,000 to a mere $2,560, once the clerk threw in an extra 20 percent discount I hadn't angled for the tiniest bit. (Perhaps she mistook my careful note-taking for the work of a particularly diligent fiancee—or maybe just a sad, lonely case who deserved an extra break.)
In an otherwise emptyish mall, the Whitehall store was packed. The case displaying engagement rings was the most crowded of all, with cheerful men consulting sisters, mothers, and saleswomen about which reduced rock might win their lady's heart. I saw one man grab a pretty solitaire that, with the reduction, was less than just one of my paychecks (perhaps a new measurement to replace the punishing three months' salary that was standard when investment bankers roamed the land).
Linens 'n Things
While still in Jersey City, I headed over to Linens 'n Things, the bankrupt home-goods retailer that's been liquidating all its stores since early October. It looked a little the way I imagine Rome must have looked during the holiday season in A.D. 455. Displays had been destroyed, and bedding was strewn everywhere. There were lots of yellowed, dusty boxes that looked as if they'd been sitting in the back of a warehouse for decades. Yet none of this deterred the delighted nesters grabbing at $33 castle-shaped muffin tins or 17-piece stainless-steel Phillipe Richard (who?) cookware sets for $199.99. For a while, I looked for sensible gifts—measuring cups, serving spoons, fluffy bath towels—before realizing that these items were both the most shallowly discounted and the most picked over.
The linens, thus, were disappointing—oh, but the things! Pink Cuisinart soft-serve ice-cream maker? Still a little steep at $179.99, but can you really put a price on at-home, push-button fro-yo? A heated shiatsu massager for $59.99? Perfect for a soon-to-be-lonely significant other you're planning to dump once the holiday season has passed. A tropical green Margaritaville "Frozen Concoction" Maker for $172.42? Pair it with a shaker of salt, and scratch all the Jimmy Buffet fans right off your list.