Thursday Thrift : New York, New York, home of bargains

By Carla Findlay-Dons

I knew there had to be an advantage to working in New York’s Financial District. Long have I bemoaned being stuck so far downtown in Manhattan that the statue of Miss Liberty herself peers through the office window at you.  It’s a fact that all the fun is uptown. Restaurants, bars, Lincoln Center, Central Park… all feel a million miles from the downtown high rise offices when the taxi ride to get uptown is 50 minutes of waiting in traffic and the subway ride involves being crammed between a group of noisy Spanish tourists and a man eating a breakfast burrito in your face.

The Financial District in many ways feels devoid of personality or interest. It is the quintessential concrete jungle and its inhabitants grace the sidewalk for a fleeting moment in order to enter and exit  workplaces and get to and from the Subway, only to get somewhere else. For those bankers and lawyers who do spend their weekdays here, the end of the work day signals time to get back uptown and feel part of the ‘real Manhattan’. Yet there is one, not so secret, but very enticing draw that the Financial District boasts. This secret draws tourists from around the world and lures locals to travel to an area of the city that is alien to anyone who doesn’t work for a Fortune 100 company or their respective Law firms.

A hop skip and a jump from Wall Street, nestled among the skyscrapers which house banks and asset managers, sits an inconspicuous building boasting five floors of designer discounted goods ranging from homewares to designer fashion and beauty. Upon entering the noisy and hot store you are confronted by  hundreds of shoppers and tourists; not just browsing but rushing headlong towards racks of discounted Michael Kors handbags, hoarding MAC cosmetics like they were going out of business, fighting over Ralph Lauren sunglasses at 40% off, exhaustedley pulling wheeled baskets piled high with Tommy Hilfiger shirts, and bracing themselves for an hour wait at the checkout. This is shopping hell. This is discount heaven. This is Century 21!

Within 3 blocks of the store you can feel a change in both mood and atmosphere. Walking towards the store you find that the crowds of conservatively dressed bankers walking at a fast unison pace towards the Wall Street Subway entrance, have been replaced by fashion conscious twenty-somethings.  You can tell those who are heading to Century 21 over others, not just because of how young and fresh-faced they look in comparison to someone who has just spent 14 hours in an air conditioned office, but because their faces look eager and expectant. They are visibily making hit lists in their minds of what brands they want to target once through the hallowed Century 21 doors. Within one block they quicken their pace. I know this because I was one of those who joined the crowds excitedly walking to the discount Mecca.  Last night after work, I decided to finally take advantages of working only a few blocks away to a store which many tourists have on their ‘top 10 things to do in NY’, and visit Century 21!

As soon as you make your way through the doors you are swallowed into the tightly packed crowds and need to muster a level of determination only a discount shopper can display to move through the throng to get to the escalator. I had only one destination in mind – Womenswear. Century 21 has 3 floors filled with every garment a woman could want from socks to ball gowns, from every day brands to high end designers. As I fought my way onto the women’s designer fashions floor I wondered whether my trip would be worth it. If battling a group of sweaty 17 year old girls, who look like they would be willing to pin you to the ground just to rip a Marc Jacobs t-shirt from your grip, would yield any good bargains for me had yet to be seen.

I reached the Burberry rack and then rounded a collection of DVF dresses. Both designers that I would be willing to raise my sharp elbows at a chance of a savings but the clothes were all of styles that were at the extreme end of their collection (a Burberry dress in pale pink suede with an odd string like strap – you could imagine the wearer could easily be mistaken as someone who had tried to make a homemade phallic costume for a bachelorette party and a DVF dress that was what your mother wore in the seventies when algae green was in fashion). Neither were appealing bargains especially as the discounts made a very expensive item (Burberry dress $987 down from $1150) just an mildly expensive item. I found this more and more as I toured the racks.

My heart quickened for a moment when I saw Max Mara atop one of the racks, but closer inspection found an odd assortment of woolly jumpers and bizarre colored shirts. Feeling a little disappointed I navigated to the next floor up which had more high street designer names like Calvin Klein and Theory. Here, I was on safer ground. The racks were crammed with normal sizes, fair discounts and wearable clothes that were just a bit cheaper than you would have to pay a few blocks away. I picked up a couple of pieces and headed back down the escalator. But upon reaching the first floor again, the designer names pinned to the top of the racks, Pucci, McQueen, Prada drew me back in the hopes that there may just be a chance that with a little more perseverance I might find a high end designer bargain. And I did. Urban legend has long perpetuated stories of ‘’my friends friend managed to find a Chanel wallet there for just $20!’’ and yet despite hours of searching and even walking away with stuffed bags, the discounts and once in a lifetime finds are never as good as you expect. You end up walking away with a shopping haul akin to one from an end of season sale.  But I had hope. I went from rack to rack with steely determination, checking ticket after ticket for prices and grabbing at any item that caught my eye, then finally, after over an hour my own urban bargain hunting legend came true.

Pulling coat hangers along the Vivian Westwood red label rail and seeing discounts like $749 down to $575 and letting out yet another disappointed sigh I saw a ticket that had a VERY small number on it $24.90 to be precise. At first I thought I had misread it and looked again, then I thought it was a random item from another floor that had been accidently hung on the Vivian Westwood rail. I fervently pulled the item out and saw that it was a tailored black jacket. I hurriedly searched for the label and found the gold ‘Vivian Westwood’ label literally shining at me. I couldn’t believe it, I looked at the label for a fourth time, it said $549, down to $329 and then to $24.90. After trying it on and praying to the gods of shoppers that it fit  (it did! Well, it fit while holding my breath, buttons done up, and not sitting down). By the time I was about to checkout I had made my peace with the likely reality that it was a typo or a mis-printed ticket. It would be rung up and the cashier would inform me that it was actually $240.90. I would cope, I was braced. But she didn’t. My card was charged and I hastened to the exit literally feeling like I had gotten away with theft. Standing out in the cold New York side walk I stood clutching my Century 21 bag and let sink in that I had just bought a Vivian Westwood $549 jacket for less than $30. Then I rushed home to post my own tale of urban bargain hunting myth that had just come true, and yes, gloat a little to my friends.


And that is what draws Manhattan-ites to this end of the city time and time again. They venture into the Financial District and are willing to do battle with city workers on at the Wall Street subway for the promise of finding their own bargain and being able to tell of their once in a life time find from Century 21.

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