Chapter 80: The Shopping Gene

I used to swear I was adopted.  I couldn’t think of anything I had in common with my family.  Therefore, I developed this fantasy where I was the Love Child of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn who had been placed by the Studio with this family in Virginia to avoid the bad publicity.  I was always convinced they would come get me one day….

Eventually, however, I came to accept reality.  I really was genetically connected to these people.  By at least one gene….

The Shopping Gene….

When I was a small child, my Mother would spend hours at Belks and Rippes.  She once understood the importance of buying jackets and skirts, in pure wool, with chains in the hem, like Chanel,  or extra cloth to give the appropriate weight and drape.  She would buy matching hats and gloves for each outfit.  She gave all this up, eventually, but I remember when she had these rules…

Her most prized possession was a coat from Rippes, the best woman’s store in town, with 3/4 length sleeves, trimmed, like the collar,  in mink, with matching elbow length tan kid gloves… She wore it for decades.

She would take us shopping and taught me the first rules of Quality Clothing.  Eventually, like most of America, she forgot these rules, but I never did.  She taught me, first and foremost,  that fabric patterns should match at the seams.  Lesson One.

Unheard of today….

She lived in fear of people thinking she might buy cheap clothes.  She used have to buy clothes, once a year, for my Father’s Mother, who was in the State Mental Hospital.  The fact that Granny Susie was in the State Home didn’t phase her as long people understood she only shopped in the Belks “Discount Basement” for her.  Her theory was, it didn’t matter what you wore in the looney bin.

So, each December prior to our visit to Granny Susie, Lou would march down the steps to Belks Basement for her annual pilgrimage.  She would stop at the bottom of the steps and loudly announce:  “I’m here to buy some things for Herman’s Mother. They aren’t for us. Where are the cheap old ladies panties?” She lived in fear of people thinking she might need to shop in the “Basement” for herself.

My Father taught me it was better to have “a few nice pieces of quality clothing” than to buy a bunch of crap.  Another largely forgotten rule…

He believed in “good shoes”, something my Cole Haan addiction attests to to this day…

He had great ties, some of which I still have…

It was a rite of passage for me, when I was 16, when my Father took me to Saters for Men, the preeminent men’s store in my home town, and introduced me to Jack, Hi and Hup Sater. He said: “These guys will teach you to dress like a gentleman.  I’m opening a charge account for you to get started.”

A charge account with the bill going to Daddy was something he would regret for years….

I was an amatuer in those days.  A small town boy with limited small town tastes…but I was ready and willing to learn.  The Sater’s men gave  me my first lessons.

I’ll never forget, in  our High School newspaper my Senior Year, you could be “willed” things by your peers.  My friend  Van Hall willed me some “really nice clothes”.  It took me about 30 years to forgive him….

Several of my high school yearbook “ads” were pictures of me shopping…

But I learned…

The summer before I left for Washington and Lee, my Aunt Goldie invited me to Charlotte to shop for my College wardrobe. That was her graduation gift to me.  She told me: “You need to up your game.  60/40 polyester blends may cut it in Danville, but only pure fabrics- 100% cotton shirts and 100% Wool pants and blazers will work in the real world. ” Lesson Two.

We spent a weekend looking at wonderful clothes in better stores than I had ever shopped in before.  I learned the magic of the words “charge/send.”

I also discovered Brooks Brothers and  began a 35 year love affair….

She sent me off as well equipped as a young gentleman has ever been sent to a fine Virginia Finishing School.  I mean, a men’s college in Virginia.

I may have had a few more things to learn, but the clothes were right.  With one exception. One coat, Goldie did not approve of, but that I had to have.  A courdory jacket with a hood.  Major mistake, but I didn’t know any better….yet.

My sophomore year at Washing and Lee, I still had that coat.  I met my next shopping muse that year.  My friend Ralph’s girlfriend Carolyn.  Carolyn went to Sweet Briar and was from New Jersey, which was close to New York, so I theorized her taste had to be impeccable.  And it was….

When we first met, she lovingly referred to the corduroy jacket as the “cub coat.”  Then she sweetly and graciously lead me to the College Town Shop and talked me into replacing it with a Woolrich Down Jacket like Ralph’s.  In another color.  Lesson Three.  I would wear that jacket for 10 years.  The Cub Coat went to Goodwill.  And the bill went to Goldie who asked no questions.

One of the joys of life in a small College town in Virginia back then was that the locally owned stores encouraged personal charge accounts  I had 3 accounts each at the two top stores:  Alvin Dennis and The College Town Shop.  One went to Daddy, one went to Goldie and, as a last resort, I had one that went to me if I was afraid things were getting out of control.  I had wonderful sweaters and Alligator shirts in every color.

My first Tux, an After Six from Alvin Dennis was billed to Daddy, who choked but paid the bill anyway.  I wore, and occasionally slept in, that Tux through 4 years of College and a couple of years of post college weddings- including my sister’s.  It was a great investment.

My mature shopping habits were a challenge after college when I returned to Danville for a few years prior to escaping for good.  I didn’t make much money my first few years out of school, which made me appreciate my “investment” clothing even more.  I still picked up a few suits at Saters- which, next to Brooks Brothers, remains my ideal of a men’s store.

But it was time to move on….

As the years went by, I had less and less to say to my family.  We had very little in common.  But we could always shop…

If the conversation was limited, we would just get in the car and head for an outlet center.

I would always go to Charlotte at least once a year to shop with Goldie.  We were still the  true pros and shopped so well together.  We could tear a piece of clothing apart.

Goldie would look at a seam and say: “It may say Ralph Lauren, but I see “made in Japan.”  This is crap.  They wouldn’t make this in America.  This is some foreign made junk.  This is all name and no quality.”  She would die before it became impossible to buy “made in America” and that may have been for the best.

My Mother lost all sense of quality as she got older.  She fully embraced the new American mantra Quantity vs Quality.  She forgot all her rules of craftsmanship, pattern matching and good fabrics.

I’m convinced the decline and fall of America began with the invention of Double Knit Polyseter.

And my Mother willingly drank the kool-aid of more is more….

When middle class women began to buy Polyester Pussy Pinchers, America, as we knew it, was doomed.  These were pants, with elastic waists and no discernible lines, that so many women began to buy in the 1980’s.  They introduced the concept of “camel toe”.  Enough said.

My Mother became a hoarder….

She once went to Waccamaw Pottery and bought so much cheap, imported crap, she had to go back the next day to pick up what would not fit in the car the first day.

Half of my inheritance was wasted at Big Lots.  By the time we realized how far gone she was,  her house was so full of cheap, Chinese made crap you could  barely walk through it.  She had 15 football shaped plastic chip and dip sets “in case I want to have a Super Bowl Party.” She had clothes she had never taken the tags off of….The house was overflowing with cheap junk.

Shopping was no longer a pass time, it was an obsession….

As her life spun out of control, she just bought more crap.  As her memory failed, she just bought more things to make her feel better…Shopping was a way to try to control the uncontrollable.

It’s a cautionary tale for me…

The genes that once brought us together drove us apart as I tried to make her see the craziness of her purchases….

I’m trying to get back to the “less is more” philosophy on which I was raised.

I have a lot of stuff.  Good stuff.  Once I learned it, I never lost my appreciation for quality.

As I get older, I realize I am in the minority.

When I think of trying to unload some of the good stuff we have, I realize there is no market.  People would rather have a bunch of cheap crap than a few good things.

That’s where America went wrong….

Today, people buy a bunch of stuff they don’t need to make themselves feel better.  It gives them an illusion of control.

Americans support Walmart and Old Navy and The Gap and other stores, full of badly made, disposable products, just to make themselves feel better and feel like they have the purchasing power they once had….

But buying a bunch of cheap crap only makes the cycle worse.

People who won’t pay for quality merchandise or who don’t recognize that expensive designer merchandise is badly made, only perpetuate the economic process of mindless consumerism.  They don’t recognize or know the importance of quality or of “having a few nice things.”  They don’t want to think about the big picture.

I still think the world would be a better place if we all just wanted a “few nice things.”  If we appreciated quality instead of quantity.

I know I’m in the minority…And I’m working on this myself.

I only spent $50 on stuff at IKEA today….

Maybe we will eventually all wake up and appreciate quality vs quantity again….

And maybe I really am the Love Child of Audrey and Cary….

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