Thursday, July 14, 2016

"Bags?! We don't have BAGS!"

     Authors are often portrayed as being intensely jealous of each other's success, and maybe some are. But I take genuine pleasure in the accomplishments of my writer friends. My former landlady is Carol Weston, the author of the "Ava and Pip" trio of young adult novels, delightfully blending together wordplay and the challenges of growing up. I was thrilled to hear that the three books will be sold bound into one volume at Costco as "The Diaries of Ava Wren."
    Not only is it good for Carol, but good for Costco, which has grown in stature in my eyes. The days when I go there grudgingly, cringing, and think of those space fatties on their scooters in "Wall-E" are long gone.  Now I know they've got great salmon, and usually the best prices. 
     Still, Henri Bendel it is not. And when I heard the good news, I couldn't help think of this column from seven years ago, when I juxtaposed the two shopping experiences. 

     Once upon a time, there was a store on North Michigan Avenue called Henri Bendel. It was a fancy New York clothing shop exclusively for ladies, but occasionally I would venture inside to buy a present for my wife.
    A clerk — think Audrey Hepburn — would glide over and ask if I needed help. I certainly did need help, and enjoyed slipping into the role of the Befuddled Male in a Woman's World — think Cary Grant, except without the looks.
     Together we would peer into various display cases, and she would hold up various garments, and I would settle on a purchase. Sure it was expensive, but as I always said, "At Henri Bendel, you pay for the service — the fact they also give you something is just an added bonus."
     All too soon I would be walking out of the store with an elaborately tissue-papered and boxed and gift-wrapped silk scarf or smart little hat, in a little chocolate and white striped bag, delicate as a debutante's purse, which I would proudly parade through the springtime warmth of Michigan Avenue (her birthday is in May, so it was always spring).
     Oh sure, inevitably I had to take the present back — the hat was wrong, or the scarf was wrong, and the whole thing cost far, far too much anyway, in her eyes. But that was OK because I got to return the item, with apologies and smiles and mutual understanding, another little Noel Coward play in the returns department.
     All this remembrance drifted back last week under the high white lights of Costco in Glenview. My wife, also a generous soul, in her fashion, had purchased for me a stylish black Calvin Klein jacket, all wool, a steal at $55.95 But it was too large, and I volunteered to return it and get the size smaller.
     The transaction was handled by a slack-faced clerk who met my attempt at conversation with blank silence. I entered the vast warehouse to try on the jacket in a smaller size. Gazing around — there are no mirrors in a Costco — I waited until a fellow customer came by, a woman pushing one of those immense carts. Again playing the Befuddled Male, I asked her whether this jacket fit. She said yes, but in the mechanical way that hypnotized people speak in movies — "Yehhhhhhhs" -- and without actually looking at me or breaking stride.
     I figured I'll look in a mirror at home.          
     While I was there, I wandered the aisles. Costco might be as familiar to you as your living room, but it's still new to me — someplace I first went to, under protest, five years ago and have been back to maybe once a year since.           

     The land of Brobdingnag, no question -- giant jars of mayonnaise, triple boxes of breakfast cereal, tubfuls of apple juice you could bathe in. The deal seems to be: You buy a month's worth of product, we shave 20 percent off the price.
     Fair enough, if you abandon the idea of shopping as a social act. I picked up four cans of shaving cream, shrink-wrapped into a slab, and a few other toiletries, plus a package of socks and the smaller jacket.
     I paid the clerk, who deposited the toiletries and the socks and the jacket into the cart, nudging it past the register. I looked at the items, jumbled in the cart.
     "Could I have a bag please?" I asked.
     "Bags?" the clerk exclaimed, in a tone of surprise and contempt. "Bags! We don't have bags." He looked at me for the first time, as if to see what manner of person was in front of him, this bag-asking man. "We have boxes. Over there."
     It was here that I remembered Henri Bendel — well, right after thinking of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." ("Badges! We don't need no stinkin' badges!")
     I selected a box, emblazoned with "THE FAT BURNING POWER OF CONCENTRATED GREEN TEA EXTRACT," put the stuff into it and, holding the box awkwardly in my arms, headed in shame to the car.
     The jacket fit, but the sleeves were too long, and the seamstress couldn't shorten them. Two days later, I returned to Costco.
     "I remember you from Monday!" I said brightly, to the slack-faced returns lady. She didn't react at all. I proceeded into the store. My wife wanted canola oil.
     I picked up a gallon, and noticed the brand name, "Kirkland Signature." That sounded familiar. Oh yes. But could it be? I hurried to the clothing area. "Kirkland signature" shirts. I looked up. Huge signs at the back: "Kirkland MEATS." "Kirkland BAKERY."
     This seemed so wrong. A feeling akin to horror — like the discovery that Soylent Green is people — crawled over my skin. Shirts produced by an oil company. Hot dogs turned out by a bakery.
     I tried to comfort myself — Trader Joe's brands everything with its name. But "Trader Joe's" is the name of the store. Who or what is "Kirkland"? (The town in Washington, it turns out, where Costco used to be headquartered). Is that supposed to be elegant?
     I bought the Kirkland oil. The snow was blowing horizontally outside, and I got a frozen handful of it slapped into my ear as I quickstepped to the car, wondering: How did that jaunty man in his mid-30s, happily squiring his brown and white striped bag down the Boul Mich in springtime, end up in this wintery parking lot?
     Henri Bendel closed its Michigan Avenue store in 1998.


  1. Neil, the Kirkland concept is just an update of the Kenmore lines that Sears came out with so many years ago.

    What I don't get about Costco are the employees that check your purchases as you leave, like you're at an Iron Curtain border crossing. The stated line is that these people check your items to see if you paid too much for any of them....

    1. I thought it was to check that you weren't stealing anything.

  2. I had the same reaction after I had had enough of the hectoring from my sister and brother-in-law as to why I wouldn't even consider joining Costco. When I finally did. I realized I was in a warehouse (!) that was far beyond my ability nor my desire to negotiate.

    Fast-forward three years: the frozen salmon burgers (Thrivent brand), Kirkland Turkey Burgers, Kirkland cookies, Kirkland milk, Kirkland socks and Kirkland smoked salmon (nova lox) and Kirkland fresh salmon are the best to be had anywhere! And I transfer everything to a supply of sturdy Whole Foods paper bags I have on the trunk of my car.

    And a jumbo Vienna hotdog —with a drink — for $1.50?!

    I liove Costco.

    1. The Vienna hot dogs are only at the Costco on Clybourn. That's because the factory is just a few hundred feet away, right across the river. But Vienna will soon move to the former Best's Kosher plant at 39th & Morgan. All the others get Kirkland hot dogs, made in Costco's own plant in Tracy California, although I read they're building a second one in Iowa.

  3. A relative who works for Costco says they are very good to their employees. And the surroundings are less grim than Sam's Club, which I use because we don't have A Costco nearby. And their spit-roasted chickens are better than those available in the supermarkets. Sam's Club also check's your purchases when you leave, but ususally with a smile and a pleasantry.

    One can, I believe, still find the Henri Bendel shopping experience in Japan. A long way to go though.

    Good to see you take genuine pleasure in the accomplishments of your writer friends. Dean Swift assumed a more nuanced position on the matter.

    "What poet would not grieve to see
    His brother write as well as he.
    But rather that they should excel,
    Would wish his rivals all in Hell."

    Tom Evans

  4. You wouldn't know it from Neil's column, but Costco actually has a reputation for paying and treating its employees notably better than the average big-box retailer. Granted, that's not a very high bar.

    1. I tend to agree. The folks at the checkout are generally somewhat personable, although generally rushed to move to the next "member" in line. But those at the returns desk are another category altogether. Perhaps they don't get paid enough for that particular station, or perhaps no amount of money or benefits could ever be enough.


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