Sacrificing precious carry-on space to a novelty pillow wasn’t that much of a sacrifice after all.
“You always find the coolest things in St. Marys,” exclaimed my dear friend Amy as she opened her birthday present last week. A hand-printed, upcycled pillow stating that “book lovers never go to bed alone” — and purchased here at Stewart Books — was the perfect gift for my librarian friend. The pillow joined a bracelet and frame purchased at Lauren Whitney, and a hand-made bowl from Little Falls Artisan Market.
Did I mention that this interaction took place in the shopping Mecca of New York City? It was my first time visiting Amy since she moved Stateside in the fall, and yes, we were celebrating a bit of a milestone birthday. And while I will forever love the Big Apple for its fabulous energy, engaging parks and museums, and parade of people, I will admit to being a bit disappointed in the shopping scene.
Not that I didn’t try to bring home something special to commemorate my trip — but I didn’t want some touristy trinket. While Amy was stuck in her office (oh, that American work ethic!), I thoroughly covered famed Fifth Avenue and the up-and-coming Meatpacking District. We also enjoyed an afternoon amongst SoHo’s cobblestone streets.
But I was disappointed by a lack of diversity. Even though all of these neighbourhoods have different personalities, so to speak (Fifth Avenue is home to luxury global brands, the Meatpacking District is edgy, while SoHo is trendy), there was a Gap or H&M on every corner, as well as other big brands you can find right here in Southwestern Ontario. Where’s the cachet in bringing home something that already exists here?
Granted, if I ever lose my sartorial sanity and buy a four-figure handbag or other luxury item, I’ll definitely do it in New York. A lack of sales tax and intense competition ensures I’ll get the exact items of my daydreams for less than I would on this side of the border. And there’s always Century 21 — a kind of Winners on amphetamines — to satisfy the designer craving at a fraction of the (still extravagant) price, if you can handle the rabidly bargain-hunting throngs.
But the retail tourist just looking to make a reasonably priced sentimental purchase might have to look elsewhere than the isle of Manhattan. Amy lives in the more-affordable Borough of Brooklyn, which has a sprinkling of independent stores amongst the big chains, complete with witty names and one-of-a-kind window displays. It sounds contradictory, but these “little guys” have less to lose by going out on a limb with their product lines, which are likely from smaller, more flexible suppliers (which probably don’t rely on the economies of scale that only Third World work environments allow for).
There’s something else at play, too. Once upon a time, you could only get certain brands or products in big cities; the Internet has leveled the playing field for city slickers and country bumpkins. Anyone can buy anything online from anywhere, provided they have a credit card.
This isn’t a myopic view of big-city versus small-town shopping, but rather a bit of a lament for something that’s been lost in travel translation. I fully admit it’s also a “First World” problem, but there’s something else at play, I think. That “thrill of the hunt” is yet another thing younger generations will never know. When you can buy anything you want, how can you cherish anything?
But back to my friend’s new pillow. It’s the exact type of memento I was looking for during my trip — a one-of-a-kind piece with meaning, which she’ll look at and think of me and little St. Marys. That makes me smile for a few very good reasons.
With Mother’s Day coming up, many will soon be out looking for that perfect gift. If you’re going the culinary route, here’s a seasonal salad that takes advantage of the unique, liquorice taste of fennel, which seems to be riding a wave of popularity right now.
Orange and Fennel Salad
2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed, finely sliced
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
1/4 cup loosely packed parsley leaves
A bit less than a half-cup of olive oil
1/3 cup orange juice
1 tsp. grainy mustard
Salt and pepper
Zest the rind from 1 orange and reserve. Peel and segment all oranges.
To make vinaigrette, mix the rind with the olive oil, orange juice, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste in a screw-top jar. Shake well.
Combine the orange segments, fennel, parsley and red onion in a serving bowl. Toss gently with vinaigrette.