This Christmas my daughter asked for Chanel Number 5 perfume, an atlas, and soaps from a store called Lush. The list pretty much bookends the journey of personal exploration a twenty-two year old woman travels through in search of her true self. I decided to do Lush and the atlas for Christmas and Chanel for her birthday in early January. The result was one of the most enjoyable shopping experiences of my life, followed by one that proves department stores have outlived their purpose on this planet.
It so happens that the Lush store in Harvard Square is just below my yoga studio. I had seen their too perfectly hand scripted signs for the past two years and knew it was one of those oxymoron’s of the retail world – a chain masquerading as a counter cultural happening. I’d passed it hundreds of times, unable to avoid the savory, eccentric smell that permeates the lobby and stairway leading to the hot room.
On the Saturday before Christmas I leave yoga and stop by Lush. Immediately I know this is the kind of store a dad needs to know about – the stuff is certifiably cool yet much too expensive for a recent college graduate slumming as a waitress to afford on her own. Almost anything I buy here will be welcome; I don’t have to worry about sizes or colors, and none of it has to be returned. I am greeted by a chubby girl ripe with the spirit of the season. I expose myself as the perfect customer, telling her my daughter likes Lush and I am open to Marti’s suggestions.
Marti rolls up her sleeves, literally, relishing the opportunity I present. “Here is a bath bubble”. She tosses a tennis ball sized circle of talc-y pink in the air. She dips the edge in a bowl of still water and spreads the wetness across her exposed forearm. “See how it bubbles? Here, smell.” She holds her forearm up to my nose with such chivalric flair I am inclined to take her hand, bow, and kiss it. Instead, I sniff. “Cinnamon, infused with Vodka”, Marti pronounces. I can’t smell a thing, at least nothing different than the overwhelming scent of the entire store. But I want to seem cool so I say that’s nice. “This one is licorice,” she swabs her other arm and lifts it to my snoz. After trying to discern holly berry with mint I admit to not being able to differentiate the options. “Oh here”, she smiles, “let me cleanse your palate”, and holds a small tin of charcoal to my nose. Apparently, charcoal is the sorbet of the aroma world. It is all rather silly but great fun and I leave with a nice holiday gift box of hand cut cleansers and a slab of candy cane soap cut from a swirling red and white block. If it ever gets misplaced in the kitchen, someone will surely cut it up as cheese.
Lush is an all organic, anti animal testing, feel good about your groove shopping experience. Everything is up and up, including the tab. I could have bought a hundred of bars of Irish Spring at Costco for less than the price of two packages from Lush, but buying them wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Besides, Abby was thrilled with her soap.
Hoping for the same exuberance I head to Colonial Drug, a Harvard Square landmark known for its extensive selection of perfume. “Do you have Chanel Number 5?” I feel stupid even asking the question. A store that carries so many perfumes will certainly carry the world’s most famous fragrance. “No we don’t”, the gaunt man behind the counter looks sad. “They only sell through department stores. You’ll have to go to Macy’s.”
Macy’s? I haven’t been in a department store in at least five years. Who goes to them anymore? More expensive than Target, less fun than Lush, department stores exist in a nether world that offers neither the appeal of uniqueness nor thrift. I hop on my bike and pedal to Macy’s in downtown Boston. I stand at the Chanel counter, right inside the main door. An Italian woman with a half inch of make-up is rouging the cheeks of a potential customer. During a break in the make-over she tosses a glance my way. “May I help you?” “I would like Chanel Number 5.” She puts down her brushes. “We have small or standard.” She makes no reference to price. “Standard.” I want the classic bottle. She unlocks a case, stoops into it, stands up empty handed. “We are all out of standard.” I am standing at a prominent display right beside the main door to the world’s largest store. “How can you be out of Chanel Number 5?” She shrugs. “We sell a lot.” She turns away, back to the woman to apply another layer of make-up. No offer to find it at another store, no expression of being sorry, not even enough energy to give me attitude.
I start to ride home Chanelless when I remember there is a Lord and Taylor in Back Bay. If Macy’s is unusual for me, Lord and Taylor is downright alien. Still, I cycle over to the pristine brick box and escalate up to the perfumery. Another big Chanel display, this one unattended. “Hello”, I call out to no one in particular. “Hello!” A thin woman all in black with European allure and long blonde hair wafts in my direction. “I am looking for Chanel Number 5.” “Over here.” She wafts away. The perfume is not actually kept at the display. “How much for the standard size?” “ One hundred fifteen dollars.” I am not price shopping, but it is nice to know what something will cost.
The model cum sales clerk pulls a huge ring of keys from the register and fiddles with the lock on the display case. It will not open. Not the first time, or the second, or the third. Her brunette Euro double arrives and tries a bunch of keys, to no avail. How many mannequins with a pulse does it take to open a Chanel case? Apparently, more than two. The women do not speak to me during their trial. I imagine them working at Lush, rolling up their black silk sleeves and swabbing their twiggy thin arms with the newest January scent. “Here, smell yellow snow.” Actually, I cannot imagine it. Later, much later, they jiggle one key enough to pry open the case. They swipe my credit card, offer me a shopping bag, but I decline, putting the small expensive box in my bicycle saddlebag. We view each other with the mutual understanding that we inhabit different universes and with any luck, will never cross paths again.
When is the next time I will go into a Department store? When hell freezes over, which, considering current global warming trends, is a long time away.