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TRUE CONFESSION: One night last summer I took an Ambien to help me fall asleep. Seven business days later a FedEx box filled with $1,139.15 worth of Gap clothing appeared magically on my doorstep. Whoops!
In case you haven’t heard, Ambien can occasionally result in a strange behavioral side effect where you do something excessive—say, drive through Burger King at 3 a.m. or have phone sex with your boss—and forget about it by morning.
Normally, I’d be embarrassed to share this shopping sin, but here’s the brilliant part. While I had zero recollection of the transaction, I was still cognizant enough to dig through my email account and redeem—not one, but two coupon codes—saving nearly 50 percent on my purchase.
But the incident did make me wonder: Why—given all the regrettable acts I could have committed before dawn—did my deep-dark subconscious gravitate toward clothes shopping? Is there something buried deep in my past that compels me to shop?
To help answer my questions, I decided to probe the minds of several national shopping experts and track down some of Baltimore’s biggest, baddest shopaholics. Maybe there would be something in their tales of consumerism that would help me answer my own questions. (And just maybe they could share a few hot tips about upcoming sales!)
I started by calling around to some of my favorite stores for recommendations of folks to interview, but it turned out to be a hard sell.
“Girl, I wish I had shopaholics in my store right now,” said one Fells Point dress shop proprietor. “If you find some, send them my way.”
Other retailers called their top customers, but they declined to be interviewed. One woman, the wife of a foreclosure attorney, felt it would be in bad taste to share her riches during a recession. Others seemed to be embarrassed by their shopping habits.
“Fifteen years ago, you’d go to a party and all people wanted to talk about was shopping,” says Nancy Lattman, who has owned L’Apparenza in Lake Falls Village for more than a decade. “But the conversation has changed. Women don’t want people to think all they do is shop.”
Just then: a breakthrough—in the form of a return call from Jody Kesner from Stevenson’s Joanna Gray Shoes.
“I called shopaholics all day, but nobody wants to be outed,” she tells me. “But I do have a personal friend, Ina Parson. She’s a great bargain shopper—give her a ring.”
THE BARGAIN HUNTRESS
A week later I find myself standing in Ina Parson’s dining room examining the spoils from her latest hunting trip. The glass table and chairs are covered with shopping bags. The floor is lined with shoe boxes. Tissue paper flies everywhere as she pulls out purses and tunics and belts like so many rabbits out of a hat.
“Oooooh, I forgot about this bag!” she exclaims, revealing a darling assortment of smart solid separates paired with a few animal prints and fringe. “You know the Talbots outlet on York Road? Everything is on sale for $17.99 or less. I got this whole bag for less than a hundred bucks.”
Indeed, Ina shops frequently enough—three days a week, minimum—that sometimes she surprises herself by rediscovering a hidden gem amongst the rows of paper and plastic in her Pikesville home.
She has been known to hit six—count them, six—Marshalls in a single day, filling her minivan with everything from Betsey Johnson handbags to Marc Jacob belts. Oh, and leggings. She owns at least 50 pairs of black leggings.
“I don’t even know what crap I have in here sometimes,” she says with an exhale that puffs up her frosted bangs. “But I love finding things that are different and funky.”
Being a bargain shopper, by default, requires being an impulse shopper, so I ask Ina whether she ever has buyer’s remorse.
“Never,” she says with more confidence than I believe at first. “I actually get opposite kind of remorse. If I see something I love and leave it at T.J. Maxx, I’ll obsess about it the whole way home. Most of the time, I end up driving back to get it.”
Just then, Ina’s next-door neighbor, Ruth, stops by for a visit. The 60-something gal with a smart cropped gray coif and a twinkle in her eye seems poised to spill some secrets.
“So do you think Ina is a shopaholic?” I ask, testing the waters.
“Oh, please. It’s like a disease!” she says.
“A disease,” repeats Ina, nodding her head.
“It’s awful,” says Ruth.
“Awful,” mimics Ina.
And by awful you can tell they really mean awesome.
Ina caught the shopping bug at about 13 when she bagged her first bargain: a cute little knit number from Hecht Co. She once dreamed of going to school in New York to study fashion merchandising. But, instead, she fell in love and got married—to a man who owns a dry cleaning business and hates clothes. “He hasn’t bought a new shirt in 20 years,” she says.
But Ina still grabs a bite of the Big Apple on frequent bus trips to Manhattan.
“You should see when they let me out of the bus. It’s like I get a shot of adrenaline and I can’t breathe,” says the former retail associate who sold a whopping $2.1 million during her tenure at Smyth Jewelers. “People used to wait an hour just to work with me—they saw my passion.”
These days Ina’s passion is decorating her home with consignment shop finds.
“I’ve redone almost the whole house for less than $5,000,” she says with a Vanna White gesture, pointing out the blue leather sectional, a Joseph Sheppard oil painting, copious amounts of Capodimonte porcelain statuettes. Sometimes she finds vintage fashions, too.
Her pride and joy? A Persian lamb duster with a mink collar (“It’s like the ‘I Love Lucy’ coat”) with another woman’s name embroidered inside.
“Did you ever think to Google Margaretta Diggs to see who she was?” I ask.
“Not really,” she replies, running her finger along the embroidery. “This is all just part of my story now. Shopping makes me happy.”
YOUR BRAIN ON BLOOMINGDALE’S
So does shopping really make us happy? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest it does.
In a recent study published in the journal Neuron, researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford strapped volunteers to an fMRI machine and showed them photos of products. When shoppers saw something they wanted to buy, a flood of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens—the brain’s reward center—lit up their fMRI images like a Christmas tree. (Too bad the chemicals wear off by the time the credit card bill arrives.)
I honestly don’t know if shopping makes me happy, but I definitely shop more when I’m feeling blue. If my boss tells me off or a guy breaks up with me, I don’t want to risk another negative interaction with the “real” people in my life. Instead, I drive straight to Nordstrom—the land of milk-based moisturizers and “Oh, honey, you look 10 pounds lighter in that dress.”
You can collect free samples at every cosmetics counter, imitate the lady over the loudspeaker (you know they train them all to sound the same), try on 5-inch heels you could never-ever-ever wear in real life and even get a foot massage if you get the right sales guy. (Wait, he does that for everyone, right?) And for a few hours, I’m distracted and fulfilled.
“I totally get that,” says Katie Nannes, my next interview, who admits she’s had times in her life when shopping was a great escape from boredom or stress.
Once, in a cubicle not so far away, Katie sat conflicted. The consummate girly girl from a small town in upstate New York was dedicated to her marketing job. But, as with any Millennial these days, surfing the Internet was a way of life—and online shopping seemed like a not-so-naughty distraction from the humdrum nature of corporate life.
“At that time, the big flash sale sites like HauteLook and Rue La La were just becoming popular—and it was so great to have all of this designer stuff at your fingertips,” says the Cornell communications grad, who has since switched from her agency job to become the public relations and events director for Urban Chic, a Harbor East boutique. (Yes, a job that actually encourages shopping!)
“I had always loved fashion,” she explains, recalling stories her mom told her about throwing a temper tantrum every time she tried to dress her in jeans. “I want to look like a GIRL!” she would yell.
Another time her favorite aunt came to visit for a casual weekend and made the oh-so-horrendous error of wearing the same T-shirt two days in a row. “Apparently, I was very concerned and told her that my mom would gladly take her shopping, if she needed more clothes.”
In addition to the flash sites, Katie also started shopping the well-edited selections at Bloomies, Saks and Neiman’s websites, too—getting a “Sex and the City” style buzz and a killer closet to match. But soon, the boxes started piling up.
“I found myself catching the D.C. metro a few minutes early in hopes of picking up the UPS packages before my fiancé got home,” she says. Plus, she started feeling a little embarrassed when the mailroom attendant would yell, “I’ve got another one for you, Katie!” across the lobby every day.
While it wasn’t a problem per se, Katie decided to level with her now-husband Steve, a self-proclaimed “schlumpy journalist” who works as a producer at CNN.
“It wasn’t like he was shocked at how much I shop, since I had always been very well put together. But once you combine bank accounts, there’s no more hiding,” she says.
At first, her hubby suggested something quite rational: a budget. “I think we started with something crazy like $500 a month. I mean, hello, that was gone in like two days,” she says with a laugh. Later the couple decided to simply keep each other informed prior to any big purchases.
But, truth be told, sometimes Katie Nannes has just gotta have it.
“There was this amazing pink pencil skirt from Alice + Olivia we bought for the store—and I freaked out, because it sold out,” she says. “When I love something, I get obsessed with it and stalk it like an animal hunting its prey.” ($268 later on Shopbop.com, it was hers.)
Katie says it helps to have a partner-in-schlumpy-journalist-crime who is forgiving, but knows when to say when. In fact, they have sort of a shopping safe word.
“When Steve uses the phrase ‘tighten it up,’ I know it’s time to pull in the reins,” she says.
Several days later, while trolling the Web, I come across shopacholicsanonymous.org. And before you can ring up $1,000 in Burberry scarves on Overstock.com, I’m speaking with the site’s founder, Terrence Shulman, director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding in Franklin, Mich.
Terry, who admits he was once a compulsive shoplifter, now works as both an attorney and a licensed social worker, helping folks deal with the emotional reasons why they compulsively shop, steal or hoard. He was also a guest expert on an “Oprah” episode about people’s secret lives, which gives him enough street cred for me.
Terry tells me that our consuming passions are a reflection of—no surprise—the society we live in. “In the old days, keeping up with the Joneses meant keeping up with the family down the block,” says Terry. “But today, thanks to reality TV, the Joneses have become celebrities.”
Yes, yet another reason to hate Kim Kardashian. But, really, people can’t think they can live the same lifestyle as the gazillionaires we see on TV, can they?
“No, but we’ve upped the ante,” he tells me. “People feel more pressure to have that bling or wear that designer dress to feel like they’re worth something today. Even if I don’t live in a mansion, I can still buy a Gucci purse and have a piece of the American dream.
“But it’s not really about the stuff,” Terry is quick to add. “Most people who are shopping addicts report that, yes, of course, they want things. But it’s more about what those things represent. What we really want is security, freedom, power, prestige, confidence or acceptance. A lot of people just want to fit in.”
Several days later, I find myself at a real-life Barbie’s Dream House. “Let’s go!” says Deb Townsend, a 47-year-old blonde bombshell, as she grabs my hand sweetly and leads me through her Stevenson home, pointing out some of its extraordinary features—from a rock climbing wall to a photo studio—en route to our ultimate destination: THE CLOSET.
At first glance, you might not even notice its simple white door with the seven-digit lock, hidden in the middle of a marble, gold and stained-glass bathroom so ornate I half expect angels to start singing. Inside, I discover a fashion lover’s Narnia brimming with evening gowns, fur coats and Cinderella shoes.
In a world where money is no object—there are clearly no exceptions here, thanks to Deb’s “alpha male” husband Dennis, chairman of Townsend Capital, who follows fashion trends and loves to see his wife in beautiful things.
“It’s crazy, right?” giggles the former videographer, clearly responding to my widening eyeballs. “It’s been seven years and I’m still getting used to everything.”
As we continue to explore Narnia, I realize Deb doesn’t really know who a lot of fashion designers are—including the ones hanging in her closet. She regularly has to check the labels to see who made what—and, as she’s modeling a fur-lined Diane von Furstenberg handbag, she freely admits she had no idea who DVF was until a sales associate in Vail gave her the scoop. “My friends are all like, ‘You have Prada this and Dolce & Gabbana that’—and I laugh and say, ‘Wow, really? That’s cool,’” she says with a shrug.
“Here’s how I get dressed every morning,” she goes on. “To me, the world is my stage—and I have to know what role I’m playing. What’s the setting? Who is my audience? Then, I pick a costume.”
For example, when Deb and Dennis got hitched—the second marriage for them both—she was surprised to learn she couldn’t just go to Baltimore Country Club with him, but rather had to interview for the privilege. So she put on some long pants and a light blue Escada blazer (“very Hopkins”) and wrapped a strand of pearls around her neck three times. Then she marched her sensible shoes straight into a boardroom, prepared to do what she does best: make ’em laugh. (Spoiler alert: It worked.)
Deb is no stranger to being on stage. Growing up, her family owned Tuerkes Leather Goods—a 42-store retail chain—and every time her dad opened a new location, he brought in all eight kids to show it was a family business.
“In a family that big, you’ve got to scrap,” says Deb, who left home at 17. “Nothing is ever handed to you.”
She went on to play the role of “starving college student eating Oodles of Noodles and tuna fish” and buying her so-called costumes at Hampden vintage shops, where she still shops to “maintain some balance” in her life. She also spent some time in Namibia taking photographs for a furniture maker’s catalogs and in Germany window-dressing for four luxury boutiques. “In some ways, I was more comfortable hand-washing my clothes in Africa than I am in my life today,” Deb says. “I guess with more things comes more responsibilities, which is not always freeing to the soul.”
Still, she’s the first to admit—she’s having the time of her life. When it comes to shopping today, it’s not the act itself Deb loves, but traveling with Dennis to collect memorable clothes from all over the globe.
“When we go into a boutique, I walk straight to the fitting room and let Dennis or the salesperson pick outfits that will look good on me,” she says. “Then I come outand model for everyone!”
Her favorite garment is an Alexander McQueen dress she found on her honeymoon in Turkey. It’s a black-and-white knee-length with jagged tears along the collarbone and fraying edges on the hem and sleeves—one of the final pieces the designer created before he committed suicide. “It’s a little darker than I usually am in my spirit, but you can clearly see the emotional state of the designer,” says Deb, who has experienced some great sadness in life, including successfully battling a rare cancer and the loss of both her parents. Today, she’s the proud mom of two boys and has pretty much decided, with a life this damn good, she’s going to be the life of the party.
“When we first moved into this house, my older son and I had some trouble adjusting. So I told Dennis I was going to put fliers in all our neighbors’ mailboxes inviting them to a Misfit Cocktail Party. Please join us if you don’t fit in!” she says with a grin. (Insiders quickly advised her that no one in Green Spring Valley would RSVP to a party like that.)
Now, “I just show up in my designer gowns and keep putting my foot in my mouth,” says Deb, who seems to consider it a personal mission to help uptight society folks feel more free. “It’s like these beautiful earrings I found shopping in Europe. They were exquisite gold birds in a cage. But the door was closed, so I decided against them. A closed cage just isn’t me.”
I scored my next shopper through a friend of a friend on Facebook. Now I’m standing in a hallway at Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus surrounded by a sea of suits—navy and black, male and female, frumpy and frumpier—when up walks the proverbial Lady in Red: a curly-topped 37-year-old wearing a ruby shift dress, Jimmy Choo pumps and a pearl bracelet paired with a silver-spiked bangle.
It’s no surprise to me this is Kelly Cavallio, a die-hard fashionista, whom I’m told has been known to shop a good Saks sale on her iPhone walking the distance of the JHU campus. This is clearly a woman who stands out in the workplace.
“Hopkins is a very conservative organization with lots of pictures of old white men on the wall, so I’ve always dressed professional with a little flair,” says Kelly, an ambulatory services administrator who has been with Hopkins since 1994. “But now that I’m a little more established in my career, I feel more confident playing. Nobody’s going to judge me on one crazy outfit on a Friday afternoon.”
Next Friday, however, she’s planning to call out sick for her fifth annual pilgrimage to the Lucky Magazine Shops, a Soho warehouse sale where all the designers du jour—from Joie to Milly to Rebecca Minkoff—sell their fashions at deep discounts.
“It’s amaaaazing,” says Kelly, who takes a gaggle of girlfriends to the event each year. “They have male models serving you drinks and hors d’oeuvres on silver trays. And there’s even a jeans bar, where a tiny little seamstress hems your jeans on the spot!”
By the end of the Lucky sale, Kelly will drop about $1,500 for four pairs of shoes, three or four purses and six dresses—all of which retail for at least twice that much. Even better? She gets to “double down” on the loot, thanks to her best gal pal—Baltimore stylist Stephanie Bradshaw—who also goes on the trip.
“Back home, Stephanie and I constantly text each other pictures from Loehmann’s saying, ‘Hey, I love this dress. Do you want to split it?’ Whoever finds the item gets it four days a week; the other gets it three. It’s like joint custody,” she says.
Usually, Kelly is delighted with her purchases. But being a fashion risk taker occasionally means making mistakes.
“Every once in a while I’ll get in something from a Gilt Groupe flash sale and have to ask, ‘What was I thinking buying some crazy jumper with polka dots? I look like an Esther Williams reject!’” she says, admitting the aforementioned garment is now shoved unceremoniously beneath her bathroom sink. But that’s about as far as the anxiety goes.
“Fashion is just an outlet for me, a hobby. Some people play tennis, some people go hiking. I go shopping,” she says. “Besides, I work hard for my money. As long as my other obligations are being met, I don’t believe in shopper shame.”
The next time I run into Kelly is at a fashion show downtown. We continue to bond over the indignity that is the cattle-call-style fitting room at Loehmann’s and her honeymoon to Istanbul, where she scored a ridiculously good knockoff Celine bag that I’ve since pet-named Sheline. What I love about this girl is it’s clear that shopping is pure joy for her.
I, on the other hand, hit the mall late the previous night—trudging through every dress department looking for something to wear to this fancy schmancy fashion event.
Unfortunately, I spent most of the fashion show comparing my frock to every other female’s. It wasn’t the worst (yes, mid-life lady in the yellow polyester uber-mini, I’m thinking of you), but it wasn’t my favorite. And that made me shopping sad.
The next morning, in lieu of calling a shrink, I interview one last expert—Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, who has written extensively about our consumerism and our winner-takes-all society. According to Dr. Frank, I’m just normal.
“What people consume defines the social norms where you live,” he says. “So it’s natural to ask: Is my house OK? Is my car OK? Are my clothes OK? You’re not an insecure person if you feel bad because your consumption level is jarringly below what’s normal for your area—or, if you just occasionally compare your dress to another woman’s dress in the ladies room mirror.”
How did he know?
“In the long run, we’re just creatures who like cool stuff—and there’s a lot of cool stuff out there,” he says.
Since I don’t routinely chat with economists, I thought I’d ask for one last piece of positive reinforcement.
“So, Dr. Frank, I’ve been eyeing this adorable Kate Spade coat that’s about $500 out of my price range. If I buy it, that’s totally going to help the economy, right?”
“No,” he says flatly. “That only works if everyone spends more money—and we have much more efficient ways of boosting the economy, like hiring people to rebuild the roads and bridges that are falling apart.”
And with that I’m off for another foot massage at Nordstrom. But I won’t be refilling my Ambien prescription any time soon.