Running Local

This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Shopping and Death on Long Island

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

I have friends, most of them female, sitting shiva in houses across Long Island. They’re losing an old friend, and I feel

The Temple of Shoppig on the Island

The Temple of Shopping on the Island

for them. While they adorn themselves in black designer outfits and pin rended bracelets to their breasts in mourning their husbands are trying to look sad and support them… but they’re all really sneaking downstairs to the family room, smoking cigars and toasting the departure with good whiskey when they say they need to pee.

The object of so much depression is the victim of the recession, not cancer or too much cholesterol. As the recession deepens it has become apparent that even the most sacred of cows is not immune from the abattoir’s knives, and, if you live or ever have lived somewhere between Montauk and Paramus you may have heard the bellowing and bleating coming from the stall in which Fortunoff’s has been dispatched, the dearly departed friend that has called the congregation to mourn together.

How to explain Fortunoff’s to those who haven’t  resided in the NYC Metro area…? OK, imagine a gigantic brownish concrete cube sitting along a road that can only be described as Dante’s Suburban Circle of Hell, then fill its parking lots with Mercedes, with BMWs, with Jaguars and most importantly of all with Cadillacs, lots and lots of Cadillacs, more Cadillacs than you’d see even in Fort Lauderdale around early bird dinner special time in mid-February.

Within the cube, cryptically referred to as “The Source” by its marketing team and by the come-latelies who have only known it as the flagship of “The Source” mall instead of as the stand-alone temple to Long Island taste it was for so many years, are enough high end baubles and textiles to make Martha Stewart not only need to change her foundation garments but to replace them with fine damask panties sewn from materials in the drapery department. Diamond rings available for $5,000 in Manhattan were consumed here like potato chips despite their $8,000 price tags;  sets of china destined to be eaten upon once a year and to otherwise reside in the future dusty basements of affluent newlywed shared floorspace with $3700 espresso machines. If time is money, the watches offered within the tens of yards long display cases cost too much to be bothered with keeping it– anyone who could afford them could surely afford to buy more time when needed.

The floors were packed with ladies, more in Yves St. Laurent or Gucci than in Dolce & Gabbana, ogling multi-carat emeralds, checking the time before their lunch reservation on their Cartier watches. For a store that doesn’t sell clothing but only housewares & jewlery the fashion parade was astounding. On the rare occasion that a man wearing a wedding ring was seen walking the broad aisles alone in any months other than November or December, you could be sure that he had recently been busted with either his secretary or his wife’s best friend; the number of zeroes on the price tag for the bracelet in his sweaty palms was a dead give away as to which.

All that being said, Fortunoff’s was an institution; whether it was so in the tradition of Dix Hills and Bedlam or in the tradition of Harrods is a fairly debated point. It followed the trajectory of New York and ultimately Long Island consumerism– when it started early in the century it was a Mom & Pop cookware store in Brooklyn that grew up and moved to the Island with its clientele (ever wonder how Lynbrook got its name? Reverse the syllables and you have your answer…). With the comfort and affluence that came with suburban life, Fortunoff’s became the much tonier forerunner to the Linens’n’Things that fill the market for housewares today– you wouldn’t dare to think of buying your draperies, your dishes, your bathroom tchotskies anywhere else for fear that Myrna might find a Macy’s label on something when she was rifling your linen closet while ostensibly using the powder room during a fondue party. With the Long Island boom of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties it became an excuse not to trudge all the way into the Diamond District of the city to buy extraordinarily expensive jewelry, completing the nightmare existence of Fortunoff’s for Long Island’s salary men. In time it came to be the arbiter of social standing– if you didn’t keep your wedding registry at Fortunoff’s it denoted you as someone whose friends couldn’t afford the finer things for sale on Long Island, the kiss of social death and surely the wrong way to start off in married life amongst the doyennes of Garden City or the Five Towns. It simply wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t do at all.

Now, as Long Island’s unbridled economic consumerism seems as far away as the booms that the Concorde used to shed over its beaches, Fortunoff’s long run as the hub of that consumerism has come to an end, leavign a void to be occupied but never filled by Costco, by Macy’s, by Kay Jewelers down the road at the mall. Fortunoff’s is no more, and if you think I’m overstating the case, you should have seen the obituary given Fortunoff’s by last Sunday’s New York Times Long Island Section, complete with lofty quotes from the mourners beset by woe at the loss of their dear friend.

If Fortunoff’s was a temple to greed, excess, and AMEX Gold Cards during its lifetime, though, it was a 100,000 square foot torture chamber for the unlucky kids dragged from their peaceful WiffleBall and ATARI existences to serve at the altar. As one of the victims of sporadic Saturday trips to the Westbury flagship store, I have but one good memory amongst the pain of debates about draperies on the third floor and the endless circling of the kitchen department on the first– for some reason, one never adequately explained or even hinted at, there was an authentic Japanese pachinko machine set smack in the middle of a sea of Royal Doulton and fine Limoges China. Playing with its silver balls, watching them bounce through the pins, was the one thing that provided solace to the souls of the children called there to witness the acquisitive orgy taking place before the gaze of the twin gods Cuisinart and Patek Phillipe… and, in an exercise in cruelty that was the epitome of Fortunoffs to the nine year old boy, they put the god damned thing in the middle of an acre of breakable, wildly expensive dishes. That little boy wearing a CHIPS t-shirt, ToughSkins jeans, tube socks and Pony sneakers still cries out from within the man– Damn you, Fortunoff’s, damn you to liquidation!

Still, though, the passing of any chapter into history, no matter how cherished nor how silly, deserves respect. To those who will miss Fortunoffs, to my parents and the parents and grandparents of my friends, to my brother and sister-in-law, to the legions of little old ladies who struggle daily under the weight of the jewelry they bought there in better times… wanna head a bit down Old Country Road to Ben’s and toast the old girl with a Doctor Brown’s Black Cherry and a half sour from the relish plate, maybe a pastrami on rye? That much I can do for a store and an era in retailing the likes of which we will likely never see again.

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