Shopping in New York City, at least in the Before Times, was all about the schlep. The schlep—heaving heavy shopping bags across the city, often between boroughs and on several forms of public transportation—was rarely a planned activity. I think of the time, a few summers back, when I saw the most beautiful, jumbo-sized aloe plant in the window of a gardening supply store in the flower district as I was on the way to meet a friend for a drink. I ended up carrying it with me to the bar, balanced on my hip like a chubby toddler. It rolled along with us to a second location for dinner, and then rode the 7 train home. Shopping for me has never been only about the thrill of accrual (I eventually end up purging half of what I drag home); it’s about the pleasure of roaming the city, of long walks with drooping bags, of swinging your new purchases into the back of an idling cab.
I did not expect to miss the schlep when nonessential retail stores first closed down, in mid-March, as the coronavirus took hold of the city. Anything I needed I could summon to my doorstep; anything I didn’t need I was scared to let pass the threshold for fear of contamination. Self-quarantine felt, for a moment, like an opportunity to recalibrate my consumer habits. No more impulse-purchasing bodega flowers that would wilt inside my tote bag before I could get them home. No more splurging on a pair of shoes, on sale in a SoHo shop window, only to wear them once. (Remember wearing shoes?)
Online, I limited my shopping to things at least somewhat practical—bath bombs, good marmalade, whatever else seemed like it might improve life indoors. But, recently, as New York City has begun its process of reopening retail stores and other businesses, I’ve ventured out into my Brooklyn neighborhood tentatively seeking, for the first time in months, the old feeling of strolling and touching things, and maybe even acquiring something new.
It will be a long while before flânerie-style shopping will fully return to the five boroughs. While much of the rest of the country has reopened nonessential retail (a move that, given the spike in coronavirus cases in some states, may well have been premature), New York has taken a more cautious approach. On Monday, June 8th, Governor Andrew Cuomo cleared the city for “Phase I” reopening, which allowed businesses (including stores selling clothing, flowers, home goods, sporting equipment, cosmetics, luggage, and jewelry) to begin curbside or in-store pickup only. This past Monday came “Phase II,” which permits customers to enter stores in limited numbers. Still, many of the biggest stores continue to sit dormant on retail thoroughfares; on Broadway in SoHo, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, and Lululemon remain entirely shuttered. (I know this only from calling the stores to check: like many New Yorkers who don’t own a car and remain leery of the subway and cabs—and are too short to fit on a CitiBike—I could go shopping in SoHo only by trekking there on foot.)
On a walk through Williamsburg during the first week of Phase I, I found that the neighborhood’s main shopping corridor, Bedford Avenue, remained deserted. The Doc Martens store was closed, as was the Apple Store, a Sephora, and the jewelry store Catbird. Nearby, on the retail row of North Sixth Street, nearly every chain store was boarded up: Everlane, Le Labo, Urban Outfitters. Faded U.P.S. notices plastered the window of a Madewell. Several blocks north, in Greenpoint, where I live, a few independent boutiques were open for curbside pickup, but several others had closed permanently. Pas Mal, an upscale clothing store that sold Ganni dresses, Lauren Manoogian knits, and Boy Smells candles, had a “For Rent” sign in the window. Fox & Fawn, a vintage store that had been in the neighborhood for a decade, announced on Instagram that it would not be reopening its physical store.
One storefront that had its lights on was Lockwood, a home-goods and gifts shop owned by Mackenzi Farquer, who operates five businesses of the same name in Queens and Brooklyn. The store manager, Molly Morlock, was inside by herself, perched on a high stool and wearing a floral mask. A small table blocked the entrance from the street so that customers could not enter. I approached it and inquired about a cheerful rainbow wall hanging I’d noticed in the window. Morlock retrieved one for me from the back of the store. I also asked to see some throw pillows, which she picked up and displayed for me, at a distance, like showcase items on “The Price Is Right.” I left my credit card on the table and stepped back into the street while Morlock rang up the wall hanging and a gray-tasselled pillow; afterward, I cleaned my card with a Lysol wipe from my tote bag. This new retail etiquette was not much different from the choreography that most New Yorkers have learned at pharmacies or groceries in recent months, but it felt distinctly strange and indulgent: with only one customer passing through stores at a time, and no other staff members to share shifts with, retail clerks have effectively become personal shoppers.
Later, by phone, Farquer, the owner, told me that, when it came to rehiring employees, she had to think differently about what the job entailed. She needed people who “are willing to sit in a store completely alone for hours, with maybe only two or three pickups, doing a job that they were not hired to do.” Reopening, like closing down, has been improvisatory. “I am in a group text with eight other small-business owners and none of us know what the right thing to do is,” Farquer said. Mayor Bill de Blasio “hasn’t told us,” she added. “We can’t find any consistent guidelines anywhere. So we are just trying to use common sense, and pivot.”
Nearby, on Franklin Street, the luxury-shoe and leather-goods purveyor Brother Vellies was not yet officially open to the public, but four employees were inside taping up cardboard boxes. By phone afterward, the store’s owner, the designer Aurora James, told me that the group was fulfilling mail orders as part of a subscription service that she launched at the beginning of the pandemic. For thirty-five dollars a month, her two thousand subscribers receive small surprises in the mail—a terra-cotta mug, a hanging vase. “Luxury shoes and bags in a global pandemic—people are not interested, nor do I want to force consumers to be interested,” she said. Late last month, as protests against the killing of George Floyd swept the city, James launched a campaign, “15% Pledge,” calling for large retail stores to stock fifteen per cent of their products from black-owned businesses. “We represent 15% of the population and we need to represent 15% of your shelf space,” she wrote on Instagram, adding, “You want to be an ally? This is what I’m asking for.” Sephora became the first company to officially sign on, followed by Rent the Runway.
Earlier this week, as Phase II of reopening began, I took another long walk around the neighborhood and spotted small signs of new life. On Franklin Street, the clothing boutique Alter was still open only for curbside pickup, but a few people with shopping bags tucked under their arms paused to inspect the jewelry and hand-dyed shirts in the window. Most stores still seemed caught in a state of semi-animation: there were signs in the windows thanking clientele for their patience and loyalty, or listing phone numbers that customers could call to arrange private deliveries. Shopping, for the foreseeable future, will remain more intimate and more purposeful—and more uncertain—than it used to be. “Five stores is a lot,” Farquer, of Lockwood, told me, when we spoke. “I definitely have a list of which ones we will close if there is a second wave.” A block over from her store on West Street, the plant store Greenery Unlimited had a modest line of people waiting to enter, two at a time. The space has giant, garage-style doors, which were thrust open, giving it the feel of an open-air market. I ended up waiting to go in, and purchased a sixteen-pound bag of potting soil, along with a small philodendron that I hope will wind its way across my office wall. For the duration of my twelve-minute walk home, the schlep was back.