How to shop in-person in NYC (and stop ordering everything online)

When my niece turns 1 later this month, I’d like to get her a gift that makes her say (once she’s able to speak, understand geography, etc.) “I love this cool thing my uncle got me in New York City.”

Two decades ago, this might’ve been as easy as walking into FAO Schwarz, Pearl River Mart or the Knicks gift shop and grabbing the shiniest item in sight.

Now — having spent a couple years of the pandemic dumping my disposable income via dozens of websites that all have my credit card info prestored — I’m not sure if there’s any gift I can’t purchase on my phone and have shipped 3,000 miles. I also don’t know which of the remaining non-vacant storefronts in this city has what I’m looking for.

This is not just a me problem: A third of New Yorkers live within a half-mile of a mega-warehouse because of our reliance on online orders. The trucks delivering this stuff are choking our streets. And we send so much of it back that there are resale stores that all but give away our returned boxes just to keep them out of landfills.

Surely it’s still possible — in the most densely populated city in the United States — to go shopping in person, have a pleasant experience and find something you can’t get anywhere else. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it.

Try browsing a new neighborhood.

Famous thoroughfares like Fifth Avenue in Midtown and Broadway in SoHo can still deliver, but they’re now full of mega chains. If you’re looking for shops whose entire inventory is easily browsable online, it’s worth exploring other parts of the city.

Caroline Weaver, who ran the specialty shop CW Pencil Enterprise for years and currently operates the Locavore Guide, a free and extremely comprehensive directory of small brick-and-mortar stores across the five boroughs, said the excitement today is in smaller, hyper-specific pockets.

She recommends the stretch of Orchard Street below Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, where a slew of local clothing designers have opened up brick-and-mortar shops.

“It gets a bit of a bad wrap because of the whole ‘Dimes Square’ vibe,” she said, “but what’s actually special about that area is there’s so much local, independent fashion in that neighborhood.”

On a recent afternoon at Artful Posters, a small, decades-old print and framing shop on Bleecker Street, 23-year-old Sydney Porter was browsing through stacks of film and fine art posters. She said she’d just moved to Murray Hill from Boston several weeks earlier and was looking for something to put on her new walls.

“The fact that I walked here was kind of part of the experience,” she said. “Actually sifting through photos feels more real, and like, ‘I’m decorating my New York city apartment.’”

Don’t get suckered by the Online Sale Industrial Complex.

It makes sense to be wary about buying something in person, and on the spot, when there are five emails in your inbox alerting you that all housewares are 70% off.

That’s how they getchya!

“If you’re buying anything full price, you’re just straight up getting ripped off,” Weaver said, explaining that larger brands mark things up expecting to sell a lot of it at discounted rates.

By contrast, smaller local stores aren’t going to offer the same kinds of sales. But their everyday pricing will be fairer and often less expensive.

Think of all the returns you won’t have to make.

For one, free return shipping policies are going away: Even major online retailers, including H&M and Amazon, are making customers cover part of the cost for return postage.

Also, the process of sending things back is a drag.

“I was going to the post office once a week returning stuff … it doesn’t feel good,” said Emilia Petrarca, a former fashion writer at the Cut who recently launched Shop Rat, a newsletter she bills as her “attempt to get offline, go outside, and engage with style in real life.”

She said that when she worked at an office in SoHo, she’d go shopping on lunch breaks just to check out stores and see what stylish people were wearing, not necessarily to buy anything. Online shopping and ordering doesn’t scratch that same itch.

“There’s a need to touch clothing and be around clothing, and going into a store satisfied that need,” Petrarca said. “I would do it to get that out of my system and remind myself that I don’t want or need that thing.”

Gifting isn’t a chore — it’s a benevolent way of life.

“My best advice with gifts is always be buying them,” said Petrarca.

Instead of waiting until the last minute and then stressing about a gift, she recommends getting into a habit of keeping your friends and loved ones in mind whenever you’re in a fun store.

“I’m never in [a bind] because when it’s my friend’s birthday, I’ve had something stashed away in my closet for a year because I saw something at a thrift store and thought of them,” she said.

You can also ask the employees in a store for advice.

If you’re looking for a gift, especially one that has a unique New York City flavor, it’s not a bad idea to ask a unique New York City shopkeeper for their opinion.

“Because we have the internet and we can research whatever we want, people have lost trust in the vision of a shopkeeper,” said Caroline Weaver of the Locavore Guide.

Stores aren’t filled with stuff arbitrarily. What’s on the shelves is often a reflection of the owner’s and staff’s tastes. Let them help you.

Remember: This can be fun.

“During the pandemic, I felt really frustrated because there was all this yelling online about shopping local, and it came with this new attitude of treating patronizing a small business like charity,” said Weaver.

It’s true that at some point, mom-and-pop stores won’t be able to survive in the city if they don’t get any business. But the main reason to visit local shops is because they’re good at what they do and it’s fun to shop in them.

In search of a present for my niece, I walked into Lucky Wang, a children’s store in Chelsea I found through the Locavore Guide. In addition to a small selection of books and toys, they sell their own collection of mini kimonos and other clothing.

Owner Kit Lee, who opened the store 20 years ago with his wife, Emily Wang, said he’s noticed a drop in tourists and office workers coming in, but the business has survived because of the relationships they’ve built with repeat customers, especially grandparents. (“Grandparents spend,” he said.)

“When you go into a [big] store, and somebody’s making minimum wage, and you’re giving them a lot of details, and you want them to service you from point A to point Z, sometimes the ball gets dropped,” Lee said. “But for us, I think [our customers] feel a little bit more comfort.”

After touching every item in there, I settled on a winner: a pair of the house brand’s funky green woven pants — perfect for someone who’s new to standing upright.

In the spirit of the Always Be Buying mindset, I picked up a few separate items for different babies in my life. For now, they’re artfully gift-wrapped, waiting in my closet until the right occasion.

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