A Shoe Addict's Christmas
It was a picture perfect Christmas Eve. Snow was falling at almost two inches an hour, swirling down in front of the Simon’s Department store window displays on Massachusetts Avenue like flakes in a snow globe. People either hurried past – clutching their coats to them and closing their eyes against the cold – or ambled along, looking up and around with childlike wonder at the beauty.
Even the most ordinary scene, like the Exxon service station across the street from the main door, took on a fairy tale quality, iced in a confection of snow.
Simon’s, where I worked in human resources, would have been the perfect subject inside a snow globe or maybe an impressionistic painting. The owner, Lex Prather, was a very old fashioned guy (bow tie, martinis, a physique as straight and trim as a cigarette), and I swear he designed the place with old Fred Astaire movies in mind.
Or maybe it was more accurate to say that the store was established in the thirties and all of the owners since then, including Lex’s late mother and now he himself, had maintained it as the kind of setting where you wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a guy in a top hat and tails walk in.
There was even a glove counter. Small, admittedly. Not the most popular department in the store, by any means, but it did more business than you’d expect. There are always Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly wannabes, and this was like a Wonderland to them; there are always Women of a Certain Age, and Simon’s had everything to make them feel younger, prettier, or happy exactly as they were. Weirdly, a surprising number of dance students also patronized the store. I’ve never been able to figure out that one except that we were one of the closest high end department stores to Georgetown, American University, and George Washington University.
Of all the stuff that was great in Simon’s, the shoe department was the best, at least as far as I was concerned. And as far as the readers of Washingtonian magazine were concerned as well, as it always rated a mention in the annual round-up. Simon’s had begun as a shoe store in the early 30’s and had grown rapidly from that, but they still maintained one of the best ranges of sizes in the business. Well, besides online places – hard to compete with Zappos in that arena. But we carried small, handmade brands that the big online companies couldn’t.
My friend Lorna Rafferty, and her business partners at Shoe Addicts Anonymous, were one of the best shoe designers and we were one of the only distributors. Because that company had made the gossip columns when it first came about – thanks to the dramas of some of the owners – there were a lot of people who came searching for their shoes in particular. Made in Italy from the finest materials, exquisitely designed by a team headed by and unbelievably gorgeous Italian stallion… Not that his hot looks were on purpose; he was a brilliant shoe designer, something like fifth generation in a line of shoe makers, but his good looks and charisma were a happy coincidence that got the company even more press.
Everything about their story spoke to a woman’s heart.
Of course there were plenty of plain old shoe addicts themselves at Simon’s, looking for any or all brands, and more importantly for the experience of shopping for them there.
The shoe floor was a gorgeous confection of clean lines – up, down, left, right, it was classic upmarket department store all the way. But Lex had gone further and gotten tall flattering mirrors that were true, not the cheap ones that warped subtly at the belly, putting on an imaginary five pounds. The lighting was soft too, showcasing the shoes like so many gems. You know how you look at a pair of earrings at the jewelry store and get mesmerized by the sparkle? The Simon’s shoe department was like that, only it was the shoes that gleamed and shone under each of the spotlights. At night, with no other lights on, it almost looked like a musical number from one of those old Busby Berkeley movies, each light shining down on some beautiful starlet who may or may not become a star someday.
Each display told a story and everyone loves to buy a great story.
Here’s the one about the wedding!
This one is a wonderful summer evening on the patio.
First date! But I’ve got a good feeling about this…
I read an article once that said that’s how women shop – they buy a story, a fantasy. Every item chosen comes with an accompanying narrative in her head. Whereas men tended to be more in and out with a list and no extras.
These were stories I wanted to buy entirely. It was all I could do to avoid the lure of the shoe department or I’d never be able to make my rent or pay my utilities!
As it was, I worked in human resources, and the hours were long, so I didn’t get into the front rooms very often In fact, tonight was a perfect example of that. I was wrapping up some year-end things, including, thanks to an urgent note from Lex, a fruitless search through storage for the file of an employee named Charlene Pennymar, who’d worked there in the 80’s and whom he had to find.
Searching down a long-gone employee was harder than he must have imagined, made even more so because so many people who might remember her had already left for vacations and holiday time off. The entire last week had been filled with excited chatter about skiing in Vail, basking in Martinique, riding and roping in Texas, and chasing exhausted children through the parks in Orlando. It all sounded good from a casual difference but when Lorna had asked me to accompany her on a trip to Rome, leaving Christmas Day, I balked.
It was another one of those things that I feared would sound good from a distance, look good on paper, but end up being more of a challenge than expected. I know that sounds crazy – why do you think I don’t tell many people about the invite? -- but when it comes down to it I’m a real homebody. Typical Cancer, on the astrological charts, afraid to leave and eager to get back when I did.
Lex, in fact, had tried to persuade me to take a trip between Christmas and New Years, since it was “the perfect time of year for some R&R by a crackling fire with a hot toddy in hand and a handsome man by your side” but I wasn’t quite sure whether that was his vision for me or for himself.
Anyway, I’ve never been entirely clear on what a hot toddy is and as for a hot man by my side? Unless you count feverish, sneezing Doug from bookkeeping, who had come to say goodbye and wish me happy holidays in a cough cloud of germs, I hadn’t been around anyone who was a digit over 98.6 in quite some time.
As for the other kind of hot – the kind Lex meant – forget it. In my little life there were few surprises...