Secrets, Lies, and Register Tape
Psycho clients, backstabbing colleagues, thieves with good taste—Newbury Street’s shop girls (and guys) reveal the ugly truth of life behind the sales counter.
By 11:13 a.m., the curious whispers had already reached the 100 block. Who’s the new suit outside Marc Jacobs? He’d been there since the store opened—already, 13 whole minutes—and didn’t appear to be “serving any purpose whatsoever,” aside from giving the employees at other stores something to talk about. This isn’t Fifth Avenue, they were saying; the only doorman on the strip was “that guy” at the new Filene’s Basement, right across the street at number 84. The staffers at Marc Jacobs, for their part, were keeping mum. After all, this is Newbury Street—scrupulously discreet.
It was soon revealed that the night before, a quiet Tuesday evening in early October, two men had entered the store just before closing. They led the salesclerks to believe they had guns. Ever unflappable, the clerks dutifully handed over 10 pricey handbags as the suspects piled hundreds of dollars’ worth of sunglasses into a bag. Within three minutes, they were gone, making off with more than $32,000 in merchandise.
Two of the college boys working the floor downstairs at Marc by Marc Jacobs sprinted after them, managing to tackle one to the sidewalk at Boylston and Berkeley—and recover about half the goods—as the other sped away. “Those boys know they’re not supposed to do that,” says one employee, who admits that, okay, sure, occasionally—but only in the winter—the beefier guys on staff are asked to shovel snow from the sidewalk in front of the store (or else customers complain; one even reported the store to the public works department). Shop-guy vigilantism, though, is expressly prohibited. That’s what the new doorman was for. But Newbury clerks are famously loyal: Rip off their store, and they’re likely to take it personally.
Actors and truth tellers, self-promoters and healers, sociologists and psychoanalysts (and sometime action heroes), the shop girls and guys of Newbury Street are a lot of things. “I’ve been dealing with women’s insecurities, vanities, compulsivities, and bad days at work since the day I started,” says K., a nine-year Newbury Street vet. “Their frustrations become your frustrations.” Adds F., who’s worked on the street for 17 years, “People enter a store with all sorts of issues. They’re fat, they’re old, they’re needy. You become a psychiatrist, you’re selling good feelings. And then you sell them one outfit, and they can feel like a million bucks.”
F. first arrived on Newbury in 1989. He’d just moved to the United States and, he admits, didn’t know what else to do for work. He had always liked people. “At the beginning, you make no money,” he says. “You’re the new guy. Everyone who comes around is someone else’s customer, even if they’re not.”
Back then, Newbury Street had a cachet, and people acted accordingly. Now, F. says, the street once “paved in gold” has turned to dust. Gone is the hallowed place once reserved for ladies who suit up for afternoons of shopping on Newbury and petits four at the Ritz. Today’s Newbury is dominated by brash tourists, bratty suburban teenagers, and the big American chain stores they love. People tromp around with furrowed brows and hardened stares. F., for his part, blames…Apple. “Personally, I think the invention of the iPod brought out a whole new level of customer rudeness,” he says. “Customers walk in and they don’t even look at you, never mind hear you. They’ve got the iPod playing or they’re on their cell phone.” In May, F. decided he’d had enough. Tapped out after nearly two decades, he’s moving to Miami this month.
“It’s a shame,” says P. (seven years on the street). “Shopping should be fun. If it’s not, they’re missing the point.” P. rewards her favorites, keeping track of their preferred designers and calling when an especially good shipment or piece comes in. She’s cultivated a client book in the hundreds—like an amped-up résumé, it’s what wins over potential employers and leads to higher salaries—filled with people who trust P.’s opinion and have followed her, Pied Piper–style, from store to store for nearly a decade. B., who’s been on Newbury since 1990, earns points by filling her customers in on industry news. “People love to think they know the gossip, that they’re hip to what’s happening on the street,” she says. “Like right now: Everyone’s talking about the new Prada. Where is it going? Even if I don’t have a clue, I speculate. I pretend. They love that shit. It’s that whole ‘what to talk about at cocktail parties’ obsession. They eat it up.” As they do B.’s handwritten thank-you notes, her Christmas and Hanukkah cards, and her “just checking in!” phone calls. (“A good thing to do,” says F., “so long as you don’t overwhelm them. You have to keep it under control.”) “The people who really succeed in this business are people for whom being nice—and making a little extra effort—is second nature,” says B. “It’s not ass-kissing, it’s survival.”
And for certain it’s not always easy. “What I absolutely cannot stand,” says P., “is when people leave the dressing room littered with 10, 20 thousand dollars’ worth of clothing in piles, on the floor, inside out, stepped on. That is just not okay.” Once, P.’s manager actually followed one such slob all the way to the elevator, and demanded that she go right back and clean up the mess, telling the woman, “I am not your maid.” Sometimes, says F., “they make you feel like you’re just an extension of the help they have back home.”
K., a former shop girl turned store manager, remembers the guy who returned a $3,200 coat a month after he’d bought it, declaring it was too small. Well, yes, he admitted, he’d worn it. But only once or twice. (“We’d seen him wearing it on the street for, like, a month,” says K.) Then he lifted his arms to the ceiling to show K. how the coat fell midforearm, and pulled tight at the shoulders. “And I told him. I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we cannot take something back just because you got a little fat.’ That’s not our fault. Besides, when was he ever going to walk around with his arms up to the sky? I mean, come on!” Naturally, the man threw a fit. “Oh, people threaten us all the time,” K. continues. “Yelling, accusing. They’ll say, ‘My husband’s
a lawyer.’ Or, ‘I’m a lawyer.’ Or, ‘I’ll tell everyone I know.’ I say, ‘Go ahead!’”
Because the reality is, dear shopper, you’ve got nothing on them—and they have absolutely everything on you. With the exception of Newton-Wellesley’s top dermatologists, no one is in possession of as much dirt on the city’s who’s who as the Newbury Street shop girl. If you’re cheating on your husband, cheating on your wife, spending your soon-to-be ex’s money; if you’re demanding, competitive, promiscuous, bulimic, rude, cheap, closeted; if you have had any sort of facial or corporeal reconstruction—and you’ve popped into any store along Newbury in the past six months—your secret is at the mercy of the street’s all-knowing shop girls and guys. They may not be spilling the dirt, yet. But they’re not to be tested.
Once a shop girl has “arrived” on Newbury—once she’s made it past the peer initiation, earned a little seniority, rounded up some regular clients, and learned to deal with the fussy socialites and aging gigolos and the new generation of Newbury punks (once she’s built up a “bullshit threshold,” as B. calls it)—she’s often in it for the long haul. “You can make a very good living,” says F. At the high end, a real pro can move $1 million in merchandise and clear $90,000 in salary and commissions in a year—or at least sustain a comfortable career, à la 84-year-old Letty Angelone at Brooks Brothers and Michael “Bingo” Sears of Chanel. Of course, not everybody’s got what it takes. But those who do are untouchable. “A good salesman can backstab, call in sick, and steal other people’s sales as much as he wants,” says F. “He’ll never get reprimanded. Newbury Street is starved for good help.”