Shop Talk: Shopper’s Delight

So how good is Philly’s shopping scene really? A transplanted New Yorker says we’re better than we think — and poised for something big. Credit cards ready?

THE FORECAST WAS BLEAK. The scrunchie jokes were endless. And a parting gag-gift included not just an Eagles jersey (who was this T.O. guy, anyway?), but a pair of the most tragic tapered light-blue jeans the Levi’s factory has turned out in its 154-year history.

It was the spring of 2005, just about two years ago, and some friends had gathered inside my microscopic Manhattan apartment for my send-off to the City of Brotherly Love. The Boyfriend’s job had beckoned, and I’d decided to tag along.

Friends and family supported my decision, but were skeptical: How, they wondered, would a 20-something who’d only lived outside the state of New York during one summer overseas cope without her Yankees, her bagels, and her most beloved of all N.Y. hobbies — shopping?

It wasn’t that they feared for my personal style — my uniform since eighth grade has leaned toward the school of All Black Everything, and like those of most City Girls on a magazine staffer’s budget, my closet looks more like a Zara stockroom than a Vogue storyboard. But the art and act of shopping — not even necessarily buying — has, from the time I was a kid in the consumption-plagued N.Y. suburbs, always been My Thing, my therapy, my sport and my escape. Philly, I’ll admit, had never been on my radar as a Shopping City. My smug friends predicted that I’d be back in New York every weekend — if I didn’t become a full-time online shopper.

But oh, how wrong my dear friends were. And oh, how I’ve become the smug one these days. Because while Philly shopping is far from perfect, it’s much sexier and richer than I could’ve imagined, and much more fashion-forward than you Philly cynics give it credit for. And as with Philly’s dining and real estate scenes before it, Philly’s retail scene is — at least if you listen to the tough-love recommendations of this happily transplanted New Yorker — on the verge of something big.

The Good and Bad
Starting with my first foray into Old City, it didn’t take me long to recognize what’s absolutely right about retail here. From the first dress I tried on inside Sugarcube’s dressing room to the locally made earrings I bought at Vagabond to the oversized leather handbags I coveted at Third Street Habit, Philly shopping had me hooked. Here were boutiques stocking labels worthy of Barneys in N.Y. and Fred Segal in L.A., but run by young, independent small-business owners — mostly women — whose staffs knew their lines up and down and were happy to help me find the right fit. Shopping here felt instantly like everything that had been right about New York — without the attitude, the hassle, the anxiety.

“Uptown” near Rittenhouse Square, I may not have felt as embraced, but I was just as enamored of the collections at Joan Shepp, Adresse, Knit Wit. I made my way above Walnut to Petulia’s Folly, Plage Tahiti, Leehe Fai, Kimberly Boutique. I soon found comfort in the familiarity of King of Prussia, with a Neiman Marcus like the one I’d worked at one college summer, and its sleek, Fifth Ave-worthy neighbors like Hermès and Vuitton. A few weeks later, I made my way to Saks, with its ample Prada and Chanel and Miu Miu. And parking spaces.