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?

No one knows how to play in the Big Leagues better than Stephen Starr. And the restaurateur who’s largely credited with turning around Old City and Chestnut Street with his Continental restaurants has his own thoughts on shopping in town. He sees Chestnut Street west of Broad as the next retail frontier, and agrees that we need a high-end department store if we want to stay competitive. “It is ridiculous that people living in the fifth-largest city in the U.S. have to drive half an hour to shop in a mall,” he says. Because he’s in New York so often, he says, he primarily shops there. But Philadelphians shouldn’t have to turn to New York.

As I watch the Oscars while writing this, it occurs to me that Philly in 2007 is like Jennifer Hudson after American Idol: It can sit back and stagnate, content with its B-list status and somewhat, well, cheesy, mainstream earlier associations. Or it can strive to make a name for itself around the world. It can take advantage of its progression, its opportunities: With the new Perelman annex for costumes and textiles scheduled to open at the Art Museum later this year, we should aggressively seek out and publicize and attend sexy, sparkly exhibits. Brokers should court manufacturers beyond Urban Outfitters and Mothers Work to our cheaper-than-N.Y.-or-L.A. office spaces and warehouses. We should champion not just the arts and sports, but our student and charity fashion shows. We should shop at chains that give back to Philly through jobs for local workers and philanthropy, and we should fiercely support independent retailers who show ingenuity, creativity, and a distinct fashion voice.

Already we’re seeing our boutiques make an impact at a national level. Elle Decor recently profiled Bruges Home, the newest of the high-end home stores in Old City. Vagabond’s been written up in Lucky. Third Street Habit was featured in Teen Vogue, and thanks to the store’s success, Bartle is planning to open an upscale “big sister shop” this year in the same Rittenhouse neighborhood she couldn’t afford just a few years ago. Our boutiques are giving people something to talk about, and with a boost from upscale anchors, Philly can become not just buzz-worthy, but the kind of national leader and shopping destination it used to be.

Now, if only someone in this town could crank out a decent bagel.