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Helluva Impulse Buy

Beneath the giant steel-lattice frame and glass roof of the Javits Center on a recent Sunday afternoon, Sarita Feldchtein peddles her wares at New York’s International Gift Fair. “Tchotchkes, plain and simple,” the stern-faced vendor says, uttering the Yiddish word with uncommon gusto. She juts out her chin and hands me the gaudiest business card I’ve ever seen—a glossy silver number complete with hologram logo. Standing in front of a stall full of chintzy Big Apple souvenirs, she says her biggest clients are airport gift shops. This year’s hottest gift item: merchandise adorned with graffiti-style lettering.

“It’s none of the nasty stuff, so it’s okay,” says the middle-aged Feldchtein when I ask her about the graffiti, once the scourge of landlords across the city. Then she admits, “We had a hard time convincing the I NY licensor to let our graffiti guy do their logo, but they eventually came around.”

I had just come around to Feldchtein’s booth, one of 2,800 that dotted nearly six acres of the convention center’s floor. Resembling a more pedestrian version of London’s famous 1851 Crystal Palace, Javits boasts an airy 814,000-square-foot space that stretches from 34th Street four city blocks north on Manhattan’s far West Side. That may sound like a lot, but for New York tourism officials the only number that matters is 18: the Javits Center’s rank among expos across the country. 

In the tussle over West Side redevelopment, it seems many have forgotten that New York City already has a top-notch convention center. Stadium supporters contend that the New York Sports & Convention Center, as the proposed development is officially known, would attract additional business that the Javits Center isn’t equipped to handle. Apparently, 18th is not good enough for zealous city development advocates. Yet in their rush to build, they ignore the Javits Center’s long-planned expansion, approved late last year, to add an extra 340,000 square feet of exhibition and meeting space—and talk only of a shiny new stadium next door.

But according to the leggy blonde jawing my ear off in the cozy confines of a convention booth just across from Feldchtein, the Javits Center’s current capacity is seldom reached. “There’s actually a waiting list to get into this show, but that’s not the norm,” says Denise Mazza, the chatty owner of WineButler, a California-based boutique company that sells custom bottle sleeves. “They usually have more than enough space,” she continued, before excusing herself to show a local merchant a wine bottle dressed in a hula dancer outfit, complete with swishy grass skirt.

Mazza’s hula dancer was typical of the decidedly atypical trinkets displayed in row after row of vendor stalls at the Gift Fair. Four booths down and two aisles over, I found myself breathing deeply before the aromatic Body Whip kiosk, where tubs of body whip were lined up like Baskin-Robbins’s 31 Flavors. I was advised that tasting the colorful samples was a bad idea and moved on to other nearby stalls, where I observed a busy vendor pushing “Chewish” pet toys, including a little plush lamb with “baa mitzvah” embroidered on its side, and another vendor displaying the requisite mother lode of Elvis merchandise, including red throw pillows stitched with the King’s image. A couple of stalls down from Elvis Central, past the miniature harmonica necklaces and a supplier hawking the surefire bestseller The Art of the Fart, an immodest vendor claimed to manufacture “THE MOST FABULOUS PEPPERMILL IN THE WORLD.”

I couldn’t help but think to myself: Is this why we need the Jets Stadium, to make room for the world’s second-most fabulous peppermill?

The bizarre bazaar had almost become too much to bear when Ray Charles came to my rescue. His soulful crooning had been reduced to a tinny warble by one of three cheaply constructed mahogany listening stations manned by Chick Coate, a silver-haired salesman with a soft-spoken drawl that belied a devastating sales pitch. Sensing my relief at having finally discovered a rather benign product at the Gift Fair, Coate promptly shattered that illusion, describing how his company’s mood music exploited the nostalgic impulses of females over 30 years old. 

“They’re the kind of customer who wouldn’t wander into a record store, but they hear Ray Charles or The Temptations at one of our mobile displays in the drugstore and they’re hooked,” he assured me with a cunning smile. “These CDs are a helluva impulse buy.” 

I picked up a CD with the ill-conceived slapdash title Summer Nights: Breezy Backyard Favorites and thought about the female baby-boomers who might be suckered into acting on their impulses. When I finally exited the bustling convention center, I wondered if the city’s own eager embrace of a new $800 million stadium might lead to a similar case of buyer’s remorse.


Derek L. John


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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