I usually don’t set foot in stores like Forever 21, Abercrombie, or Bebe, because I’m too embarrassed by the young employees’ uncomfortable reactions. It’s got to be difficult for them to conceal their smug exasperation with cheerful, convincing welcomes. I feel compelled to suggest something like “I’m shopping for a gift for my daughter” or another explanation I’d rather not be required to provide. I know my place: Talbots.
Last year, however, I had to suck it up when I needed an obi sash to coordinate with something black I wanted to wear to the ballet. The nicest one I could find online was sold at Bebe, which, for those of you who don’t know, is the young women’s apparel and accessories retailer whose ad campaigns feature actresses Mischa Barton and Eva Longoria. Now you have the picture.
I drove to the mall and, with feigned nonchalance, strode into the Bebe store and pretended to know exactly where to find the accessories. I began to feel a little queasy when the soft black leather sashes weren’t on display among the other, showier items. Slightly crestfallen, I was forced to approach the very young, very trendy salesclerk and describe the merchandise I was seeking. She understood immediately, because she was unpacking a recent shipment. The newly arrived obi were piled on a display case adjacent to the checkout counter.
My humiliation was not to be so easily and quickly avoided. The clerk was tirelessly professional. She selected one of the sashes, whisked it and me over to a full-length mirror in the middle of the boutique, and proceeded to give me instructions on how to tie it around my waist. Too tight, she warned in an intriguing Central Asian accent (of the sort often used to stereotype dominatrices), and I’d make myself nauseous. I was already feeling flushed.
Only a couple of additional customers were present in the small shop, but that was a couple more than I’d ever wanted to observe me trying on eveningwear—or, in Bebe parlance, club clothes. I smiled politely and thanked the clerk as she untied the sash. “Would you like to look at anything else?” she inquired. In a whisper, I assured her I was ready to make my single purchase. The sooner I could do that and scuttle out of the store the better.
As she took her place behind the cash register, the young woman tilted her chin up and, in her extraordinary accent, issued a carefully rehearsed sales pitch just loudly enough to rivet everyone’s attention. “Are you a ClubBebe card holder?” Of course. I laughed like the L.L. Bean Preferred Customer I am and retorted, “Do I look like a ClubBebe cardholder?” The salesclerk, well-trained and utterly lacking the satire that accompanies old age, didn’t crack a smile or miss a beat before tactfully replying, “We serve all kinds of customers here in our store.” I reached my hand out to her and said sotto voce, “That’s exactly the right answer. I only meant that I’ll probably never have an occasion to return.”
The earnest young woman said something more to encourage my patronage, and then she took down the information required to make me an official card-carrying club member. Now, I have a ClubBebe ID, which I’ve carried around for a year with my grocery, pharmacy, bakery, and Eddie Bauer customer cards—the ones that actually see some use. The piece of plastic embellished with a photo of a Brazilian supermodel will elicit snickers from whoever retrieves my personal effects after I’m run over by a bus. I don’t bother to read the monthly email advertisements sent from Bebe to its select club members, but neither have I unsubscribed. Every time the spam arrives, it makes me smile.