Photo: Alys Tomlinson / Shutterstock
Hopefully ABC Carpet & Home, who filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week at the age of 124, can get through the process without ceasing to be herself. Historically, this has been difficult for retailers who depend on being unique, over the top, and dependent on the eccentric energy of a founder or operator. Barneys, after escaping the clutches of the Pressman family, has remained chic but has lost its overwhelming fabulous side; we felt a corporate hand gently pull the reins, and shopping there became a little less extreme as a result. ABC would seek to work with partners to avoid a similar end, and God is with them. In two years, New York has lost Barneys, Century 21, Lord & Taylor. The eternal Brooks Brothers store on Madison Avenue is empty, grim, after the company went bankrupt. The Strand Bookstore managed to cross, barely. This would sound like a particularly loud thud.
The big distinction of ABC Carpet & Home, I’ve always thought, has been that it’s such a great store for looking at. I’m not talking about browsing – although that’s certainly good for that – or people-watching, although it was a place where you could regularly see amazing couples of great wealth, and sometimes a real mannequin. Rather, it’s the degree to which looking down there was a created activity, built like an impasto on a canvas, enveloping you all the way, especially downstairs. It trains your eye, perhaps without your mind even knowing it was happening. For you (okay, for me), a person raised in an environment where the most tasteful consumer goods tended towards modernism and elegance, one visit to ABC was one retina after another. My wife once pointed out that you can barely know if there is a place to pay for anything. The first time I walked in I was intimidated: this place seemed like the product of a madman. I remember thinking, What is all that?
Well, what all of this is – or was, if the worst were to happen – is the performance of a large retail business. The store’s signature is its selection of luxury goods from all corners of the world, and it’s laid out in so many layers upon layers that your overwhelmed gaze never quite knows where to fall. Kilims cover altars from Thailand alongside opalescent glass and incense burners and mid-century Czech light fixtures and tables taken from old French farmhouses and so on. This is the kind of furniture store where you wouldn’t be surprised to come across a gong.
The implicit message of the place is that the Weinrib–Cole The family (ABC’s multigenerational owner-operators) and their staff have traveled the world, brought home this maximalist set and presented it as a theme park for your eyes, your wallet, and your home. Literally, no detail is too small: I remember at one point they had hundreds of tiny, low wattage bulbs hanging from the (I guess) 22 foot ceiling on extra thin 18 twisted cords. feet, so that each intimately illuminated a screen at the level of your breastbone. You felt some pure joy in this presentation, expressed by the designers of the space – my longtime colleague Linda Hall did a magnificent job. put them on paper in 1995 – and subsequently absorbed by their customers.
It is commonplace to say that ABC is really expensive, and you shop there but rarely buy. In truth, the assortment of absurdly priced coasters and similar scoops is a bit of a mirage, because once you go upstairs to access the slightly more conventional furniture or linens, there is actually a lot of moderately affordable stuff. My own sofa came from there, and it costs about the same as that of a mass retailer like Crate & Barrel. It was next to an armchair that I waited, hidden for literally two years, until it was finally sufficiently demarcated. Both are now two decades old, a little weathered but still not bad. (I wrote this message from the chair, actually.)
This dichotomy, between outrageous luxury and achievable astonishment, was particularly, deeply visible in front of the flagship, in the carpet store, where the carpets piled in the basement really cannot be outdone: the experience out there hits some of the notes of the old Orchard Street bargain houses, with quite a high taste. You are, or were, more likely after a trip to find yourself with a Turkish wool and silk blend on your floor than with a bunch of Dupont Antron II (although you can order the latter there as well).
The thing with the looking at The experience, even more than physical browsing, is that it doesn’t translate into online shopping very much. The store has an e-commerce site, but it shows a limited selection and doesn’t convey any of the over-the-top quality of the retail floors. And online, we shop by keywords and categories, looking for things we already want rather than being taken by surprise. You’ll never meet a gong unless you go get one. It is possible that we were largely reconditioned to replace What is all that? with the much simpler question Where can I find this? But I hope I’m wrong, and whoever scoops up the remaining assets from ABC doesn’t hollow out and slam their name on a line of $ 49 olefin mats sold on Overstock.com. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this remains a place that you can’t stop looking at.