On the morning of my 20th birthday I strolled down Central Park South in the bright September breeze and set out on what would eventually become one of my longest running birthday traditions, one which finally ended this year: visiting the Barneys flagship store on 60th and Madison. After almost 100 years in business and almost 30 years sitting at the top of Madison Avenue in a stately pumice-colored cube looking over all the boutiques of the Upper East Side, almost like a gatekeeper or master of ceremony, Barneys will be closing its doors this year. The most illustrious department store in America can’t pay its rent.
For nearly a century it was the premier haberdashery and, later, all-around department store of the city. Barneys stocked suits and ties from obscure Italian brands, Kanye’s latest lines, scarves of madder silk woven in the antique fashion, jewels that would make Adam Sandler’s black opal look like sea glass, clothes by Japanese designers having their first stateside shows, and most importantly, some other quality of poshness that managed to tone down even the loudest Louis Vuitton patterns when seen from within Barneys. Imagining Madison Avenue without Barneys is almost like trying to think of the Champs-Élysées without the Arc de Triomphe. And to shop there said something about you—not just that you had money, but that you also had good taste.
Because I didn’t grow up on the Upper East Side, the first time I ever heard of Barneys was when my grandfather told me the legend of how just days after moving penniless to America he and my father managed to haggle with a shopkeeper in order to get a good deal on a shearling coat. The next time I encountered Barneys was when my need for a bar mitzvah suit fortuitously coincided with the biannual Barneys Warehouse Sale—a total free-for-all,end-of-season event held in the dimly lit basement of a warehouse in Chelsea, promising fiscally irresponsible price cuts on items that once sat on the shelves at Barneys.
Lines would snake around the corner, and just moments after relinquishing their bags to the coatcheck, men would frantically strip down to their underwear without hesitation, without need for changing rooms or sometimes even mirrors, hoping against hope that somehow the last-season Zegna suit they managed to find on a rack, and which Barneys had discounted to the tune of 80%, might fit them. Rows of Italian suits and English brogues lined the walls, greatcoats of thick tweeds piled atop fine wool trousers and stacked somewhere between denim so fat you could barely cut it with a knife. Barneys would send flyers out in the mail weeks ahead of time. It was an event that in retrospect predicted the chaos and crowd-drawing abilities of sample sale culture today. It was a place where an ordinary person could spend a few hours, and for relatively little money, walk out knowing that they’d spend the next year decked out in the finest Barneys threads. This was Barneys’ greatest appeal. The complete pandemonium that was the warehouse sale can be explained by this fact alone, that it wasn’t simply the prospect of navy suits that drew thousands of people to a basement and forced them to strip down in front of countless strangers. There was always something else at play. In reality, the warehouse sale was everyone’s way of owning a part of Barneys.
It was in this gray-walled vortex that I first began to figure out my own style, a place where my uncle used to ask me to hold onto his bag of loot while he went off in search of yet another blazer, where one year my father managed to find real wool fleece jackets, which every male in my family wore for the next several seasons. One September I visited the warehouse sale on my own and stumbled across a Barena suit. Can I really try it on? Here? In front of all these people? I asked myself, nervously, before realizing that I had been practicing for this moment my entire life and succumbing to the chaos of the Barneys sale and stripping down to try it on. It didn’t fit.
Year after year I searched those long, dark corridors of fabric and leather and flimsy metal racks, yes, for clothing, but in reality, more for the parts of myself yearning to be discovered. Having just graduated from Merrell loafers and ill-fitting jeans, these warehouse sales were the first time I ever really asked myself what I wanted to look like—who I wanted to be.
When I finally made it to the flagship on Madison I marveled at the serenity of the place, jackets resting on thick wooden hangers, not a thread out of place, hardly a breeze, so unlike the warehouse, almost solemn in comparison. Was this the place that all those clothes in those bins and on those wire racks had once belonged? Did all life begin here?
A few years ago they stopped having the warehouse sales and moved the warehouse to an entirely digital platform, available all year round, which in retrospect could have been seen as an early sign of Barneys financial problems. They were trying to monetize their old wares, not simply offload them at ridiculously low prices in order to make room for next season’s stock.
At Barneys I never felt out of place. There were no sneers from salespeople who after years of experience know right away who is or isn’t a sale. For a short while I felt like I belonged, much as Disneyland makes its guests feel at home, as if they belong there always, despite the fact that they’ll have to return to their real lives in just a few hours. Even their online site offered free shipping on everything—the store’s way of making shoppers feel, even from afar, the embrace of Barneys.
In all my birthday visits I never bought anything from Barneys. Often I toyed with the idea ahead of time, that I might permit myself one comically small thing that I might be able to afford—a tube of some lotion I didn’t need, or a pair of English socks so fine that my shoes would wear a hole in them after a week, but ultimately I never went through with it. It wasn’t the actual merchandise that drew me again and again, year after year, to 60th and Madison, but the possibility of reliving the journey of self-discovery that started at age 14 in the grotto that was the warehouse. Often I watched other people buy things, but what I wanted from Barneys was to better understand who I would have been, what my tastes were, my real inclinations, if those parts of me did not know the constraints of money or time, but were instead told to run free. Once, in high school, a guidance counselor put before me the infamous platitude and asked what I would do with my time if I had all the money in the world, hoping my answer might gesture at a possible career path. But Barneys had the ability to ask me the far more difficult and infinitely more complex question of who, with all the money in the world, I might be. The act of scanning the aisles without so much as trying stuff on was the first time I ever really considered what it was that I liked. This impulse spilled over into all other parts of my life: food, cities, movies, books.
This, too, was perhaps the root of Barneys’ money troubles. There is maybe no other store in the world where the vast majority of the people who go there aren’t even potential clients. How many people over the years have walked through the revolving doors at Barneys with absolutely zero intention of buying anything, without even so much as pretending to entertain the notion of buying something. The number is incalculable. Barneys was supposed to be a business but its greatest asset wasn’t in the displays with literally a million dollars’ worth of necklaces, or the furs that cost more than the down payments on most apartments. Their greatest asset was an abstraction. By offering its visitors some alternate notion of self it bought a little more time than other department stores, but was also fated to an eventual grave because such a thing is fundamentally intangible, something I could get only by buying nothing, or, at most, by having lunch there—why else would anyone ever eat at Barneys? You certainly didn’t ever go for the food. In a world of Donald Trump ties and three-packs of Calvin Klein undershirts sold in the skeletons of the city’s once-great department stores, Barneys retained its glamour, and even reinvested the dividends of it, growing ritzier and more fashionable by the year. And on slow winter nights Barneys felt like an old Parisian department store. It belonged to another world.
Visiting Barneys was always my way of recalibrating, of grounding myself. A totem that happened to be eight stories tall. I was its Holly Golightly. Barneys soothed my mean reds. When the world was at its worst—or when I was at my worst—Barneys was always there for me, watching the sun set across Central Park, patiently waiting for me to arrive and to remind me of who I really was or wanted to be. When I was a reporter at the newsdesk at Time magazine—a job which had been emotionally crushing by design—I would sometimes take an inappropriately long lunch hour and walk from my office at 50th and 6th Avenue all the way to Barneys on 60th and Madison. To anyone else it would seem such a flagrant misuse of company time, such a demonstrably fireable offense, but in reality, I couldn’t have kept going without those little occasional trips to Barneys.
My father and I, at a loss for what to do with ourselves, took the bus down to Barneys on the night that my grandmother died. What else was there for us to do but to start again from zero? And what place but Barneys could offer us that?
After I found out it was closing I resisted going back, trying to convince myself that there wouldn’t be anything left for me to buy, even though that was never the point in the first place, or that it would be too busy, when in reality it was because that wasn’t how I wanted to remember Barneys. But still, my curiosity wore me down, as did the prospect of finding shoes or maybe my grandfather’s old shearling coat at a good price.
Today the store I loved and where I discovered parts of myself is decked out with floor-to-ceiling posters with bright yellow and red letters. STORE CLOSING. EVERYTHING MUST GO. 60% OFF. GOOD BUY THEN GOODBYE! The old fragrance section in the basement, which once seemed to glow in amber light and call you down in the evenings to gaze at the thousands of stunning glass bottles that made the whole room feel like a giant chandelier, is pockmarked and empty, its counters smeared. It has been pillaged. No longer do people rush over and try to help you, but rather, beleaguered sales associates, some who have worked there for decades, hide from closeout shoppers crawling through the building like ants. Whatever serenity existed in Barneys that made it a place ripe for quiet introspection is gone. Instead it has finally become the place it should always have been—a store intended for people to buy things in, not a roadmap for self-actualization. It might be the only time this decade the store actually turns a profit, even though at 60% off you still face the prospect of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on an item. This Barneys is no longer immaculate or loved after. It is more akin to its warehouse sales of yore, bustling and mismanaged, rooms full of feverish eyes, beastly eyes, scanning rows upon rows of poorly displayed luxury goods hoping that this time, somehow, a size 8 shoe will fit a size 9 foot. And who knows, with the magic of Barneys, it may just happen.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.