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THE HUNDRED-DOLLAR LIMIT
DENATIONALISATION OF FOREIGN GOODS
THE AMERICAN WOMAN RAISES PRICES
INITIATING EUROPE TO "SHOPPING" VERSUS "BUYING"
ENGLISH AND FRENCH CLERKS
POLICY OF SOME LONDON SHOPS
HARRIS TWEEDS AND IRISH HOMESPUNS
LACES AND LINENS OF THE EMERALD ISLE
SCOTTISH PLAIDS FOR ANY CLAN
PARIS A CITY OF SMALL SHOPS
WHERE THE FRENCHWOMAN SCORES
WOMAN SHOPKEEPERS OF PARIS
DEPARTMENT STORES OF PARIS
STAFF OF A GREAT PARIS DEPARTMENT STORE
DIAMONDS OF AMSTERDAM AND THE RUE DE LA PAIX
BERLIN'S PALATIAL DEPARTMENT STORES
THE EUROPEAN SHOPPING TOUR
THE BRITISH ISLES
A shopping tour of Europe to-day might be defined as a stroll through that portion of New York City which lies between Twenty-third and Forty-second Streets, where most of the luxuries, and not a little of the junk of foreign manufacturers is to be found within a radius of one square mile.
There is no doubt but that the enterprise of the American importer, combined with the stringent application of the hundred-dollar clause, has dampened the craze of the American woman for shopping around Europe. At last even the most unmethodical and unbusiness-like woman has been broken in to filling out the customs declaration with a fairly correct statement of her purchases abroad, though they are apt to lose their charm and ofttimes their value under the cold, impartial scrutiny of the government appraiser, for she often wonders, when she repacks her trunks on a draughty New York steamship pier, if the pleasure of possession was worth the sum of the duty paid.
As a preface to a shopping chapter, it may not be amiss to reiterate the definition of the hundred dollar limit. It must be composed of wearing apparel, or articles for personal use, and may not include household furnishings or anything not related to the immediate wardrobe and toilet of the individual who accompanies them. Having got this fact firmly grounded in one's mind it only remains to remember that the average duties levied are about thirty per cent, while perhaps certain articles that most attract the woman shopper pay only fifty per cent. This represents the highest handicap duty. That on art is no approach compared to that levied on feminine adornments, such as feathers, laces and jewelry. As for smuggling by the amateur, it is as dead as a prehistoric mastadon encased in an arctic ice drift. From a professional point of view it is quite another matter.
The charm of discovering new fields in which to shop, of bargaining in the rudiments of a foreign language, can never be eradicated by any law or custom, and will remain one of the pleasant anticipations of that episode in the life of so many American women which is becoming almost a yearly necessity – a trip abroad.
But this picking out of bargains is a shattered dream so far as the tourist's rush of two or three months about Europe is concerned. It is for just her class that the European shopkeeper is catering, knowing that she has not the time, nor opportunity, for discriminating in values. He arranges specious "bargains" and fixes prices on a scale that leaves him a wide margin from which to drop and still make a fat profit.
Everywhere the manufacturers and merchants alike are making their output conform to the taste and demand of the best class of buyers – the American women. The result is that the distinctly foreign article is looking less like a novelty and more reminiscent of what she sees at home. Thus arises a vague discontent on the part of the shopper who does not realise that she is spoiling the genuineness of the European shopping ground, and incidentally her own pleasure, in insisting upon American standards – which the shopkeeper takes to mean American prices as well. This dazzle of the dollars is blinding him not a little in his summing up of the foreign woman. Souvenir buying, too, is often carried on injudiciously. A riff-raff of plunder collected from all corners of Europe, none of it in its place of origin, is apt to lose considerably in importance and value when these reconsidered trifles are opened up at home. It may be permissible enough to buy a Swiss watch in Geneva – if one really wants one – but coral and tortoise shell, remember, are not specialties of Paris any more than they are of Vienna, nor are all so-called Swiss hand-embroideries the real thing.
Shopping is quite a personal affair, and small courtesies, by which doing business is made easier, are expected. Particularly is this so if one falls in with the Continental habit of bowing on entering or leaving the small shop, doubly so in the Latin countries. It is often the lack of these little observations of courtesy that so handicap the stranger in dealing with the "natives" of a foreign land.
The shopkeeper abroad has been forced to recognise the distinction that the American woman makes between "shopping" and "buying." It went hardly against his prejudices and traditions to spread out a counter full of goods without making a sale, and he fought against the innovation, but too much money was involved, and to the credit of the American woman belongs the victory of being able to walk about the big department stores of Paris and Berlin, without being shadowed by an insistent clerk, with the same freedom as at Macy's, Wanamaker's or Marshall Field's.
This is not the case in England. The mind of the English clerk is still set in motion by old-fashioned clock work. He is obliging enough in pulling down goods for inspection, and "thanks you" every time you ask him a question or answers one himself, but he does not thank you if you don't buy; and when you understand the system you don't wonder at his insistence, even forgive it. Each time a customer gets away without his making a sale he is reprimanded by the "shop-walker," who puts a black mark against his name. Let him get too many of the damning marks and he loses his job, and losing a job in England often means not getting another. This is still the policy in many London shops.
The demeanour of the French shop clerk is almost a relief by contrast. He demands that you state explicitly just what you want before he will take down one thing, nor does he assume the responsibility of clarifying the customer's mind by suggestions. It may be good training for the shopper, but makes for difficulties, especially as the habit of featuring new goods where they can be seen does not always hold.
The small shopkeeper throughout Europe still resents, however, the nosing around of the inquiring American woman with no intention of buying. The polite manner soon freezes up and the innocent offender is followed by uncomplimentary mutterings and impertinent tosses of the head when she leaves.
On a par with this is the custom of having the woman clerks "live in," a relic of the old apprentice system when the articled clerk lived under his master's roof as one of the family, but it assumes a different aspect when it comes to housing in the attic dormitory of a great shop. This is a dreary existence for one who has toiled all day to the ultimate benefit of the masters, who make a profit in addition on meagre rooms and meals. The policy that governs sales makes for another exasperating habit of the English clerk, who, when you seek to buy a yard of ribbon, insists that you buy a coal-scuttle as well, and reels glibly off his tongue a list of the entire stock in hope that it may suggest something to your mind. The English rather like this habit of having their minds made up for them; it saves them the trouble of making out a shopping list.
"No lady would think of buying a ready-made dress," the London tailor used to say, with a shocked accent on the lady, but that has changed now. There is a high-class trade in ready-made suits, largely made by the rush of Americans to London at certain seasons. Formerly, the Englishwoman would have considered herself on a par with the servant girl (and not so long ago, either) by wearing a ready-made gown, but since it is now being confectioned on such good lines and sold at such high prices it pleases the most fastidious.
If the London tailor is even given the slightest time allowance, however, he will rise to an astonishing rate of speed and turn out a suit "to measure," as they say. It is not always of the fastidious finish demanded by the American, but the price will be a third cheaper than at home and made of a cloth that for a tailor-made cannot be duplicated. Harris tweeds, which were hand woven by the crofter in his "lone shieling in that misty isle," around the peat fire, used to have this same peaty smell for a trademark. Now the manufacturers have been clever enough to imitate the smell along with the cloth. The tweeds and the soft-coloured Irish homespuns from the handlooms of the Emerald Isle, are the two fabrics of which the British isles may well be proud.
In spite of the obsequiousness of the London shopkeeper and seeming desire to accommodate, one will be asked not to come for a fitting between four and five as "our fitter, Mr. Jenkins, will be out for his tea." This is a dead hour for business in England; go through the busiest offices, and desks will be seen littered over with plum cake and teacups; or get into a private office by mistake, and a party of clerks will be gathered cosily around a tea-table. The late hour of closing – seven to eight o'clock – is responsible in a measure for this.
Prices in the best London shops are in guineas, the pound plus a shilling. The coin does not exist, but the extra shilling makes a "gentleman's" price, especially designed and kept alive for the aristocracy and Americans. One advantage for the latter is that it is nearer the value of five dollars than the plebeian pound.
Irish linen, contrary to what is usually the case, can really be bought often to better advantage in its home town, Belfast, than anywhere else, and it's worth while taking what is always an uncomfortable voyage across the Irish Channel if only to lay in one's stock of linen and Irish laces with the assistance of the pleasant Irish salesmen, full of Blarney, even though he is a long ways away from the Blarneystone. It is preferable to shopping for the same thing in London with the cold, mechanical London clerk reeling of "thank yous" as fast as he does the lace.
In this case one can visit the cottages about Dublin, for much of the lace is still made by the cottagers at home, who are always delighted to see any Americans, whom they really regard more as blood relations than their cousins across the Channel. Of course it is amusing to buy some lace as a souvenir from a cottager, but, like everything else, it is well to deal with the big establishments. Certain patterns will be made specially for the buyer, and monograms can always be furnished on short notice, and at wonderfully reasonable rates. Of course there are shops in London devoted to the Irish industries that do an enormous business, largely with the Americans, but it is rather curious to the outsider, who still calls the British Isles England, to find how much jealousy there is in England regarding the Irish products. The beautiful Irish silk poplins are kept in stock by all the big London houses because they have to, but they really often require digging out, and persistence, in order to convince the clerk that you will have the real Irish poplin, not any corded silk of doubtful make. You will sometimes even be told that they will be obliged to send to Ireland for it, unless you have been forewarned, and can produce a sample of the very thing you want that had come from this very shop. No wonder the Irish want Home Rule!
Only sentiment can beautify the Scotch plaid, but one can always find a plaid to suit's one's clan, and a clan to suit one's taste, if they only look for it across the border. Your Scotch friend will tell you that nobody but Americans shop on Princes Street; the canny Scot knows where to find prices less elevated. If you want a plaid, – and there is nothing better for the steamer rug after all, – it is best to deal directly with the manufacturer, who gets out an excellent catalogue showing the plaids of all the clans in colour. It is possible in this way to make a choice and have your purchase sent on to meet you at any point if you do not wish to investigate the matter further yourself.
In spite of its grands magazins, and they are growing grander and more numerous every day, Paris is a city of small shops. The French are personal and distinctive in all their business relations, and this is probably the reason why they still cling to the small shop and the small hotel. The shopkeeper wants to do just enough business and keep at it long enough to be able to retire as a rentier before he arrives at too advanced an age, and live in a tiny suburban villa not too far away from Paris. Nothing could be more distasteful to him than to be obliged to increase his business at the expense of more trouble and work.
The French shopper wants to deal where things are not so rushed but that she can talk confidentially over her prospective purchases, take her time and thus be able to feel that she has done a little successful bargaining.
Ask the Frenchwoman about the "Bon Marché" and the other big Paris shops that the American tourists so dearly love, under the impression that they are getting things "oh, so cheap!" and she will say how dear they are, because she has some little shop around the corner at which she can get real bargains. But the stranger cannot get the same prices that she does. That is why the big Paris department stores – with their fixed prices – are much safer and more satisfactory shopping ground for the stranger. Prices in the small shop, not only of Paris but of all Europe, are as variable as the barometer, on which the appearance of the American buyer acts like an area of high pressure.
The small shop that specialises is the feature of Paris shopping. One goes to a trunk shop to buy a trunk, a corset shop for corsets, a glove place for gloves or a shop that deals entirely in lingerie, where any special embroidery will be done the customer may desire.
These are the places where real bargains can be got, but they are found only on the side streets, in unpretentious courts, sometimes up a flight of stairs – not on the grand boulevards. "Ma chérie, you are crazy to pay boulevard prices," says your French friend; "the same thing costs double there." But a knowledge of French and the Frenchwoman is necessary to shop to advantage in the small shop all the same.
It is the Frenchwoman who is the small Paris shopkeeper. What genius the nation has for selling, which is not much (the French are not by instinct commercial), centres in the women. The Parisian shopkeeper, neatly dressed, not a hair of her coiffure out of place, sits behind the counter, knitting lace or doing fancy work. Beside her, on the counter as likely, sleeps a fluffy cat – a peaceful picture. Madame is polite, but not too urbane; she has none of the servility of the small British shopkeeper. A calculating gleam comes into her eyes at one's first words of French – no matter how good. There will probably be the sign, "English spoken," outside, but this means nothing very often but the ability to say "good-morning" and" good-bye," and is only put on as a bait. Madame prefers that her customer should be hampered by language rather than herself. It is not to the real advantage of the European shopkeeper to know how to speak English, though they often understand a good deal, which is well for customers to remember when discussing pros and cons among themselves. In dealing with madame one must have a fairly good knowledge of values to hold up one's end in the encounter of wits.
The most satisfactory of the small shops is that of the modiste, and one that it is almost a necessity for the stranger shopper to patronise, as the millinery departments of the department shops are one of their least satisfactory features. Just a plain milliner may exist anywhere, but the modiste is a product of Paris. She is not merely a craftswoman; she is an artist, with an artist's understanding of colour and of form. A hat in her hands is not a thing of measurements and calculation, but an inspiration, born of the brains that rest in her fingers' ends.
Hers is the most typical of those "delightful little shops" to be found at their best not too far away from the Rue Royale. Quite often she has gone into the business as a "career" impelled, as is the artist, by the call of genius. Sometimes she may come of an aristocratic family, who hides her origin under the patronymic of "Alexandrine", or "Pauline," or "Victorine," or some one of those names that only suggests the Parisian modiste.
Often enough in the least commercial neighbourhoods the more modest shops are up two or three flights of stairs, and no elevators either. But often as good results come out of these upper rooms with no show windows to advertise as in the bigger establishment on the rez-de-chaussée with the plate-glass windows, though it is true that what is to be seen in the windows is no criterion of what may come out of a French shop.
To use a British commercial expression, the French do not "put their goods in the front window." No French shop, be it great or small, will ever show its latest modes or most exclusive models in the window; not even for the sake of attracting custom will the French modiste set out her choicest ideas where they may be copied. Americans often criticise the styles that they see in their survey of shop windows, and are heard to declare that they had seen the newest thing before they left home, but they ignore the fact that madame, who presides over the destinies of the shop, must have full confidence that you are really a customer before she will bring out her best.
She will never learn the open-minded American policy of baiting her shop windows with her best. In England it is exactly the contrary; the window often contains the shop's whole stock, and one who is curious may enter and find no greater variety inside. In general, it is this lack of a large stock which is a puzzling phase of the shopping question abroad for the American.
The Parisian shopkeeper, when she is sure of her customer, when she finds that she is not just pricing things, can be the most charming of sales persons. She has the art of enveloping her customer with a personal interest that gives such a charm to the little individual shops of Paris. No one can combine tact, winning ways and business method so well as the vraie Parisienne – when she wishes.
If you want to find an American in Paris look for her, and for him too, in the "Bon Marché," for the American man confesses to the usefulness of this universal provider. To this internationally known establishment is due the credit of having introduced the department store and the fixed price into European commerce, thus simplifying shopping abroad for the English-speaking person. Modelling after came "The Grand Magazin du Louvre," that draws the American as much as the palace itself; the "Prin-temps," the "Trois Quartiers," and the "Galleries Lafayette" came after, and in all of them the cheerful American voice can be heard almost as much as the French itself.
The policy of the grand magazin towards its foreign clientèle is a liberal one. Goods are sent on approval in any quantity, and left for a decision for so remarkable a length of time that it astonishes the buyer from overseas, who is also surprised that the boy who brings them around wants a tip for having done so.
One can call for an English-speaking clerk, and make all purchases under his guidance. "There are nearly seventy of us who speak English," he will tell you at the "Bon Marche," "and perhaps a hundred and fifty who understand it to some extent." For this reason alone one will find it easy enough to shop here without any knowledge of the Gallic tongue. Everything is plainly tagged with the price, but the clerk-guide will save time. The geography of these shops is not always the same, as they have a confusing way of shifting the position of goods. To any one accustomed to the broad spaces and systematic arrangements of the American store, these big Paris magazines are crowded and uncomfortable to shop in. Confusion seems to reign on all sides. One has to follow the clerk with one's purchase up to the caisse, pay for it there and wait until it is wrapped up, which means, sometimes, standing in line, and spending more time than was spent on the actual buying. Two or three dozen excited women gathered about a desk, trying to identify packages and make change, has its parallel only in a bargain sale at home.
The "Bon Marché" has the repute of being what its name advertises – the best bargains and cheapest prices for the quality. The "Louvre" is more expensive and perhaps carries a better grade of stock, but has not the variety of the "Bon Marché" The "Galleries Lafayette" have a reputation for lingerie, white goods and silks, while the "Printemps" is on much the same order as the "Bon Marché," with the "Samarataine" a trifle lower down the scale.
There is a class of women making a business of hanging around these shops and coming to the assistance of the stranger when mired in the intricacies of a foreign language. Their motives are usually of a frankly obvious commercial aspect, and one wonders that the custom is allowed to exist. The American's reputation for free-spending has developed all kinds of Parisian parasites.
The professional shopper is sometimes useful on occasions, particularly in Paris, but the pleasure of shopping, as in many other things, often lies as much in what one discovers for themselves as in the achievement of possession. One class of Paris professionals can be made very useful. Almost any of the large shops will send a professional packer to fill one's trunk, with the disorder which usually accompanies a more or less prolonged hotel stay. Prices for this service are reasonable enough, but the genuine traveller should learn the art for herself.
A curious feature of the foreign shops is the sidewalk display of their cheaper classes of goods, where sales are made by employees, who stand for ten or twelve hours a day in all weathers at these sidewalk counters. They are among the minor employees, and get not over forty or fifty francs a month. As they rise to the important inside departments their ardour and aptitude is spurred on by a commission of one to three per cent, in addition to a salary of fifty or sixty francs, which brings their wages up to a hundred and fifty or two hundred francs a month, besides which they are lodged and fed if they have no home in the city. All this varies somewhat in the different establishments, but a capable sales persons should receive about fifty dollars a month.
Employees can be sent away on twenty-four hours' notice, and there is a system of fines that are likely to eat into profits. There is a fine for sitting down or attempting to, though there is nothing but the edge of a drawer that could be utilised (in England seats in the shops have been made compulsory), a fine for not putting back goods on the shelves promptly and for talking, except on business. It is a hard schedule for a day that begins at eight and ends at eight, with a half-hour for lunch and another for dinner.
Where the employees "live in," the men and women are entirely separate in their leisure and work; what their morals may be when they take their evenings and Sundays out might be summed up in many cases as "mysterious."
The small shopkeeper closes his shop at midday for an hour or two for the noon meal and a siesta or a game of dominoes with a friend at the café This is what one meets with all over Italy, France and Spain, even where the shops live just on the business of the tourist. At most some one can be roused from a family dinner in the back to come to wait on an exigent customer, but usually the souvenir must go unbought until signor, señior or monsieur gets back on the job again.
HOLLAND AND BELGIUM
Every coachman and taxicab driver is in league to see that you don't forget your lace when you come to Brussels. No matter in which direction you drive, whether to a restaurant or picture gallery, you invariably find yourself brought up before one of the many shops, each one of which claims to be the oldest establishment devoted to the manufacture of the famous Rose Point. Indeed, they all seem to carry an equally good stock, and prices are seemingly reasonable. It has been said that the only two real bargains in Europe to-day are jewels and lace, so much has the average European shopkeeper raised his prices to meet American standards.
All of Brussels seems to have lace fever, your hotel porter, your boarding-house keeper, all have a favoured house where they declare you can get the best bargain in laces. It is very interesting to visit one of the manufactories, for the lace which was once made altogether in homes is now manufactured on businesslike and commercial lines, and in the process, as usually happens, artistic value has been sacrificed to a large output. It is not then astonishing that there is so much cheap Brussels lace in the shops of Brussels.
There is the Mechlin lace, too, which can be bought in Brussels quite as well as in Mechlin or Malines, but all these little Flemish cities are worth' a visit on their own account, whether you are hunting bargains or not.
The linen of Ghent, too, is said to rival that of Dublin, though the prices are slightly higher, but the old bleaching grounds still around these old Flemish cities are evidence enough that the bleaching is done on the correct lines and not by artificial means.
No one ever got through Belgium yet without a desire to possess a supply of the old copper and brass utensils still in common use. Enthusiastic art students are conscienceless enough to carry off their water jars in their trunks when they leave the delightful little village where they have spent the summer sketching, but as most of these charmingly battered brass jugs can be bought from their owners for something less than a dollar one could afford to be moral.
Amsterdam is the centre of the diamond industry, but for the shopper tourist more of these stones are offered in the Rue de la Paix than in this quaint old Dutch capital. There is nothing that makes such a stir in the business circles of Amsterdam as a big sale of diamonds, and if one does venture on buying a fifty-thousand-dollar necklace of these precious stones, it is well to understand that it is like sending a wireless around the world. One's home government, and dealers alike, it is hinted, keep wonderfully correct tabs on any transaction of magnitude in Europe where jewels are involved.
Silver is another specialty of Amsterdam. It used to be old Dutch silver, but it is rather difficult to get the genuine article now, even at any price. However, such excellent and ingenious replicas of the old Dutch spoons, ornamented with wind-mills whose sails turned round, and plump cows and quaint Dutch figures are offered, that they are quite as well worth buying as were the originals, and the prices will be quite stiff enough too.
One shops in Switzerland for embroideries, for knit underwear, for watches and for furs – certainly a catholic assortment.
Saint Gall is the centre for the embroidery trade, done so cleverly by ingenious machines that it might pass for handwork; it is quite possible that much of it is bought by the tourist under this delusion, but this is their own mistake. Formerly most of it was done in the homes, like so much of the product of the peasant industries of Europe, but it is concentrating in central factories that, with constantly improving machines and the big output, are killing off the hand embroideries. So much is this so that only in Apenzall is any great volume of real hand embroideries to be found.
The little girl embroideresses, who sit outside of the big embroidery shops of Lucerne, are survivals in a way, and are mostly from this canton. Their tight braids are held with the silver comb of the Apenzall, and they, like the little waitresses, wear the peasant costume, and bend above their embroidery frame, over the eye-destroying work, at the hours that the women turn out from the Luzernerhof and the Hotel National for the excitement of strolling through the tasteful and tempting lace and embroidery shops. They do also the initial work so much in demand on purchases, and the delicate ornamentation of the handkerchiefs and small articles.
In the lavishly embroidered underwear the quality of the material is not infrequently sacrificed to an elaborate decorative effect; this is true of the cheaper grades at least.
It is an open question as to how much more profitable it is to load down trunks with knitted underwear, under the impression of getting bargains, which they certainly are not after the duty is paid, than buying the same thing at home. And does one come abroad for such prosaic goods?
Far better the watch of Geneva, which in price holds its own against much equally good competition at home and abroad. The watches are, to a large extent, still made in the homes of the workers by piece work, and from Swiss workshops came the invention of the thin, non-bulky watch, dearly beloved of the woman, some of them not much thicker than a fifty-cent piece.
As for furs it is possible that one might catch up on expenditures here, for the dressing of furs, if not the growing of them, very nearly reaches perfection in Geneva.
Perhaps one buys more milk chocolate than anything else in what is usually a hurried rush across the Alps. There are many brands of this, almost as thin as the watches, but it doesn't make much difference which mark one prefers, for most of them are in a trust.
Wood-carvings are supposed to be a low-priced specialty of Switzerland, but they are quite as low-priced and equally attractive at Saint Claude, in the French Jura, and in any one of a half-dozen Black Forest villages.
In shopping in Germany one is more apt to get the real thing than in many Continental countries. There is a penalty if the shopkeeper advertises a thing other than as it is; if it is part silk and cotton mixed he cannot sell it as all silk, nor can he advertise in the grandiose fashion of our own land and others, to the effect that a certain article is the best in the world, that there is none so good and like statements of a misleading nature.
Germany is growing to be the most progressive country in Europe, and is not behind in its shops. One of the most complete department stores in all of Europe is in Berlin in the Passage Kaufhaus. It is one of a chain of great department stores, and is an exposition in itself, decorated in the ornate German taste, after the most modern development of the art-nouveau. The attractions of our department stores pale beside the glitter, electrically lighted fountains and gorgeous marbles that suggest, truth to tell, a beer-hall quite as much as a place to shop.
German department stores and her beer-halls rival each other in magnificence. Both are "done up" in the gorgeous ornate modern style of German art, florid, overpowering, loaded down with ornament, heavy and massive, like the Germans themselves. No matter how the most modern of art be applied to decoration the influence of the mediaeval German art influences it still. German goods and German taste do not make a strong appeal to the American taste; the Germans have not a happy sense of colour; they are peculiarly tasteless in their colour combinations. Their workmanship is of the best, however, that is, in the expensive grade of goods.
Austrian novelties attract the American perhaps more than any at the present time. From both Germany and Austria come ornamental leather work, coloured and stamped leathers, small articles for personal use.
The coloured, stamped designs, quaint figures and landscapes on tablecloths, on children's aprons, and the coloured table linen in blue, white and red designs is very popular among the Teutons; indeed it is hard apparently for the Germans to get away from staring colours, but heavens, how inartistically it is used!
Florence is the shopping centre of Italy; it certainly gives a fillip to the ordinary procedure of buying things to make purchases in shops that have been in business, if not from Dante's day, at least back in the mists of a couple of hundred years, which fact is not a small asset with some of the shops of Italy. Of course one must bargain in Italy, and any notable bargain price simply means that you are getting somewhere within sight of the original price at which the article was intended to be sold.
The Italian shopkeeper is ingenious and appeals to the bargain instinct latent in the inveterate shopper by giving a commission besides on purchases to those who can bring trade to his shop. There are women to whom the treasures of the Uffizzi and the Pitti Galleries are as nothing compared with getting a lire or two thrown off of intrinsically valueless bits of bric-a-brac, which in the end they have to give away as presents to get rid of.
Italy is a little too much like a big bric-à-brac shop. The lace and embroidery industries that are being encouraged in many places, such as Sienna and in Sicily, are more worthy of patronage, and if nice, white, sugar-loaf marble statues are required it is worth while to turn out of the modern Pilgrim's Way long enough to visit the quarries of Carrara, near Massa, where they originate.
If Italy has one specialty it is hats – the straw hats of Tuscany that can be bought at any price in the markets of Italy, even for a few cents. Every woman and child plaits straw for these hats. One sees them in town and country alike mechanically manipulating a handful of straw as the peasant woman of France eternally clicks her knitting needles, all this for a few cents a day. Felt hats, too, come from Italy, and there is foundation for the rumour that some of the best American felt hats with Broadway trademarks come into being by way of Italy.
The American tourist is trusted abroad in all money dealings with a confidence that is astonishing and almost touching, making them blush for their home business methods. The ease with which credit is thrust upon them speaks well for the way in which Americans abroad have met their end of touring obligations. Of course the fact that the foreigner sees Americans through a golden nimbus has something to do with this, but certain it is that he treats them with a liberality that he does not display towards his own people. The shopkeeper will put himself to no end of trouble for his customers from over the sea, and the big Paris shop will send hundreds of dollars of goods to your hotel without any guarantee but your expressed desire to make a selection.
One can have C.O.D. packages follow them all over Europe, and such have been known to turn up six days out at sea on the return voyage. A piece of antique jewelry catches your fancy in Florence, but as you will not be able to tell the exact state of your finances until you get to Rome you forego even the pleasure of thinking that you would like to own it. That is nothing; the obliging shopkeeper offers to send a clerk down to Rome with the jewel, delivering it to you there against payment. Somehow or other you get away from the shop, but somehow or other you have also impressed your name and address upon the proprietor.
You forget Florence in your eternal round of the Eternal City, and go on to Naples in the same forgetful mood, and though he may not have caught up with you as yet, the clerk and the jewel are on your trail. On the gang-plank of the homeward bound steamer he smilingly confronts you – you who have only an exhausted letter of credit left – with the package. It is easy to see what profit the transaction must represent. Just imagine a situation wherein a New York shopkeeper chased a prospective customer as far as a Boston steamship pier, on no greater encouragement than a mere glance of approbation.
In a diligence of the Swiss Federal Post, with its six horses creeping laboriously up the Furka Pass, sat an elderly woman from a western prairie town. Her knotted hands had known the broom and washtub in days not so very long ago, but seriously, intelligently and conscientiously, she was doing her European stint in the wake of a progressive daughter.
They had only a few scant days in which to reel off the Rhine, after Switzerland, and get to their steamer, but throughout that Alpine mountain climb the burden of the old lady's talk was that Paris must be revisited for at least two days; "for you know, my dear," this to the reluctant daughter, "before we go back I must get me that black cashmere dress."
After all, is this not what shopping abroad means – going back home with that dress bought in Paris, and for whose sake we are willing to defy even the hundred-dollar limit.