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I’ve never been much for shopping in the really high-class stores. Many years ago I walked into Saks Fifth Avenue—which wasn’t on Fifth Avenue at all, but in the confines of South Coast Plaza here in SoCal—and thought I’d pick up a pretty blouse for a summer party.

I have to say the store was visually attractive, with lots of walking space and tasteful displays of silk scarves and perfumes in oddly-shaped bottles. When I found my way to the clothing section, though, the mannequins had a look of space beings. (Think “E.T.” even though this was long before the movie.) I picked up a gauzy blouse in pretty colors and laid it over my arm to start a fitting-room collection.

Just about then, I caught a glimpse of the discreet price tag: Two hundred eighty-seven dollars! That was more than a month’s rent! It didn’t take more than a second for me to decide that my old t-shirt with the stripes and stars in patriotic colors would be much more appropriate for Fourth of July, anyway. The blouse ended up back on the rack and I ended up back in my real world, well outside the door of Saks. When I think back on it, I realize it’s not just the cost of things in that store that I remember. It’s the overall feeling of “I don’t belong in this place!”

If you know me at all, you recognize that I’m generally a pretty laid-back person. I’ve always said that it’s my heart’s desire to be elegant, to live in an elegant home, to have elegant acquaintances. But I lie. Okay, there it is. I prefer sandals to heels. I like tacos better than Chateaubriand, and I’d rather lounge around in my living room watching old movies instead of venturing out to some art theater. I hate wearing makeup.

I have had some quality things around me in my time, usually because Hubby feels that it’s just not worth buying junk. It’s because of him that we got our one and only new Mercedes, now long gone after many years of service. He’s the one who chooses nice, sturdy KitchenAid appliances instead of the $16.99 your-choice-this-weekend-only kind, so that I actually have a mixer that still mixes when I add one cup too many of oatmeal to the cookie dough. When we bought our first house, he looked past the monthly payment—which brought me out in a cold sweat—and opted for the best place we could afford. It’s a good thing I have him around.

Left to my own devices, I’d probably spend all my time in the 99¢ Only store. It’s not just because you can count on the low price. The fun is in never knowing what will be there when you walk in the door, and in knowing that the price will always, always be 99¢. (Note: This policy has changed in the last couple of years. Too bad.)

When I was first married, there were no 99¢ Only stores around here. What we had was Pic-n-Save, and I freely admit that I’ve spent many a happy hour roaming those aisles hunting for some treasure they might have marked down to approximately zero dollars, which was the neighborhood of my budget in the early days. Like 99¢ Only, you took your chances on what you would find inside those doors. The chain of Pic-n-Save stores would buy huge wholesale lots of name brand items from overstocked distributors and sell them for a fraction of the traditional retail price. Maybe some of the boxes were bent, but who cared? It was a bargain! Those things were brands we knew and trusted. Over time, though, we noticed that more and more of the things on their shelves came from China. They were labeled BIG LOTS! brand, and the quality was not the same thing that we expected from our old friends. It wasn’t long before the store name changed to BIG LOTS! and we realized it was never going to be the same.

I still pop into those places once in a while, but it isn’t the same now. For one thing, my budget has expanded just a bit in the last fifty years. The pure delight of finding something at 1/2 off gets tempered when you know you could pay retail if you wanted to. I watch the people shopping there, though, and occasionally I see a young mother finding a onesie for her baby, or a toy for the toddler. I see older folks picking up canned food and fresh produce and paying in singles and change at the register. I see a nicely-dressed lady of (hmmpph) years, stocking up on 99¢ plastic vases for the cemetery—uh, wait a minute, that was me. It’s still fun. It’s not the same, but it’s still fun.

I’ll see you again, after the commercial.

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