Gone - just when we needed it the most

The Baltimore Sun

One designer jacket: $5.

One $340 pair of shoes: $18.

One American Apparel T-shirt: $1.

One last C-Mart experience: Priceless.

As the stock market plummeted and my 401(k) vaporized this week, I blew about $25 at the soon to be late, great Harford County discount store. At those bread lines and soup kitchens we're all apparently headed to, I'll be the one wearing sleek brown pumps from a famous French designer and a chic black jacket from a label also found in the closets of Julia Roberts and Katie Couric.

Ah, C-Mart, just when we need you, you go belly-up. As The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday, the famously disheveled store - it seemed to house equal parts designer brands and dust bunnies - is shutting its doors next week.

It was sad news, although more along the lines of hearing that someone you thought was already dead had just died. In typical beloved-Baltimore-institution fashion (see: Haussner's, the Orioles, etc.), C-Mart hadn't been C-Mart for a long time.

It lost something in the move from its old digs in Forest Hill to a bigger space in Joppatowne in 2005. The merchandise was neither as good nor as cheap as it once was - which is a double fatal blow for a place that was all about The Find.

You know The Find. It's that great something that you got for next to nothing - as opposed to that great thing for which you also paid greatly, or that cheapo thing that came with an appropriately cheapo price tag. The Find is all about bragging rights, it's that thing that separates the genius shoppers from those who pay retail.

But the last couple of trips I'd taken to C-Mart had been pretty fruitless - somehow, the racks were filled with stuff that was both hideous and pricey, as if all the mistakes that Prada and Armani ever made had been whisked away to Joppatowne in shame, and yet they were too proud to mark them way down. There were all sorts of strange garments, miniskirts that looked like Ace bandages with ruffles, the kind of thing maybe Paris Hilton would wear to a hoe-down.

It was sort of insulting - just because we C-Mart shoppers are frugal doesn't mean we're stupid. Just because we're cheap doesn't mean we want to look like it.

Still, I decided to pay a visit to my ailing friend, in gratitude for the good times back in the old neighborhood, before we grew apart and went our separate ways. In the long drive over, I remembered some Finds of the past: the Wolford tights that more than 10 years later, I still wear every winter; the pink Saks Fifth Avenue blazer that was so cute I bought two and gave one to my sister.

And then there was the Lilly Pulitzer frenzy, when I found myself in the communal dressing room with about six other women; between us, we had pretty much stripped the racks of the brightly colored frocks. By the time we had tried our own and each others' stashes, the floor of the dressing room looked like the aftermath of a massacre at a parrot farm.

This week, I spotted some Lillys, except this time, they all seemed to be white terry cloth short-shorts in size large - which by my count manages to violate, like, three fashion rules in a single garment. There were multiple copies of the dress you saw in the shopping cart of the woman photographed for Tuesday's story about C-Mart's closing - a zebra-striped sundress accented with hot pink lace. Attention, Paris Hilton!

Camouflage leggings; something or other - a blouse, perhaps, since it had two holes - proving Jil Sander isn't infallibly tasteful after all; huge, Dumpster-size boxes of $1-a-piece American Apparel stuff, some of which seemed to have survived Hurricane Ike.

In other words, your basic C-Mart experience, circa the last couple of years, The Finds increasingly hidden in stacks of rather scary stuff. Still, as I was about to exit empty-handed, the C-Mart of old popped up. A pair of Robert Clergerie shoes, half off, a Shin Choi jacket, 90 percent off. (I had to Google them, but maybe you're a regular reader of Vogue or someone who regularly pays $500 for a pair of shoes or a jacket.)

I had come to bury C-Mart, not praise it, but then, for not much more than the minimum ATM withdrawal, I had kept the economic beast at bay, at least for another day. I came, I saw. I Found.

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