A Wonderful Store That Helps You Travel in Time

An old yellow coat, Ivy League style, JFK, and the memory of slaving to buy clothes in college all combine to send one writer in search of the store where he found his style.

The good old days basically sucked. Black people had nothing and had no real chance of getting anything. Gay people were invisible. I’m old and I can remember a time before the sexual revolution—which was mostly frustration. After that revolution, it was, well, after.

I bring this up because I was going through my closet Monday and found a lovely field coat that I got from J. Press clothiers a long, long time ago. It’s a pale sort of Protestant yellow, which means it’s an unusual color but it won’t scare anybody. Not that it matters because they don’t stock it anymore. The coat sticks in my memory because I had to buy a second one after I lost the first one.

Thinking of J. Press made me think about the “old” Brooks Brothers—which is now newish and which I like, but it’s no longer a stronghold of Ivy League style.

My father grew up in an Irish neighborhood where half the men were drunks and he learned from the worst. He was a good salesman who was hardly ever sober enough to be good at his job but was often drunk enough to put his hands on his wife and son.

We lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a while, and he was obsessed with my going to the University of Virginia. He was smart enough to see a way up for his son and decent enough to teach me to strive for it. UVa was an all-male school then, where the students wore coats and ties to class. It was unmatched in style and parties. Khaki pants, weejuns, tassel loafers, and button-down shirts were the uniform. For some reason, lots of people wore worn leather billfolds sticking out of their back pocket.

I worked 70 hours a week during the summer after my freshman year to have money to buy school clothes. I worked as a busboy, a ditch digger, and a plumber’s assistant. I don’t want to horrify you with what plumbers’ assistants did before someone figured out how to make pipes less likely to split open, but when I went home I repelled even my mother.

When the time came to go shopping, I went to Brooks but also to a store called J. Press. Even then I could see that it was at least as good as Brooks. Both stores smelled of nice houses, graduate schools, and hope for the future.

I woke up the other morning and after remembering that Trump was in and noticing that it was raining hard, I thought about those stores, for some reason, and I remembered John Kennedy, who was slender, elegant, and a war hero, and who also bought clothes at J. Press. So it was either my head under the covers or a walk in the rain to look for a memory of things I wanted and grew up and got.

J. Press used to be at a midtown address; it’s now at 304 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. To get there I had to pass Great Jones Street. When I was 27 and an assistant district attorney in Homicide, I had an affair with a Polish call girl who lived on that block. She thought I had a glamorous job. I thought she was sweet. She was six feet tall and if she didn’t have an orgasm, she made me stop and start over.

I had not been in a J. Press store in about 45 years—I hadn’t even known they were still in business—and just walking in made me remember some good days in my life.

The two young fellows who worked there, Dan Greenwood and Justin Spaeth, were charming and helpful. And the shaggy dog sweaters—now those are sweaters I have seen nowhere else. They are Shetland wool, come sized trim or regular and in a total of 16 different heathery shades­—all beautiful. Purple. Orange. A knockout green. They are shaggy—just like a shaggy dog. They would even look wonderful on a young woman.

They also had two lambswool sweaters that felt like cashmere. One was a light navy and the other a lemon yellow. Both very pretty.

The ties were the standard 3½ inches, which don’t have to be replaced every time a brand designer needs a new profit center, and there were lots of little paisley ties perfect for a blue blazer.

There was also a putty colored raglan sleeved raincoat that seemed out of place because it was so grown up and elegant. It was expensive, but I’ve never seen a better one of its type.

The company is now owned by the Japanese, and the Bleecker Street store (there are also outlets in Cambridge, Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.) is full of things that prove the Japanese have a lovely eye for color and form that extends from their gardens all the way to striped socks (of which the store had plenty in mid-calf length—perfect for young men who don’t have age blotches).

Speaking of the Japanese, the J. Press line is apparently very popular in that country as well. Most of the customers who came in while I was there were Japanese, and they always picked out the stuff l liked the most. I really am an expert on shopping, and these kids came 6,738 miles to go the American version of somewhere neat that I didn’t even know existed.

The store is a triumph of globalization. And a great place to visit in the rain to bring back old good memories.