New York City Shopping Inches Back. No Store Required.

The city is woollier than it’s been in a while — everyone seems to be crimping the usual boundaries. E-bikes and scooters zip through the middle of the street, and restaurants have annexed the pavement outside their doors in hopes of keeping their businesses afloat. After a brutal spring and summer of pandemic uncertainty and economic instability, New York is doing its best to pass for its old self, but in truth, things haven’t felt this unsteady since right after 9/11.

In this context, shopping for anything other than essentials has felt foolish verging on irresponsible. I’m still haunted by the last item of discretionary clothing I bought before quarantine — so much so that I won’t share it here. Even now that stores are open, that humble jolt of electricity you feel when touching a new, covetable garment is almost always dampened by the rank sweat gathering beneath your mask.

I write this as very much an anxious skeptic who still rushes through the supermarket. Even as stores have reopened, I’ve mostly avoided them, no matter that the scientifically driven portion of my brain understands that, in short bursts, it’s relatively safe.

These are precisely the challenges that outdoor shopping is equipped to address, though, and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve passed through several of the city’s reopened flea markets and other streetside sales. Even with limited choices, shopping en plein air was a kind of relief, an opportunity for a change of scenery, a tentative step toward community (and, you know, new stuff).

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