You have to hope that ABC Carpet & Home, which declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week at the age of 124, can get through the process without ceasing to be itself. Historically, that has been difficult for retailers that depend on being unique, over-the-top, and dependent on a founder or operator’s eccentric energy. Barneys, after it slipped from the grasp of the Pressman family, stayed chic but lost its overwhelming edge of fabulousness; one sensed a corporate hand gently pulling back the reins, and shopping there correspondingly became a little less of an extreme experience. ABC is reportedly looking to work with partners to avoid a similar end, and God go with them. In two years, New York has lost Barneys, Century 21, Lord & Taylor. The eternal Brooks Brothers store on Madison Avenue stands empty, ominously, after that company’s own bankruptcy. The Strand Book Store made it through, barely. This one would feel like a particularly loud wet thud.
The great distinction of ABC Carpet & Home, I always thought, has been that it is such a good store for looking. I don’t mean browsing — though it certainly is good for that — or people-watching, though it was a place where you can routinely see astonishing-looking couples of great affluence, and occasionally an actual supermodel. It’s more the degree to which looking there was a created activity, built up like impasto on a canvas, thoroughly enveloping you, especially on the main floor. It trains your eye, possibly without your mind’s even knowing that it was happening. For you (okay, for me), a person raised in an environment where the most tasteful consumer goods tended toward modernist and sleek, a visit to ABC was one wallop to the retinas after another. My wife once pointed out that you can barely figure out whether there’s a place to pay for anything. The first time I wandered in, I was intimidated: This place seemed like the product of a madman. I remember thinking, What is all this?
Well, what it all is — or was, if the worst comes to pass — is the performance of great retailing. The store’s signature is its luxury-goods-from-every-corner-of-the-world selection, and it’s arrayed in so many layers upon layers that your overwhelmed gaze never quite knows where to touch down. Kilims underlay altars from Thailand alongside opalescent glass and incense burners and mid-century Czech light fixtures and tables extracted from ancient French farmhouses and on and on and on. It’s the kind of furniture store where you would not be surprised to encounter a gong.
The implicit message of the place is that the Weinrib-Cole family (ABC’s multigenerational owner-operators) and their staff have shopped the world, brought home this maximalist array, and presented it as an amusement park for your eye, your wallet, and your house. Literally no detail is too small: I remember at one point they had hundreds of tiny low-wattage light bulbs hanging from the (I’m guessing) 22-foot ceiling on twisty, extra-thin 18-foot cords, so that each one illuminated a display down at your sternum level, intimately. You experienced a certain pure glee in that presentation, expressed by the designers of the space — my long-ago colleague Linda Hall did a splendid job getting them down on paper in 1995 — and subsequently absorbed by their customers.
It’s a commonplace to say that ABC is really expensive, and that you shop there but rarely buy. In truth, the assortment of absurdly priced coasters and similar baubles is somewhat of a mirage, because once you get upstairs to the somewhat more conventionally displayed furniture or linens, there is actually quite a lot of medium-affordable stuff. My own sofa came from there, and it cost about the same as it might have at a mass-market retailer like Crate & Barrel. It’s next to an armchair that I waited out, lurking for literally two years, until it was finally marked down far enough. Both are now two decades old, a little patinated but still not bad looking. (I wrote this post from the chair, in fact.)
That dichotomy, between the outrageously luxe and the surprisingly achievable, has been especially, profoundly visible across the street from the flagship, in the carpet store, where the stacked-up rugs in the basement really cannot not be outdone: The experience there hits some of the notes of the old Orchard Street bargain houses, with taste that was utterly elevated. You are, or were, more likely after a trip there to end up with a Turkish wool-and-silk blend on your floor than with a swath of Dupont Antron II (although you could order the latter there, too).
The thing about the looking experience, even more than physical browsing, is that it does not much translate to online shopping. The store has an e-commerce site, but it shows a limited selection and conveys none of the over-the-top quality of the retail floors. And online, we shop by keywords and by categories, looking for things we already want rather than being taken by surprise. You’re never going to encounter a gong unless you go looking for one. It is possible that we have mostly been reconditioned to replace What is all this? with the much more straightforward question Where do I find this? But I hope that I am wrong, and that whoever scoops up the remaining assets of ABC doesn’t hollow it out and slap its name onto a line of $49 olefin rugs sold on Overstock.com. Fingers crossed that it remains a place where you can’t stop looking.