By Leah Finnegan
If Wal-Mart had a quirky great-uncle, it would be Bobby’s Department Store in Flatbush.
Bobby’s has everything, and for cheap. Glue traps, chandeliers, ten-gallon pots. Bath mats, microphones, hair straighteners. Oriental rugs. Toilet seats. Oil paintings of a man and a woman, both blindfolded, walking off separate cliffs with the hand of God between them.
The Flatbush version of Bobby’s (there are two others in Brooklyn; one of them across the street from this one) stretches for a city block. Its façade is weatherworn; the red letters that once spelled out the store’s name in fanciful script have faded to a dirty mauve. But cars still line up across the street from it, double-parked so customers can easily transport their wares.
Bobby’s is the closest thing Flatbush — or Brooklyn, for that matter — has to an international bazaar. The store sells everything from curry powder to bone marrow hair treatment. Practically the only English spoken is the pop music blasted from the radio, but one can barely hear it above the din of hundreds of customer cell phone conversations. (“I’m at Bobby’s!” a woman yells into her neon-cased BlackBerry, before slipping into Spanish).
The store is not a place to linger — it’s too frenetic. But people do it anyway, especially when there are sales. On this day, twin sets of 400-thread-count sheets are on special for $13.99 and kitchen mats are going for $6.99. Two women station themselves at the kitchen mat bin. The one in need of a mat fancies a half-moon creation, emblazoned with pineapples and other tropical fruit. Her friend prods her to look at the striped maroon ones. “Something more abstract?” she asks, inspecting the more demure mat. Ten minutes later, the women are still at the mat bin, brows furrowed. The tropical fruit mat-inclined friend has moved onto one with impressions of grapes and apples.
Things for sale at Bobby’s are presented in one of three ways: heaps, rows or hangings. The floor merchandise is organized by troughs, if organized is the right word. There are troughs of everything from comforters to stuffed lions to forks. It’s unclear where anything is within this system. Dusty packages of licorice sit beside a pile of makeup cases full of nail polishes. Inflatable swimming pools dangle from the ceiling. Two women in burqas inspect a towering display of shower curtain rods. One woman pushes a shopping cart of golden bedsheets through the aisles. Another has a cart of glass jars.
The store’s decorating scheme reflects the chaos of products. The floor is an amalgam of mismatched linoleum tiles, done in by years of heavy traffic. Each section of the interior could also be classified by scent, corresponding to what is for sale in a given area. Upon entering, the overwhelming scent is of perfumed artificial flowers, which gives way to laundry detergent and then maple syrup, which comes from Martha Stewart Living Brand maple-syrup scented candles.
As exhibited by the haphazard placement of Martha Stewart items, the store’s business model is: quantity reigns. Sales associates — all of whom wear red vests embroidered with “How may I help you?” — use old fashioned pricing guns to tag products. They do not smile. Eighties-era security cameras, in all their boxy glory, watch the store from on high.
This branch of Bobby’s has two levels. According to a sign posted above it, the basement is a new department. “Dear, customers,” an adjacent sign reads. “Please do not take shopping carts down the stairs” — as if they could. The stairwell leads to a less frenzied room of suitcases and bedroom furniture. It’s a kind of oasis. One can clearly hear The Fugee’s “Killing Me Softly” over the radio, the slap, click of the price gun and the buzz of the fluorescent lights. The merchandise is picked over. A Russian man complains to a manager about a broken office chair, and the manager refers him to a third-party repairman.
Upstairs, at least, sunlight is shining through the sparkling row of chandeliers at the store’s southern entrance. The kitchen mat women are still there, too. They’ve moved to place mats. Standing before a floor-to-ceiling display of lacy white mats, they take in the scene. “Lord have mercy,” one says.