September 10, 2012
Once upon a time, there was no internet. Amazing, I know, and it’s almost hard to remember what life was like back then. We had cable TV and radio, vinyl records, cassette tapes and this new thing called a CD. Moneyed people had big antennas on their cars to indicate they had car phones, but mobile phones to walk around with were rare and clunky. If we were expecting a call, we had to stay home. Most people had answering machines on their home phones, but not everyone. We had a chair next to the phone, because we couldn’t walk around with it. Our friends were all people we knew in person, with the occasional long-distance pen pal thrown in. To send a letter, you needed a stamp. When you wanted to buy something, you went out to the store and got it, or shopped from catalogs (please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery).
Waiting For A Telephone Call by Erika Meriaux
In that long-ago era of such inconvenience, how did we shop for perfume? We were imprisoned by the whims of the local department stores. We would see an ad for something new in the magazines, and then wander to Macy’s to smell it, if they had it. In San Francisco, Macy’s, The Emporium, and Liberty House were the major downtown department stores. They all carried about the same things, with Liberty House being on the lower end of the price scale. We also had a gigantic Woolworth’s, with a great beauty department, for your Coty and Faberge scents. If you were lucky, your local shopping mall had a Perfumania, stocked with interesting minis and perfumes at discount. Macy’s got most of my money, for Poison, Dune, and Paloma.
I don’t remember the year, exactly, of my first real perfume lemming and subsequent quest. It must have been the late 80’s or early 90’s. My father had given me a little stack of mini perfumes for Christmas, and one of these was a tiny black bottle, with figures in bas-relief on the sides. I opened it and smelled it, and I was reborn. The scent was the mighty Habanita, by Molinard, with its fabulous black Lalique-designed bottle. I have always been drawn to dark, smoldering, spicy vanilla scents, based largely on my love for, and complete inability to pull off, Guerlain Shalimar. Habanita was what we perfumisti call a Holy Grail of perfume. In true perfumista fashion (as I now know), I knew that little mini was Not Enough. I was afraid to wear it, for fear of using it up. I had to find a whole bottle. The Habanita Quest had begun.
Women At Perfume Counter by Dan Weiner
I am a tenacious person when I want something. I will search high and low, leave no stone unturned, etc. etc. The Yellow Pages are my friend (remember we are pre-Google here). My Habanita Quest took me to every department store I could reach by automobile (at least I did have one of those). I strode up to the counters, asking in a bold voice “Do you carry a perfume called Habanita, by Molinard?” Every time, I received a shake of the head, a sad but hopeful “No, I’m sorry, is there something else I can show you?” Sometimes I would desultorily sniff at something else to be polite, or to see if there was a substitute, but would invariably slink away empty-handed.
Finally, after an eternity of searching, the day came. I happened upon a listing for a perfume shop downtown that had somehow escaped my notice. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was very much like the current Jacqueline Perfumes off of Union Square, shelves crowded with unheard-of treasures. I walked in and looked around, mouth agape. With hope, I asked my oft-repeated question. “Yes, we do have it. What size bottle would you like?” Eureka! The Habanita Quest was complete! With a mixture of elation (I found it!) and grief (I found it, now what do I do?) I took my treasured parcel home.
Fast-forward to today. I would be able to have several iterations of Habanita, both new and vintage, Eau de Toilette or Parfum, within a couple of days, at discount. Has something been lost because of easy gratification? We still have our quests, mostly for perfumes we can’t get in the countries we live in, but those are mostly exercises in shipping, or finding “perfume mules”. It is rare that we just can’t find something. Of course, there are perfumes that are no longer in production that can produce a quest, but before the internet, we would have never had an opportunity to even look for them. We wouldn’t know about a huge percentage of the perfumes out in the world, come to speak of it. Are we victims of overload, now that we have so much at our disposal? When I collected perfume before, I may have had as many as ten bottles. Now I have close to a hundred and fifty, which is small potatoes compared to some collectors. I stand in front of them, undecided about what to wear. It’s a toss-up for me. I love to smell the Next New Thing, experience every pleasure, gaze upon my pretty collection, rifle through my hundreds of samples. My online perfume friends are dear to me, and I can’t imagine life without them. But I do miss that time when the scent strip in Vogue was the harbinger of something new and wonderful, when I didn’t know about so many perfumes being released so far in advance that I forget about them by the time they are in stores.
I still have that bottle of Habanita. It is Eau de Toilette, not anything rare, as far as I know, but I have heard about reformulation and a new Eau de Parfum and that she is not quite herself any more. Perversely, because it is an opaque bottle, I am a little afraid to wear it, for fear of using it up. I shake the bottle but can’t tell how full it is. Silly, isn’t it? I think I’ll wear it today.
–Tama Blough, Senior Editor