Category: Book Club

BCRL Book Club: Bargain Fever

Let me start by saying: sorry. This is going to be another super short book club post because I just. do. not. have. time right now for more *sobs* I feel like a broken record writing this yet again, but life has been kicking my butt lately, and I feel like I’ve reached my limit of balls feasibly juggle-able. Projects like the BCRL book club, though certainly dear to my heart, are simply not high enough on the list of priorities … which makes me very sad, but sometimes c’est la vie. Without further hue and cry, here are my thoughts about Bargain Fever.

What I Liked

Books like Bargain Fever interest me a great deal; I love reading about the psychology behind social behavior, and in particular in relation to the things we buy and consume. Bargain Fever is written in the easy, breezy style that I prefer to read for “fun”; it was easy to finish in a couple of sittings. There was a TON of fascinating information and insights into both retailers’ and customers’ behavior. (Perhaps too much, but more on that in a minute.) A lot of it was instinctively recognizable to me, based on my own experiences with the retail industry (as a consumer), so from that perspective it wasn’t “new” information, per se; however, I enjoyed the way in which the book tried to connect all the dots.

A few of the highlights:

  • The discussion of the physiological/psychological feedback loop that makes bargain-hunting so addictive to many people. I am definitely someone who is very susceptible to it, which is a huge part of why I love thrifting – and why I never miss 50% off days at Value Village (and collect stamp cards at every thrift shop that offers them), even though I can certainly afford to pay full price.
  • The issues around the relative value of money. People are highly irrational in the way they approach/value money, and that’s endlessly fascinating to me. Someone might go to great lengths to save $5 in one situation, but not another. And that brings me to another interesting concept, which is that of anchoring – we perceive prices differently depending upon the context in which they are presented to us. None of it makes sense when you stop to think about it but it is, nonetheless, immediately familiar – if you do a gut check, you’re likely to admit that you’ve been guilty of the same reactions.
  • The exploration of the connection between perceived cachet (of designer brands) and whether they are subject to sales. I am fascinated by branding as a science (or an art, depending on how you think of it), and enjoy reading analyses of what goes into determining which brands thrive and which don’t. In this respect, Bargain Fever covered some ground that was not addressed in great depth in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost is Lustre.

[I’ll pause here to say that, 6 or 7 years ago, when the Coach outlets first began popping up everywhere, I predicted the downward slide of the brand without the benefit of any scientific analysis. I was happy to read in this book that Coach has been working on “righting its ship”, with some success, in recent years. I do have a soft spot for the vintage Coach bags, and I hope they eventually go back to their roots. One can only wonder what will happen to Michael Kors, since the brand doesn’t have the same “roots” as Coach. Or Kate Spade or Tory Burch, which might be sliding down the same path of market over-saturation and declining (perceived or otherwise) quality. And don’t get me started on J. Crew. Or do. I could talk about this stuff all day.]

What I Didn’t Like
There was a lot of information in this book. Like, a LOT. I felt that there was a constant barrage of it flying at me in every chapter, and the chapters themselves were fairly short and zippy. This isn’t a criticism, necessarily; but I feel like Bargain Fever is the kind of book that mostly just skims the surface of a lot of interesting topics, leaving you feeling simultaneously overwhelmed (maybe that’s just my default these days, though) and intrigued to read more. On that note, if you guys have any recommendations for good reads along similar lines (particular around branding), let me know in the comments.

So, back to you: did you read Bargain Fever and, if so, what did you think? Did you gain a better understanding of your own and others’ shopping behaviours? Any especially interesting revelations? What, if any, aspects of your own shopping did the book cause you to reconsider?

As I alluded to at the beginning of the post, I’m finding it more and more difficult to keep up with these book club posts (and “fun” reading in general), so I have decided to press “pause” on them for the next few months while I try to grapple with the rest of my life. I may do some shorter version of a “what I’m reading now” post over on my author blog from time to time and, of course, will continue to publish my (free) weekly serial there too – I hope you’ll check it out!

BCRL Book Club: AMA Edition

As promised, here’s my AMA.

Do you create your outfits the night before or is everything day of?

I actually prepare my outfits at least a week in advance. Or, to be more precise, I create a week’s worth of outfits in advance — which gives me some flexibility in terms of dealing with last minute issues that might impose specific requirements (e.g. wear a blazer on Monday because I have a client meeting, versus Tuesday when I’m at my desk all day, etc.). Because weather is not a huge variant in my day-to-day life (I have a short commute and an A/C-ed office, and don’t go outside at lunch on a typical day), it doesn’t play much of a role in my decision-making process.

I find this process helps a LOT. I am always rushed in the mornings (who isn’t) and this helps to simplify my routine immeasurably. I *hate* having to dither over what to wear, which is what tends to happen with me when I’m short on time and the kids are running amok around me. I also read somewhere that one of the keys to being productive is eliminating as much inessential decision-making as possible. Our brains have finite “juice” and they don’t discriminate between important decisions and unimportant ones; ideally, you want to use your cognitive processing capacity on the important, high level stuff — not exhaust your brain with the other stuff. So the recommendation is to develop as simple a routine as possible, wherever possible, that involves minimal choices. For example, I do my make-up the same way every morning, I eat the same things every morning, and (as noted) I have all my outfits already picked out ahead of time. So, every morning, I expend very little brainpower on getting myself ready, which leaves me more “brain power” once I’m at work to tackle my to-do list.

I love your thrifting posts, you have amazing luck. Any tips?

I’ve touched on this before, but a lot of it is out of your hands and has to do with luck. I happen to live in a city where thrift stores are plentiful, and people donate a ton of amazing stuff. That’s not always the case, and I feel your pain if your thrift scene is not great to begin with. That said, there are things you can do to make the most of it. Going frequently definitely improves your odds, because there is no set schedule for when thrift stores will get new stuff in — they get it all the time. That’s not to say that dropping in constantly is an option for everyone, but I would say that checking in at least once or twice of month can make a difference. The other big “tips” I have are: (i) train yourself to recognize good fabrics by touch and/or sight (practice makes perfect) because this will make it far easier to browse quickly and hone in on potential “scores”; (ii) shop by section if you are easily overwhelmed by too much variety, and stick to one or two sections per visit; and (iii) never thrift without your friend, Google. Listen: I learn about new brands all the time, and I’ve been obsessed with fashion for a LONG time. If you find an item that looks and feels nice, but has a label you don’t recognize, Google it — if could be a real gem.

And here’s another pro tip: if the brand label has been cut off, look to the inside tag (where the care instructions usually are). There, you should find one or both of the RN and CA numbers. The US and Canadian federal governments have databases where you can look these up to find which companies they belong to. [Google “RN database” and it should be one of the first results. Google really is your friend.] In most cases, that will tell you who the manufacturer is … although, sometimes it can be confusing. Case in point: remember that mystery label dress I mentioned in my last thrift post? I looked up the RN number and it came up as Urban Outfitters. It seemed strange to me, because the dress certainly seemed more likely to be Anthro … until someone told me that UO owns Anthro. Believe it or not, I hadn’t realized that before. See: I learn something new every day.

How tall are you and what size do you wear? Do you find clothes that fit off the rack easily from thrift stores, or do you get items altered often?

I am 5’7, with a long torso and short legs. I wear a variety of sizes, which I don’t think is helpful to list if the goal is to give you a sense of how things fit me. Sizing is all over the place these days. I had not taken my measurements before, but in the interests of science … here goes: 35-27-38. I think that qualifies me as an hourglass, although I am definitely more bottom- than top-heavy.

I thrift A LOT, so finding things that fit (more or less – more on that in a moment) is not difficult. There are occasions when I might come across a piece that is simply too large, and if I love it enough, I will buy it knowing that it will need alterations. Since those can get expensive very quickly, I don’t do it often – only twice this year, off the top of my head.

Going back to fit: that is, to some extent, a question of personal preference. For things like tops, dresses and skirts, I don’t mind pieces that fit a little more loosely on the body. In fact, I prefer it. I don’t like things that are too body-conscious, especially when it comes to workwear. So I’m a more loosey-goosey with fit than other people might be. When I’m thrifting, I’ll still buy a size 8 dress even if the size 6 would have fit me better. On the flip side, I’m less likely to buy a size 4 dress if the size 6 would have been more comfortably roomy, because I prefer to save the Spanx for very special occasions only.

What are your tips for cleaning your thrifted items, such as dry clean only items and shoes?

Discovering the Woolite home dry-cleaning kit has been a game changer, you guys. It does a great job of “refreshing” clothes, although it won’t get rid of stains. I try to limit my thrifting to pieces that are new or like-new, so stains are not much of an issue. (As far as that goes, check the armpits of clothing, blazers in particular. It’s a good giveaway for wear/usage, and it’s something that even regular dry-cleaning may not be able to address.)

As for shoes, I stick to leather ones and those are a breeze to clean. You can use Lysol or rubbing alcohol, and gently the rub the inside of the shoes with a cotton pad. Let it air dry, then repeat once or twice. I’ve never had issues with the alcohol affecting the leather insole. I would be reluctant to buy shoes that are lined in fabric, or things like Birkenstocks, only because I’m not sure how I would clean them.

Getting scuffs off patent leather exteriors is almost impossible, so keep that in mind when thrifting. Unless the scuff is very fresh (in which case vigorous rubbing with soapy water and/or alcohol may work), there is nothing that can be done about it; at some point, the dirt/ink/whatever sinks below the patent film on the leather, and it becomes permanent.

What’s your skincare routine?

Honestly, I’m still figuring that out. Until recently, I used Kirkland brand face wipes to clean off my make-up at night, and L’Oreal Revitalift cream to moisturize in the morning. And that’s it, save for the occasional exfoliation with St. Ives apricot scrub. I mean, it’s a miracle I don’t look like a Shar Pei at this point. Luckily, I am rarely exposed to the sun (and I use SPF 60 for those rare occasions — I’m talking about the white, goopy stuff), and my skin isn’t super fussy (not too dry, not too oily, not acne-prone, only slightly sensitive).

However, I have started getting interested in Asian skincare, which is probably a terrible rabbit hole-slash-money pit, but anyway … where was I? Ah yes, new stuff I’m trying out. So far, an oil cleanser, a toner and a moisturize/milk. I’m not sure of their names, so here’s a pic instead:

L to R: cleanser, tonic, moisturizing lotion
L to R: cleanser, tonic, moisturizing lotion

I can’t say that I’ve noticed any major changes in my skin yet, but I haven’t had any adverse reactions either. I will say that the toner is not astringent at all, and it does make me miss my old Mario Badescu toner which they sadly don’t import into Canada anymore, and whose name I have now forgotten. (It was a yellow liquid, for what it’s worth.) That one was gentle but did leave me with a “clean face” feeling which this Hada Labo version doesn’t. In all fairness, I have read that Asian toners are not all that similar to N. American ones — i.e. they serve different functions. Any Asian skincare experts, please feel free to jump in here.

I am also using Tony Moly sheet masks once or twice a week, and I love them — mostly for the experience (I find it relaxing) than for any skin benefits … although I do find my skin to be extra soft immediately afterwards. I have ordered a few more products on Amazon, including a Biore sunscreen and a different Softymo cleanser, and will report back if anything turns out to be a hit.

Your closet seems overrun with Anthro stuff. Why don’t you go for higher end designers, especially now that you’re trying to be more minimalist?

Because of the change in my shopping habits over the past year or two, my closet is currently as much a reflection of my style as it is of my thrifting abilities. I am definitely becoming more selective about which brands I buy, but the high end designer stuff tends to be harder to find, and I have a hard time resisting the other cute things I come across in the meantime.

How did you start finding your fashion voice? I feel lost with mine and constantly buy things that just aren’t me. Any advice?

I’ve been there! It took me a long time to learn an important lesson (and I’m still working on internalizing it, to be honest): I love some things … on others. And I often love them because I love the idea of being that other person — or what I imagine it might be like to be that other person. But, at the end of the day, I’m just me, and I need to wear clothes that make me feel like the best version of me. Things that make me feel comfortable in my own skin, rather than like someone playing a part. Do you know what I mean?

In terms of how to find “you” in your clothes … that’s tough too. It can take time, and a lot of trial and error. I think you can experiment, and listen to your gut in doing so. There should be clothes that make you feel great when you wear them — like a second skin. Clothes that you put on and go “I’m ready to conquer the world” … whatever that means to you. The blog Into Mind is a great resource for getting started on discovering a personal style.

Alright, that’s it for questions! If you’ve got one I missed, let me know. As for BCRL Book Club, for next month’s selection I’ve picked Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World by Mark Ellwood. I’m hoping that it will provide some interesting insights into the retail business, more so than shopping tips per se, perhaps along the lines of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre by Dana Thomas, or Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline, two of my fave fashion industry reads. I thought it might be a nice pick given some of the recent discussion on the blog around fast fashion and sustainability.

Speaking of Dana Thomas, I also recently ordered Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, which I am also very excited to read. Additionally, based on a random recommendation from Reddit, I picked up Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu, which promises to analyze the intersection of aesthetics (style, culture, etc.) and social class. It may not sound like a prototypical vacation read, but provided the writing isn’t too dense, it’s totally up my alley — and what I’ll be reading come next week when, you guessed it, I’m on vacation. Finally.

BCRL Book Club: Aristocrats

This will be a short Book Club post, not because the book in question isn’t great (it is!) but because I totally ran out of time to write it. Mea culpa and all that. I originally picked Aristocrats because I thought going the non-fiction route would be a nice change of pace, and was inspired by a recent Vanity Fair issue to think about famous sisters. Afterwards, I realized that the book also provides a nice contrast to last month’s Regency romance novel, which revolved around a large extended family. The eras might not line up perfectly, but they’re close enough, and one of the things I loved about Aristocrats is the glimpse inside the personal/romantic lives of its subjects.

Before I go on, I would be remiss in not telling you that if you liked the book, you need to watch the BBC series that was based on it. The performances and set/costume design are fabulous.

What I Liked

Um, everything? Seriously, I found this to be an excellently written non-fiction book. For me, it struck the right balance of scholarly/informative and readable/enjoyable. I especially enjoyed the psychological portraits of each of the sisters, and the fascinating insights into their day-to-day lives. Some things — OK, a lot of things — boggled my mind.

Emily and Kildare had 19 children; that’s Duggar territory, and Emily had a whole OTHER life after her first husband died; even with all the help that she would have had as a member of the aristocracy, I can’t begin to imagine the challenges of that sort of life.

Although at least two of the sisters married for love (or largely for love) in the first instance, and had happy marriages by the standards of the day, extramarital affairs (on the husbands’ parts, natch) were still a regular occurence … and did not render those marriages any less successful, for lack of a better word.

The treatment that Sarah received prior to, during, and immediately after her first marriage, at the hands of everyone around her including herself, made me both angry and immensely sad. In fact, there were many aspects of the sisters’ lives, resulting from the ingrained patriarchy of the time, that tested my resolve to not judge people so far removed from my own time and social mores. (Then again, with cases like that of the Stanford rapist so often in the news these days, maybe our culture does not have the moral high ground anyway.) On a smaller scale, this book was eye-opening and informative in the same way as Antonia Fraser’s The Weaker Vessel, which detailed the lives and “lot” of women in 17th Century England (so, about a century earlier than the Aristocrats). Needless to say, I would heartily recommend both books.

What I Didn’t Like

As I mentioned above, some of the things that happened to the Lennox sisters made me sad and/or mad, but that is not Ms. Tilyard’s fault. I think she went out of her way to be fair to all of her subjects, including the other significant people in the sisters’ lives, which is an approach I appreciate in a biographer, even when (as a reader) I am not always able to maintain that same detachment.

Your turn: what did you think of Aristocrats?

For next month’s Book Club, I’m a little bit stumped. I am heading into a three week long hearing at work, and I am still trying to finish writing my third book, so realistically I won’t have much time for “fun” reading in July. Instead of setting myself up for inevitable failure, let’s call it a “freebie” month: read a book of your choice, and then share your thoughts with us in the comment section of the next Book Club post, which will go up on July 29, 2016. In return, I will happily answer your questions, book-related or otherwise, in that July 29 post. Feel free to leave your questions here or to email them to me directly over the course of the month.

[By the way, if you’re not sure what book(s) to read this month, I have a couple of suggestions for you. As an early birthday celebration, I have dropped the prices on my first two books for the month of July. You can find Archer & Bell ($2.99) and Gresham Park ($0.99) on Amazon, available for download on Kindle or any mobile devices.]

Happy reading!