Outlet shopping trips meant great clothes on the cheap

August 10, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

For all the years I've headed to Rehoboth Beach, I've dreaded the inevitable traffic delays. For many years it was the dreaded Kent Narrows Bridge, with its draw frequently open for boaters.

My current nemesis is the wretched traffic knot outside the Rehoboth Outlet Mall, where we burned up gas for hours last August, all the while fearing the rental agent would pronounce us missing and turn in for the night.

But let's face it, you can't return from a stay at the beach without a loaded shopping bag or two. The beach possesses its own categories of shopping - the inevitable caramel corn, fudge and taffy shops, the linen shop, the auction house. And, I would add, the outlet.

I was educated in outlets often on off-weather days. In the 1950s, there were real, honest working mills that sold their wares. There was a women's dress factory in nearby Lewes, Del., that looked like the set from The Pajama Game. I think its site is now luxury housing, but back then, it held cotton dresses that cost maybe $8.

And there were a couple of nylon hosiery mills, where the machinery clanked and clattered away. I'm not sure that you were allowed to get near the machines, but a 6-year-old could always cadge a view of this mysterious mechanical process, whose closest competitor was the stainless steel taffy-twisting claw at Dolle's Candyland on the boardwalk.

I do not know where my mother scoped out another outlet, aptly named Discountland. It had no mill, but the inventory was taken there and stacked on tables. Located outside Delmar (on the line between Maryland and Delaware, but, of course, safely in the state of no retail sales tax) it was about an hour's drive away from our summer place. I recall irregular bedspreads, pillows and shirts and a huge supply of Gant shirts and ties from headquarters in New Haven, Conn. It was a real outlet, not just a perfumed factory store. It was also unadorned by a fancy facade. Like I said, it was the real thing.

The day the store had a special on English-made sweaters, all in brilliant Kelly green, my mother bought a dozen, not because she liked Irish green, but because they had been reduced to $2 apiece. She thought they would be handy as gifts for her nephews who attended Loyola College, whose school color was, you guessed it, emerald. You couldn't wear them out; I had one last for 20 years. As you can see, I like the color green.

In those days, we spent a long time out of Baltimore and were always in search of a worthy destination about an hour away from the Rehoboth boardwalk. The back roads of Sussex County were fair game, provided you liked scenery of pine trees, flat soybean fields and summertime pinkish-purple crepe myrtle. God bless my father. He chauffeured and was a good sport about the whole thing.

Along the way we toured quite a few unspoiled towns such as Laurel and Seaford, with Greek Revival and Victorian houses surrounded by iron fences and daylilies. These residences had not been tarted up in the gaudy style of latter-day Cape May, definitely a no-no in my mother's outspoken aesthetic. She liked her old towns as they came, plain - and she always was a hit with the locals she befriended.

Lunch, as much as a dynamite $2 sale, was a major destination. And like a bargain, she also shopped for a lunch counter. (She loathed fast food joints.) Her prayers were answered at the Dutch Mill, a classic 1940s roadside knotty pine-paneled restaurant with a daily $2 special and 15-cent homemade sticky buns that would make you cry.

These were outlet day trips. And as the August afternoon shadows gained, she'd round out her selections, this time for supper, at highway vegetable and seafood stands, where she was just as particular about a squash or lima bean as a pile of 97-cent irregular shirts.

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