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Friday, September 22, 2006

The Frenchy's connection

Used and improved, in The New Yorker.

Posted on Fri, Sep 22, 2006 at 10:12 PM

It's a big week for firsts around these parts, what with Sidney Crosby coming home for Tuesday's NHL exhibition game (his local debut in the Pittsburgh Penguins' uniform) and Kanye West's first-ever Halifax performance slated for Saturday. But the icing on the cake—at least for the journalistically inclined—is to be found in the current issue of The New Yorker. The 81-year-old weekly, perhaps the world's best magazine, just published its first Letter From Nova Scotia, an article titled "Rag Time" by Calvin Trillin. It is an ode to the used clothier Frenchy's.

The piece is 3,500 words long but feels short. Trillin mixes humour and history with the personal and the extremely impersonal—clothing that has been cast off as if unfit for consumption—to create a read that is surprising and rewarding. Sort of like a Frenchy's bin.

Nova Scotia has made it into The New Yorker's pages a few times over the years. (Recent examples: A January, 2004 article about post-traumatic stress disorder mentioned after-effects of the Halifax Explosion; sculptor Richard Serra, who is, like Trillin, a famous American with a house up here, was profiled in August, 2002; fiddler and Coast cover boy Ashley MacIsaac was profiled December 20, 1999.) The magazine has printed articles under the heading Letter from Northern Ireland and Letter from Nuremberg. Until now, the issue dated September 25, 2006, there has been no call for a "Letter from Nova Scotia." But the François Boutique is a fitting (pun completely unintended) subject to premiere with.

Following are a couple passages from Trillin's article, full text of which is here:

We were already familiar with Frenchy’s, whose stores had begun to appear in small towns in the Maritimes about the time we settled into our house on the South Shore. We knew that it had been founded by a man in the rag trade—not the rag trade as the term is sometimes used in New York to mean the garment industry; the man traded in rags—and I had heard that Frenchy’s was a last shot at selling dresses and skirts and sports coats and trousers before they made a sort of reverse butterfly transmogrification from something you might wear to the office party to something you might use to apply polish to your shoes.

...

In 1990, a biography of Paley written by Sally Bedell Smith portrayed him as someone who, though perhaps not terribly admirable as a human being, managed to lead a life that did not include, say, waiting in line at the motor-vehicle bureau. The detail that stuck with me was that when the Paleys went to their house in the Caribbean they merely got on the plane—a private plane, as I remember—and left, secure in the knowledge that all the clothes they needed were already there. William Paley, of course, had resources that I don’t have. But he didn’t have one resource that I do have: Frenchy’s. … What I realized sometime in July of 2005 was this: for a certain outlay of capital—the outlay I had in mind was twenty-five or thirty dollars—I could, in Paley fashion, just show up in Nova Scotia in the spring without packing or trying to remember if there were already shirts in the bureau. The private plane was a detail I’d have to work out later.

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