Art of Style

A High-End Shopper Unleashed

The writer didn’t buy out all the high-end stores in the region, but—encouraged to show her love for shopping—did amass considerable treasures from all over the map.

BY March 8, 2019
Karen Tolchin enjoys some of her treasures with her poodle, Nika. Photography by Mila Bridger.

“Majoring in English three decades ago finally paid off,” I tell my best friend, Dean. “I’ve been asked to write a love story—about shopping.” Then, just in case he misses the magnitude of my good fortune, I break it down for him. “I’m getting paid (dramatic pause) to shop.”

“Boy, did they hire the right girl,” Dean says. “I expect you’ll be needing a chaperone.”

“Natch,” I say. Dean knows that nobody else is up to the task of reining me in. If shopping were a sport, I’d medal every time.

A few days later, being no stranger to expensive purchases himself, Dean spins his new German SUV into my circular driveway. This is why I trust him to witness my guerilla shopping on behalf of Gulfshore Life; there will be wise counsel but no judgment.

We shoot off to our favorite hunting grounds: Old Naples. With the Gulf glittering two blocks away and starfish-struck tourists frolicking on the sand, we make our rounds. I love collecting seashells, a different sort of hunting, but I cannot get distracted. After all, I’m on a mission.

First stop: Arabesque of Naples, a whimsical landmark on the west end of Fifth Avenue South. Ten minutes after we arrive, Sheryl Sashin rings up a hot pink retractable Lamy pen for me, along with other tiny, writerly jewels. Think letter openers shaped like tiny yellow birds and gilt-edged notecards that share your home’s Wi-Fi password with guests. I’d wager Sheryl knows more about etiquette and fine penmanship than does any other living soul. She’s the one to call if you’re hosting an elegant wedding and don’t want to start a feud because of a confusing comma or an errant ellipsis.

“Can I gift wrap anything for you, Karen?” Sheryl asks. That’s always a great idea, because Arabesque’s gift boxes and ribbons are to die for, but I must decline.

“No gifts, sorry to say,” I tell her. “It’s just Happy Friday to Me.”

“In other words, the usual,” Dean says with pursed lips and an arched brow.

Dean and I zip around the corner to the Third Street South area, where we land at a great place for culture: Harmon-Meek|modern. I feel like lusting over some Hunt Slonem bunny paintings. Someday, I’ll find the courage to purchase one.

Juliana Meek is almost absurdly knowledgeable given her tender age, but her gallery has been a cornerstone of Naples fine art culture since 1964, and in the Meek family since 1972. She co-owns the gallery with her sister Kristine, and she’s more than happy to show us her current crop of Hunt Slonem bunnies, toucans and Abe Lincolns.

“He’s my most popular artist, for sure,” she says.

“If he makes too many of these bunny paintings, won’t they become a poor investment?” Dean asks, ever practical on my behalf.

“The prices don’t seem to come down,” Juliana explains. “There were 94,000 works in Andy Warhol’s estate when he died, but his prices have only risen.”

An artist named Jenness Cortez seduces me away from Hunt Slonem. Specializing in “art within art,” Cortez places a perfect replica of Renoir’s Boating Party within her own composition.

“That’s my dad’s favorite painting,” I tell Juliana, who tells me that Cortez is part of the current revival of classical realist paintings. One look at her work and I’m a believer.

“Do people remember to buy art?” I ask Juliana. “I mean, art feeds the soul in a way that a bracelet or a sofa never will.”

Juliana seems relieved that I understand this. “I’m trying a new slogan this year,” she says. “It’s simple: ‘Do more than decorate.’”

“Love it,” I tell her, and make a mental note to call my money manager about that Jenness Cortez. I wish all investments could be that aesthetically pleasing.

Across the way at Jett Thompson Home, I make my selections lickety-split and drop a small armload of treasures next to the cash register.

“You’re a power shopper!” saleswoman Kristen Farrar says as she begins to ring me up. “My kind of gal.” I’ve selected modern napkin rings made of horn, a pair of white and green silk ikat cosmetic bags, luscious white pebble pearl bangles by Catherine Canino, and a new green leather Big O key ring. I’ve gotten several of these key rings in assorted colors for my mommy friends, because they fit like bangle bracelets and make life easier when you’re balancing groceries and children, and trying to open a door.

“Am I failing in my role as chaperone?” Dean asks from his perch on an orange linen swivel chair. “More importantly, how great are these orange swivel chairs?”

Oh, to have a Jett Thompson-designed home filled with ikats and linens and horn art!

I decide not to tell Dean that between Arabesque and Jett Thompson, I’ve already shot my budget for Gulfshore Life. But how could I possibly stop? After all, this is for the Valentine’s Day issue. I feel too much love for a few stores down the road even to consider skipping them.

There’s Beth Moné Children’s Shoppe, where owner Susan Tigwell keeps my son, Charlie, looking dapper; chains like J.McLaughlin, where it’s impossible to put a foot wrong, style-wise, especially in their Catalina fabric, and where manager Luz Salazar couldn’t be any nicer; The Best of Everything, where affordable cashmere shawls and novelty readers live side by side; and Gretchen Scott, which is more like a social event than a store.

A pair of beautiful blondes manage Gretchen Scott, and they treat my white standard poodle, Nika, like their queen. If you’re not holding a glass of wine and eating a cookie while you shop, feeling like a queen yourself, then you’re not at Gretchen Scott. With unique fabrics given names like Plaidly Cooper and Kitt Ikat, the fun never stops. There’s a tempting case of vintage jewelry, and I will neither confirm nor deny that I purchased a lovely string of pearls on my last foray. All right, put away your water board; I confess.

“I’ll miss looking at these every day,” assistant manager Cheryl Leitch says wistfully as she wraps my new pearls.

“I’ll wear them the next time I stop by,” I assure her.

Even more dangerous to the wallet is a store called St. Tropez Home. Presiding like a goddess over the corner of Third Street South and 13th Avenue South, it is treacherous terrain because owner Katie Frank has impeccable, unique taste. Frank is from southern California, but she spends every summer in coastal France. In a happy fusion, her aesthetic became California-French-coastal. In other words, “Yes, please.”

“I just want to say that entering this store is a terrible mistake for us both,” Dean says with a sigh as he grasps the door handle.

“Don’t I know it,” I reply. I have a French walnut coffee table/console table set at home to prove it, not to mention some glorious glass and ceramic décor. People have been known to gasp when they enter my foyer, usually over something I discovered at St. Tropez Home.

This time, I walk out with two French jacquard beach towels. I understand that I could have bought 30 pieces of terry cloth for the same amount at Marshalls, but I know equally well that they Just. Wouldn’t. Be. The. Same.

“How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paris?” as the old song goes. The same goes for French beach towels. Consider me forever ruined for anything else.

We head uptown decidedly lighter of wallet but carting some veritable treasures.

“It shouldn’t be all about us,” I say with a frown, and Dean agrees. We pull into Wholesome Hound on behalf of our beloved pooches, and owners Molly and Stephanie greet us like old friends.

Molly helps me select some new food for Nika, explaining that corporate policies have changed and she can no longer vouch for our previous selection’s excellence. It’s clear that getting the best nourishment into our dogs is a true calling at Wholesome Hound.

“Why don’t I get four cases?” I ask with my trademark reserve.

“No, we won’t see you for too long!” Molly protests. As if I could stay away. I add several bottles of the most amazing-smelling argan oil dog shampoo, a stuffed flamingo toy and a Pet House candle called “Autumn Harvest.”

Dean refuses to go with me to the Striped Cabana, which might be my favorite shop of all, and not just because its sweet Tennessean owner, Becky Enzweiler, greets Nika like a long-lost daughter. The Striped Cabana’s motto is “Style, Furnish, Relax,” and Becky’s mad skills help you do just that. I always find fabulous cocktail napkins, costume jewelry and picture frames there, and last winter, I bought up a dune’s worth of faux sea grass plants. I haven’t killed a single houseplant since, so let’s be clear: The Striped Cabana saves lives.

“I found the most gorgeous navy glass lamp there last week,” Dean says, “but it’s $950. I’m trying to forget all about it.”

“How’s that working for you?” I ask.

I receive a text from my friend Margie, who works at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter at Saks Fifth Avenue at Waterside Shops. She wants to know if I need any items, because she can pre-sell them to me and get me gift certificates depending on what I spend. Shopping that comes with the gift of more shopping? Sounds good to me!

Dean needs a break, not having a woman’s innate shopping stamina, but he promises to accompany me to Republic of Decor when he recovers. (It’s his fave.)

I’m just warming up, so I think about Dean’s replacement. One must be careful when selecting a shopping companion. Years ago, I made a grave error and spent 5 hours listening to an acquaintance consider the pros and cons of a single pair of corduroys at the outlets of Freeport, Maine. If I hadn’t been a poor graduate student at the time, subsisting on Cheerios and Oreos and other foods with a half-life of a century, I’d have plunked down $10 and bought them for her myself.

I decide to enlist the help of a new friend, Denise, to visit some of my favorite Lee County haunts. We head over the Causeway to Sanibel Island, with Denise marveling all the way at the natural beauty. A recent transplant from New Jersey who worked for years at a high-end boutique, she has great taste and boundless energy.

“Do you have any favorite stores out here?” Denise asks.

“Almost too many to name,” I say. What can I say? The hunting is quite good on Sanibel.

We start at my favorite spot, where Periwinkle Road meets Tarpon Bay: Suncatchers’ Dream, where owner Daniel Moore Thompson never fails to give me the 10 percent off discount you’re supposed to receive only if you bring him a coupon from the Sanibel/Captiva visitor guide. Daniel has curated some amazing treasures, including Dune jewelry embedded with fused sand and shell from Sanibel, watches made of baseball gloves, clocks shaped like unicorns and poodles, paper lanterns in every color, and, to my mind the pinnacle, gorgeous French barrettes and hair clips that will not break no matter what. I would like to tell you that I have only two or three, but I don’t want to lie to you.

“Where is Daniel?” I ask the kind lady at the cash register.

“Laid up with a bad back,” she says. He probably hurt himself hauling boxes of barrettes for me, for which I’m truly sorry.

I’ve never been to Amy’s Something Special, but a sundress catches Denise’s eye, so we go inside.

We walk out with no sundress for Denise, but a vintage green Burmese jade bangle with a silver clasp for me. What can I say? I’ve wanted a jade bangle for luck for months now. When it appears, I jump. (One week later, I’ll bring it to Teresa Farmer at Schmitt Fine Jeweler in Naples to modify its clasp from silver to gold. Schmitt is tops in my book for estate jewelry purchases and modifications.)

Next, Denise finds toys to send her son’s new puppy at Island Paws, a charming little shop.

“Can you order this tee for me in another size?” I ask owner Liza Clouse.

“Done,” she says. The tee reads, “If you’re lucky enough to have a dog, you’re lucky enough.” Nika might be oblivious to my tee, but she’s sure to love the squeaky hedgehog I purchase for her.

I strike out into unknown terrain with Denise at a store called JB Designs, where we both fall in love with a giant navy blue glass fish that neither one of us has the guts to buy.

“Maybe we could buy it together and share custody,” I say, but, luckily, Denise has enough sense for us both. I leave with a mermaid necklace, a soft scarf and a convincing knockoff of an Issey Miyake Bao Bao purse.

I’ve never been to Sanibel Sole or C. Turtles up the road, but I add four pairs of Vionics and a Barefoot Dream sweater coat to my haul in record time.

My shopping spree is over, emphatically so. My trunk is overflowing, and my wallet is on life support. My mission has come to a successful conclusion, at least if you ask anyone but my money manager.

Before the sun goes down on our Sanibel excursion, the allure of the glittering water proves irresistible, and we decide to go for a short beach walk. As much as I have enjoyed boosting the economy of Southwest Florida, I savor this even more. I slip off my sandals, walk to the water, and take in the landscape as if I haven’t lived here for 15 years. It just never gets old.

The seashells we collect are very beautiful. Best of all, they come with no credit card bill. Now that’s a love that will endure.

Related Images: