Up The Valley: Love on Sale

February 7, 2013

Can you put a price on love? Some people try. Today’s column in the Star newspaper…

In 1930, composer Cole Porter introduced a cynical song about certain shady aspects of romance entitled “Love for Sale.” From my experience owning a retail store, I’ve concluded that today’s paramour — particularly on Valentine’s Day — is looking for love on sale.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that money doesn’t equal love; the best things in life are free, etc. and so forth. I know sweethearts who celebrate without spending a dime, lavishing upon one another the kind of thoughtful affection that makes us single girls sigh with envy. The words “I love you” can be sincerely scrawled on a 50-cent box of conversation hearts.

And yes, it can be a day for splurging, with creditworthy courtiers springing for sumptuous feasts and serious bling. Yet Valentine’s Day also brings out the very cheapest of skates seeking to wring the maximum result from the barest minimum of expense and effort.

Not surprisingly, my shop’s Valentine bestseller was the greeting card, and if I had a dollar for every husband who told me “my wife only wants a card,” I’d be a rich woman with a devoted pool boy. Yet men seem perfectly happy to receive greeting cards, presumably confident that their real gifts will be forthcoming later that evening. A woman telling a man she doesn’t really want a gift is akin to her asking for his honest assessment of her physical appearance — a honeyed trap for those who would spend Valentine’s Night sleeping on the sofa.

Mushy mothers sometimes bought Valentines for their kids, which is sweet — within limits. A “Mommy Loves You” card or plush “Pucker Up” frog making kissing noises is perfect for your 6-year-old; an adult child will interpret it as your judgment that they are unlikely to receive a Valentine from anyone else.

One memorable customer was a local low-budget loverboy — to protect his identity (and wife), I’ll call him Cheap Throat. He would spring for a card, usually on sale, and then spend an hour digging through a bowl of tiny metal heart tokens ($1.50 plus tax, gift-wrap complimentary). He purchased two tokens in six years; usually concluding that his wife would be happier with just a card. He wanted the card gift-wrapped.

Why does Valentine’s Day, of all days, draw the discount-Don-Juans in droves? It’s the only holiday where gift-giving holds the promise of sexual reciprocation, which should lure male shoppers out of their man-caves earlier than 5 p.m. on Feb. 14. Perhaps it’s because gifting is that rare arena in which men lack natural self-confidence. They fear any failure, and shopping is a subject in which they have repeatedly received a failing grade; sometimes even a public reprimand. Since there is no “little blue pill” guaranteeing purchasing performance, they turn to the tried-and-true, procrastinate, or panic.

Women bear some responsibility for this. One regular customer selected a beautiful bracelet for his wife, extolling the virtues of her slender wrists and anticipating how the sea-colored stones would compliment her like-tinted eyes. He left carrying an artfully festooned box, beaming. Two days later, his wife returned it — her eyes red with rage. “How could he buy me a bracelet?” she screamed at me. “He knows that I don’t need a bracelet — why doesn’t he ever listen to me?” What she needed was a crash course in gratitude in my opinion, but what did I know — the next Valentine’s Day he tried to buy her another bracelet (I sent him to Woodhouse Chocolates instead — the better to plump up her adorably scrawny little wrists).

Of course, one bustling business on Valentine’s Day is Safeway, where the lines are express, the chocolates cheap, and the roses guaranteed to last as long as the bubbles in the bulk-priced sparkling wine. Speaking of which: why are flowers considered a traditional romantic gift, anyway? A diamond is forever — a dozen roses merely demonstrate the inevitability of wilting, and the last thing a woman wants to encounter during a romantic rendezvous is a limp stem.

Valentine’s Day is not a “day-off-work” holiday, but I think Feb. 15 should be. On “Morning After Day,” lucky lovers could languish in bed till noon, recovering revelers could nurse their hangovers, and the lovelorn could work off calories from chips and ice cream consumed while watching “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Titanic,” or the all-day “Lovers Who Kill” marathon on the Lifetime television network.

Incidentally, during my brick-and-mortar-going-out-of-business sale, Cheap Throat came in and bought fistfuls of deeply-discounted Valentine’s Day cards. On the day his stockpile runs out, I predict that the marriage will be over.