The Cheap Secrets of Harwin

Beyond the Galleria, beyond Target - and sometimes beyond the law - lies Houston's last untamed wilderness of shopping

The handbag shop is a long, narrow, shotgun affair, and the first thing I notice is an array of pocketbooks blanketing one wall. From a distance, they resemble purses by Coach, a line of trendy bags especially popular among businesswomen and known for their durability, sleek lines and unadorned look.

At the Galleria, Coach bags can run anywhere from $100 to $400. But this particular handbag shop is on Harwin Street, which, while only five miles southwest of the city's glitziest mall, is several worlds away when it comes to shopping and ambiance.

"Is this leather?" I ask, lifting a chocolate-brown purse with lanky straps from one of the shelves.

Two clerks have been eyeing me appraisingly, perhaps sensing my unfamiliarity with the rituals of Harwin shopping.

"No. We have leather ... Chanel," answers one of them, an Indian woman dressed in slacks and a flowered T-shirt. With a motion of her head, she quietly signals me toward the back of the store. Suddenly, it's as if we are two friends, sharing a secret, speaking our own private language.

She shepherds me past two long, white tables, on which bags resembling another popular and expensive designer brand, Dooney & Bourke, are lined up in neat rows. Two more tables near the shop's rear are overflowing with toy trucks and cars and a play policeman's kit, complete with a plastic gun, handcuffs and a badge. Displayed on a nearby wall are a multitude of clocks: purple ones, green ones and hot pink ones, all anchored by a huge timepiece notable for its statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Seconds later we're in a backroom, a cramped space about the size of a socialite's shoe closet. Spanning one wall are three shelves jammed with look-alike Chanel purses in black, navy, ivory and gold. The bags possess every feature that's made the French designer famous: tassels, gold chains, quilted leather.

"Eighteen hundred dollar in the mall," the clerk says as I reach for a black drawstring bag with the two interlocking Cs of the Chanel logo embossed on the front.

"I give it to you for sixty-nine dollar," the clerk says.
When that offer fails to elicit a response, she tries again.
"Okay, fifty-nine dollar."
A generic black tote bag resting on a box on the floor catches my eye.
"Coach," says the clerk.
"Is this leather?" I ask.

"Cow leather," confirms the clerk, pointing out the tiny pinpricks in the purse.

"Chanel ... lamb's leather," she adds, rubbing the buttery surface of the purported French designer bag.

"I give you good price. Forty-five dollar for the Coach."
I survey the rest of the small room. There's a ratty maple coffee table filled with shiny new bags that resemble Ralph Lauren purses. On another table, this one blanketed by a pink cloth, sit a stack of T-shirts bearing the Chanel logo, three open boxes of "Chanel" loafers and a stack of gimme caps and men's golf shirts with Ralph Lauren's polo player stitched on them. One wall sports more bags of the American-made Coach design draped on a pegboard. The other walls feature the foreigners: Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Picasso.

During the time it takes me to glance about, the price of the ostensible Coach bag has come down again.

"I give you good price," the clerk promises. "Thirty-two dollar." There's an urgency in her voice. "You have to buy now," she adds. "There was a raid last week and we won't get any more."

I must seem tentative, but the clerk is undaunted. Her voice dogs me as I retreat to the front of the store.

"We have Chanel wallets," she says to my back. "Chanel sunglasses ...." Relentlessly, she recites a litany of designer inventory, and then, out of desperation, makes one last stab at selling me on the black leather tote bag that had caught my attention.

"Coach -- twenty-nine dollar," she calls out as I'm about to exit the store.
Suddenly I'm turning around and reaching into my own pocketbook, feeling a surge of pride at having successfully bargained off $16 in my first clandestine purse deal.

Then comes the surprise. Without asking me, the clerk snaps a tag on the strap of the tote. It says "Coach Leatherware." Then she reaches under the counter, pulls a stick-on label from a bin and places it inside the tote. The makeshift label proclaims the bag was made in the United States of "completely natural glove-tanned cowhide." The label that was already inside says it was manufactured in China.

The clerk stuffs the purse into a brown plastic bag. And just like that, I have become yet one more initiate into Harwin's world of raw capitalism. Though my purchase included, at no charge, the thrill of having pulled a fast one, it was, in itself, perfectly legal. Everything about the transaction, in fact, was legal -- until, that is, the clerk tagged the bag with the phony Coach label. That's when the exchange crossed the line to become, in the words of the law, "theft of intellectual property."

That's a trifling concern to many consumers in quest of a bargain, but it's a major one to many manufacturers. And according to authorities, thousands of such thefts take place on Harwin each year.

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