According to my map, the boutique was in a nearby mall. Or half of a mall. Because what I found were two buildings that looked like they had gotten into a fight and refused to be near each other. Unfortunately, the map had nothing to say about this situation, so I randomly chose one to enter. “Lucky Left” it was.
Within the mall I browsed a number of fashion shops, most with the Harajuku name prominently (dubiously) displayed in their windows. I stopped in the official Sanrio store, which seemed to be staffed by people hell bent on covering every available surface in pink merchandise. But shortly after leaving with a raging Hello Kitty hangover, I ran into a dead end. Consulting the directory, I expected to find that the boutique wasn't on this side of the mall. What I didn't expect was that it wasn't on the other side either. Behold the adventurer who conquers three thousand miles of travel to get lost in the last 100 yards…
After rapidly backtracking, I decided that the northern edge of the plaza was my next best bet. Thanks to luck or destiny, I didn't have to walk more than three store-lengths before I spotted something across the street. Up in the third floor window of a trendy-looking building were three dress forms attired in an impossibly adorable collection of clothing. From my point of view on the ground, they appeared to be floating above the shop's floor. Given my expectations for the boutique, it didn't even surprise me that their clothing was magically levitating. With a stupid grin on my face, I crossed the street in a show of complete disregard for traffic.
When I reached the front door, I took a moment to collect myself. While it’s true that BTSSB is no Emma’s legendary embroidery shop, Kamikaze Girls had put my anticipation into overdrive. As I stared through the glass at the people on the first floor I gnawed at my lip. Most of my life until now I haven’t been one to get excited about fashion. I'm the kind of person that grabs clothes from the floor each morning without checking for wrinkles. I've even been missing a button on my pea coat for months despite the fact that I have both the button and the ability to sew it back on. But as I felt my pulse quicken, I knew this about much more than clothing...
You may not know me, but I think I have a crush on you. I mean, I think you’re really, really pretty and stuff. And super cool too. Not that I’ve been looking at your lace and ribbons when you’re distracted or anything. I swear I'm not that kind of person. But it’s really hard not to...for people that do it...which aren’t me, you know? I mean…I think I have to go now...
It was becoming clear that I needed more than a moment to calm myself, so I took a short stroll along the backside of Japantown. As hotels began to replace store fronts I thought about the improbable set of events that had brought me here. Several months ago I had learned of the existence of the US boutique from a forum post. At the time, it was nothing but a curiosity as I live on the east coast and 3000 miles of travel seemed a wee bit prohibitive. But then a funny thing happened. A company came to recruit on my campus and offered interviews at their San Francisco office for anyone who passed an initial test. In a truly diabolical moment, my inner-Momoko considered using the interview as a free ticket to California (I wasn't involved in this process, I swear!). Once I got there, all I would have to do is navigate to the store (how hard could that be?). It was devilish reasoning, but I had nothing to lose in the bargain so I threw together a resume and sent it in.
I'm sure you can guess what happened next. Not only did I pass the test, I got the follow-up interview as well. Even better than that, the hotel that I would be staying in was improbably close to Japantown. Though I knew I'd have to survive five hours of interviews before being free to explore, not accepting would have been blasphemy given how that stars had aligned.* If I still had any doubts now, the divine vision of floating dress forms was enough to put them to an end. A proper maiden takes what she needs to be happy and has no regrets.
With Momoko's sage (read: narcissistic) advice on my mind, I rounded the block and approached the store front again. I checked my hair, swallowed my uncertainty, and punctured the sacred veil to find myself in a cafe. One floor up from that was a general purpose, “So you like Japanese stuff (and love to pay a lot for it)” store. But in the corner, I spotted a stairwell with a sketch-like painting of a Victorian garment on the wall. Like an extremely modest siren, it lured me into a smallish clothing store on the third level. From the overwhelming amount of lace clustered about me, I knew I had arrived.
The San Francisco Baby, the Stars Shine Bright boutique was staffed by three girls wearing adorable garments of varying style. Shortly, a girl in a floral print dress asked if I needed assistance. Unfortunately, I had already buried myself in the racks of clothing which rendered communication impossible. I was able to muster a distracted half-nod, but I could bring myself to do no more.
I then proceeded to release my pent up anticipation upon the store. Every time I found a new design I couldn’t stop myself from pulling it out to admire its details. Which would have been normal if I could have stopped myself from inspecting its seams and stitching too. All told, I spent a quarter of my visit crouched on the floor looking at the inside of sleeves. If an item particularly impressed me, I refused put it back without making reference sketches first. Except the sketches were on a movie ticket that I'd have to hand over later that day, long before I'd get a chance to recopy them (don't ask me). To my embarassment I think I even petted a few of the headdresses. But at that moment, it didn't really matter. As long as I held soft cotton between my fingers, I was immune to reality.
When I had browsed the store a few times over, I finally descended back to Earth. I found myself near the window display that had entranced me earlier in the day. Standing next to the dress forms in my street clothes, I began to feel out of place. Despite the fact that I had put my hands on 90% of the items in the store, some part of me insisted that I didn't deserve to call this world my own. I timidly eyed the attendants who wore their impeccable outfits to and from work every day and thought I knew who the stars really shone for. Not me. Not the person who had nearly fallen into the bathtub twice trying to inspect their dress in the bathroom mirror. Or the person with the outfit that was an odd mix of Gothic, Sweet, and even Steampunk elements.
I accidentally caught the eye of an attendant who was wearing a tartan plaid ensemble. I feared that she had seen through me, but instead she just smiled beatifically in my direction. And then, after a moment of awkward silence, she undid me with a single question:
“Would you like to try anything on?”
Words that would normally be used to describe such a question include: “pleasant,” and “helpful.” But as a lone male in a Lolita shop, everything sounded different.
In my heart, the answer was swift: a bolded “yes” in 72 point font with about thirty exclamation points. But before I knew what was happening, I had turned her offer down. I could hardly believe the words exiting my lying mouth. In the space of a second, my mind had rationalized that there was nothing in my size anyway (which at 6 feet tall, is probably true, but still...). I managed to collect myself and utter some question about their petticoats. In response she offered a plethora of useful details on silhouette shape and layering, but my mind was too busy yelling at me to listen.
“It's not too late. You can still change your answer!” it pleaded. “Wouldn't it just be the easiest thing in the world to say: 'Hey, I think I will try something on. I mean, after all, I did fly 3,000 miles to do just that.' ?”
“Yes,” I thought. It would be easy. So I opened my mouth, summoned my courage, and said: “Can I buy a catalog?”
Oh for crying out loud....
Six dollars later I left the store with the BTSSB Spring/Summer catalog, the name of a good ramen place, and nothing more.
Shortly afterward I sat ineffectually slurping noodles from a bowl that had been heated at the core of the Earth. While I fiddled with my chopsticks, I turned the pleasant and helpful question over in my mind. I was still struck by its asking even thirty minutes later. In quite possibly the frilliest place on Earth™, what male would expect it? What male could prepare for it? Of course I had been loitering for about 30 minutes at that point, but I couldn't shake a feeling of unexpected acceptance.
I'm sure this all must seem silly to you. I can hear you thinking that it was only a simple question asked out of an obligation to customers. But that’s exactly it. The one thing I had never expected was to be treated as no different than any other patron. Even amongst friends I was met with skepticism about what I'd be “cosplaying” this year. EGL? Surely you must mean the male version? Here let me show you. As for my family? Forget about it. But if a total stranger could reach out to me, then I had better find it in myself to meet them half way. I slammed down the rest of my ramen (or as fast as you can eat ramen when 80% of the noodles fail to reach your mouth) and rushed back over to the store.
To find it tragically closed.
I stood out on the sidewalk, fighting a wave of disappointment. I had blown it. The whole point of the trip was gone in a moment of cowardice. I watched the cars go by and thought despondently of my walk home. But after a few minutes, I gripped my six dollar catalog and thought better of how the day had gone. I had tasted the sweet air that Momoko insists pervades the BTSSB stores. I had also found volunteered acceptance from those that I had (foolishly) never expected it from.
I stood up and crossed the street to the plaza that I had rested in earlier that day. It was now dark and quiet, the cosplayers having long since packed up their operation and went home. But next to their stage, I noticed a sign that I hadn't seen before. In neat block letters it read: “Peace Plaza.”
Somehow, I felt a little more at peace with myself than before.
*The job was certainly worth interviewing for, but it wasn't the first thing I thought about when I heard San Francisco =).