June 23, 1998


Josh Becker

        I live across the street from a 99-cent store and have for over four years. I shop there generally once a month. Those are my credentials.
        First of all, 99-Cent stores are a major U.S. distribution network for red Chinese products, many of which are undoubtedly made by political prisoners, which is why they’re so damn cheap. That hasn’t stopped me from buying these products on a number of occasions, but I do feel a twinge of guilt when I do it. I purchased a full-sized claw hammer that works perfectly well except that the head has come loose. It was made by "Two-Axe Brand" with two crossed axes as a logo, and has a warning sticker that reads, "Please take on your proof eyeglasses and coork gloves when using." I have found this advice invaluable.
        I got some light bulbs there, also from China, which are 130 volts instead of 120 volts, and have different threads than ours that will not screw into any socket. You can kind of force them in at an angle and they’ll even light up, but the bulb won’t stay in. However, since I got four bulbs for 99 cents I still feel like I got a good deal.
        I’ve never attempted to return anything to the 99-cent store, nor would I ever consider it. With their nearly exclusive non-English speaking help I’m always surprised they function as a business in America to begin with. They have one ATM swiper for four registers, frequently causing traffic jams. However the parking lot is always jammed, often blocking the street, and frequently with expensive cars. No question about it, everybody likes to get a good deal.
        There are certain items that I am no longer willing to pay more than 99 cents for under any circumstances: batteries, tin foil, laundry soap, cleaning products, bath soap, shaving cream, kitchen utensils. I make a monthly trip across the street and stock up, filling a grocery bag for less than ten dollars. I know and accept, though, that at least one item, possibly several, will be complete junk.
        Many products that end up at the 99-cent stores are simply new products that have failed to sell for one reason or another and now the manufacturer is happy to get anything for them. Sometimes the product itself is fine, but the packaging somehow went wrong. If a name manufacturer made a product and they’ve ended up dumping it in the 99-cent store, you can just bet that there’s something wrong with it.
        For instance, I just bought a bottle of Dow liquid cleanser. The cleanser works just fine, but the bottle was particularly difficult to open. The second time I opened it, the top broke off and shot across the room. I have a bottle of bathroom grout cleaner that won’t spray or clean grout. I have two bottles of all-purpose spray cleaners, one is called "Awesome," with the declaration, "As seen on TV," and the other is "XCELL Simple Orange," with the header: "100% Natural! Biodegradable! Non-Toxic!" Unhappily, neither pump bottle will actually spray. When I push the button it foams up and leaks all over my hand. Luckily, at least one of them is non-toxic.
        I got four rolls of paper towel for 99 cents, but there were no serrations and it couldn’t be torn without it looking like a wild animal had shredded it with their teeth. These rolls of paper towel remained in my cupboard for years as the final backup in case of gigantic spills.
        I also got a sponge-mop there that literally disintegrated the first time I used it. No piece of the mop was truly connected to any other piece and the wooden handle was completely rotten. As I extended it for the first time I nearly fell on my face. This item was the single worst piece of crap I’ve encountered at the 99-cent store.
        I’m presently using "Rise Super Foam" shaving cream that I purchased at the 99-cent store. No matter how short a burst of shaving cream I squirt into my palm, it’s always at least five times too much. And it’s so ridiculously foamy that it almost doesn’t function as shaving cream, sort of floating on top of the skin and beard. It seems better suited to putting out chemical fires.
        I buy Lux bath soap there. It think it’s perfectly OK soap, it smells fine, it doesn’t get too mushy, it washes off cleanly, and I get four bars for 99 cents. However, my main reason for using it is that it reminds me of Carson McCuller’s book, play and movie, "The Member of the Wedding," wherein Frankie, the 12-year old lead character, tells Bernice, the black, one-eyed housekeeper, that Luxembourg sounds beautiful. Bernice sighs, "It just puts me in mind of soapy water."
        I got several bars of nicely packaged Yardley soaps in various fragrances. Sadly, after only one use the fragrance goes away leaving nothing but a gooey, second-rate bar of soap that smells like an industrial product.
        I purchased a tube of Crest brand toothpaste there that was manufactured in Chile, for 99 cents. Somehow it’s possible to manufacture toothpaste in Chile -- an 11-hour flight away in another hemisphere -- ship it to America, wholesale it for fifty cents and make money. Whereas a tube of Crest manufactured here in America and sold here in America costs over three dollars. Unfortunately for global economics the Chilean Crest smelled like shit and tasted bad, too. One try and the whole tube went into the crapper. You might rightly ask why I would put something that smelled like shit in my mouth and I would have no good response. Research for this essay, yeah, that’s it.
        I purchased an interesting item that, I believe, had an honest-to-God chance, but didn’t make it. A sealed, disposable peppermill filled with peppercorns. It worked fine and never needed refilling, thus giving you fresh ground pepper anytime you wanted. But I guess most people just want their pepper ground for them these days.
        I have a little bottle of instant coffee from the 99-cent store that tastes just awful. I keep it in case of a nuclear war. I also have a bottle of salsa picante, hecho en Mexico, that’s too hot for human consumption. And I have a can of 97% fat free chunk white chicken that I haven’t yet had the guts to open. Cheap food products can be scary.
        They also sell books there, too. I picked up "Robinson Crusoe" and "White Fang," both "Complete and unabridged" and published by Book Essentials Promotions, Inc. It states on the top-right corner of the book, "$4.95 USA/$5.95 CAN," which I would guess was their dream that went something like this: "We make ‘em for 43-cents and then sell ‘em for five bucks. We’ll be rich!" The reality of retailing for 99-cents is that you can just bet that they never pay more than 50-cents for anything, ever. One can also find anticipated bestsellers in hardcover that didn’t quite become the bestseller the publisher hoped for, such as a biography of the Menendez brothers, and Faye Resnick’s book about Nicole Brown and O.J. Simpson.
        I have purchased my yearly calendar at the 99-cent store for the past three years. For 1996 and 1997 I was able to get Impressionist calendars with beautiful reproductions of Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, etc. This year I was unable to get an Impressionist calendar so I settled for "Scenic Wonders," colorful photographs of pretty places. What’s interesting is that all three calendars were manufactured in Australia and have all the British, Australian, and British Commonwealth holidays noted on them. For instance, some of the little known holidays in May are: May 5th – National Teacher’s Day, May 6th – Ashura, May 14th – Lag B’Omer, May 16th – Armed Forces Day, May 18th – Victoria Day (Can.), and May 25th – Spring Bank Holiday (U.K.).
        Recently, I have purchased several pairs of 100% cotton socks that are a tad shorter than I expected, although not short enough to be considered ankle socks. Nevertheless, I think they’re worth the money. If I’m wearing 99-cent socks I don’t think twice about running outside in my stocking feet.
        The 99-cent store is not the place to become fond of a certain product or manufacturer because once they’ve sold out their stock they probably will never get anymore ever again.
        Looking at the various failed products in the 99-cent store often makes me feel sad. As Ambrose Bierce once said, "The death of endeavor is the birth of disgust." There are many failed, disgusted people running around whose seemingly great inventions and revolutionary new products have ended up at the 99-cent store. The bottom-line, no doubt, is that it’s better to get fifty cents (wholesale) for your item than to get nothing at all.