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Oct. 20 2009 - 12:05 pm | 524 views | 3 recommendations | 15 comments

Money changers in the church of Oprah: My trip to the Oprah Store

Winfrey on the cover of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Chicago store proprieter Oprah Winfrey. (Image via Wikipedia)

I hadn’t intended to make the pilgrimage, but when Mecca is around the corner, how can a person resist?

While my wife and I were having lunch with family in Chicago on Friday, our host casually mentioned that the Oprah store was around the corner — did we want to visit?

Did we? Normally, theme stores are not part of our tourism agenda — and I certainly have no need for an Oprah Winfrey key chain or whatever trinkets she sells to the masses of women who will happily stand in line to pay their tithe at the Church of Oprah. But what sealed the deal for me was the mention of “Oprah’s Closet” — a collection of designer clothing worn on the show by the big O herself. My mind reeled with visions of Donna Karan pants suits… blouses, turtlenecks and black boots so new the leather still squeaked. And all worn by Oprah — the daytime TV equivalent of a Lebron James’ game-worn jersey. How recently did she wear them? Would they still be warm? Would they smell like Oprah? (What does Oprah smell like? I’m guessing a combination of Burberry Touch, new leather, nail polish and wealth. Like sitting in a Bentley…)

The Oprah Store is kitty-corner from Oprah’s Harpo Studios in Chicago’s Near West Side — located in a refurbished brick warehouse.

The exterior of the Oprah Store. Worshippers queue up to the right.

The exterior of the Oprah Store. Worshippers queue up to the right, behind the "O"-flanked guard rail.

We got lucky this cloudy, drizzly autumn day. When we struggled to find the front door, an employee leaned out of the entrance and waved us in. Usually, there’s a line, she said — but the show’s morning taping had already ended and the afternoon one had yet to begin. We’d just missed a crushing rush on the store and had to hurry or we’d be caught up in the next one.

Upon entering the Oprah Store, I was immediately struck by two thoughts:

1. With exposed brick and pipes, loft-like ceilings and a cement floor, coupled with  adult-contemporary funk wafting in from hidden speakers, the store gives off a perfectly manicured industrial vibe. Housing as it does all manner of “Oprah” souvenirs and logo-embazoned tchotchokies, it’s like entering a very tasteful ESPN Zone.

2. Man, Oprah’s fans really love their lounge wear. If there’s a fabric in existence that can’t be stamped with the Oprah “O” and turned into a roomy hoodie and matching sweatpants, it isn’t in the Oprah store. From coral green to tangerine and from stretchy fleece to velveteen, Oprah knows what makes women comfortable, and what makes women comfortable, apparently, are boxy, shapeless, sexless sweat suits designed to make every woman look like a Florida mall-walker.

As our experience with the greeter proved, employees at The Oprah Store are cheerful, polite and helpful in a way that makes you think there must be a school of Oprah Knowledge and all store employees are required to take three semesters of classwork before they can qualify for public-facing placement in the empire of Oprah.

Indeed, the clerk behind the central, O-shaped counter was supremely chipper and not at all confrontational even as I broke the first rule of The Oprah Store: No photography.

As I lifted my phone to eye-level to snap a picture, the clerk walked briskly toward me, her heels clacking as she smiled and said “Excuse me, sir…”

I instinctively knew what she’d say next, so I hit the shutter button even as I turned to look at her.

“There’s no photography in the store, sir. I’m sorry…”

I put the phone back in my pocket confident that I’d already beaten the system. Little did I know, but would later discover, that the great and almighty Oprah had somehow blurred my picture, enforcing her will on me even as I tried to flout it.

“Can I ask why?” I said.

“It’s just policy in all the facilities… here and across the street.” She smiled and tilted her head with empathy.

I’ve dealt with enough phone and cable customer service representatives to know that “it’s company policy” translates into “it’s the rule and I don’t know why it’s the rule it just is and if you keep asking I’m just going to keep telling you it’s the rule so why don’t you just stop asking…” As I debated how far to push the situation, the clerk offered a novel solution.

The Oprah Chair.

The Oprah Chair.

Across from the entrance to the store is a camel-colored leather club chair. It sits next to the entrance to the dressing rooms, directly below a flat-panel TV monitor playing a loop of classic Oprah shows. Aside from seeming a bit undersized, it is nondescript in every way.

“You can take a picture of that chair, if you want,” my new Oprah sherpa told me. She must have noticed the quizzical look on my face. “It’s from the set of her show in 1997. You can sit in it and have your picture taken.”

It seems I wasn’t the first person to want to snap a picture of the Oprah store, so to appease the shutterbugs among her fans, Oprah has thrown out a bone — a 12-year-old leather chair against an unadorned wall in the corner of the store in which fans can get their picture taken.

It’s remarkably condescending — a simple chair against a flat wall is supposed to please the O-postles? It’s as if the powers that be declared that if you’re cheap enough to want to leave the Oprah Store with only a free souvenir, it should be the blandest souvenir possible.

Yours truly in The Chair.

Yours truly in The Chair.

Of course I sat in it.

My Oprah clerk wandered back to her post and I wandered off in the quest of my ultimate prize — Oprah’s Closet.

On my way I passed a display of shirts and hats touting the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (the proceeds go to support it), a wall of South African crafts and home accessories and all the O-branded tote bags, tableware, key chains and stationery you can shake a Dr. Oz at. The store’s walls, along with T-shirts and mugs and more, are emblazoned with a series of blandly inspirational platitudes from the lady herself, including “Live your own dreams” and the very puzzling “Become more of yourself” — which seems an odd turn of phrase from a woman who preaches endless self-improvement; instead of being better, just be more of what you already are. What if I’m an asshole?

And then I saw it: The Closet. And frankly… it’s a little disappointing.

Oprah’s Closet is literally a closet — a large, carved wooden wardrobe in a dark far corner of the store. It contains no more than 10 or 12 pieces (I’m told that’s the fashionably correct phrase) — on this day an Ellen Tracy blouse, a Donna Karan leather jacket, a pants suit that bore the distinct cut of Richard Tyler. Not much to fall in love with, I thought. And given Oprah’s public battle with weight, who knows what sizes are available…

Which brings me to the oddest part of Oprah’s Closet: you can’t try anything on.

While ringing up my wife’s small purchase (we’re not made of stone, people), my Oprah Store clerk noticed a middle-aged woman heading toward the dressing room carrying a number of items, among them a black skirt.

She turned to a man browsing the shelves by himself — and with a nod of the head toward the middle-aged woman, loudly whispered, “Closet item!”

The man, who I thought was a customer but turned out to be an employee, sprang into action. With silent footsteps and a powerful gait, he quickly sidled up to the customer, and though I couldn’t hear the conversation, politely talked her into relinquishing the skirt.

“What just happened?” I asked.

“Oh, you can’t try on the clothes from Oprah’s Closet,” the clerk told me.

“Why not?”

“To preserve the integrity of the items and ensure that Oprah was the last person to wear them.” She smiled.

But they’re dry-cleaned, right? I thought to myself. Does that not break the chain of integrity?

I dropped the matter, but still thought about it as we left the store. In retrospect, I can understand why such a rule exists. I can imagine the clerks — trained to be polite come hell or high water — battling every day through gritted teeth with Oprah-obsessed fans who descend on the store after a taping, each looking to don an Oprah jumper in the dressing room just to say they put it on. I can imagine these expensive clothes being manhandled by housewives from Kenosha, snapping pictures of each other in one of Oprah’s Ellen Tracy skirts just to show the folks back home.

But that means a woman who wants to buy something from Oprah’s Closet has to buy it and just hope it will fit. And given the prices of the designer duds — and Oprah’s markup — that’s an expensive bet. But the proceeds go to support Oprah’s Angel Network of charities, so I suppose that softens the blow.

There’s no denying the massive success that built the Oprah Store. And it’s a success to be respected. But in the end, the Oprah Store is a tightly constructed microcosm of the sometimes awkward dual personalities embodied by the Divine Miss O herself. There’s the noble effort to draw attention and money to charitable works, but it’s surrounded by the ego that stamps the Oprah name on every set of yoga leggings and slipper-socks under the sun. There are bookshelves filled with the works of Oprah’s frequent guests instructing readers about the transformative power of self-reflection and inner success, but with shelves chock-ablock with Oprah’s “favorite things,” the entire store is also a temple to me-too consumerism. And while Oprah’s inspirational sayings implore her fans to live their own best lives, the store is carefully constructed to keep folks buying into the Oprah-approved (and “O”-branded) version of what a best life is.

And with that, I walked out to live my own best life on my trip to Chicago — and that included a Polish with mustard and relish:

Mmmmmmm...

Mmmmmmm... The antidote to The Oprah Store.


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  1. collapse expand

    Matthew,
    This is wonderful. And I love the ending, both the wrap-up paragraph and the hot dog photo.
    My own little O story. I attended an O Show early in my AOL days… geez nearly 10 years ago. Under every chair was a box of tissues. She makes ‘em cry for everything.

  2. collapse expand

    A box of tissues by every chair. Just like any self-respecting shrink!

  3. collapse expand

    No need for such snarky treatment of this successful former working journalist, who figured out 25 years ago how to make big money off the news business. Seems like the real source of your distress is summed up just before the last graf: “…surrounded by the ego that stamps the Oprah name on every set of yoga leggings and slipper-socks under the sun.” Of course,if it were the Greenberg brand, the ego trip would be justly earned. This piece is not really about being forbidden to wrap yourself in Oprah Winfrey’s sweaty designer castoffs. The essay is tinged with jealousy about how she (and Kingworld) ultimately turned her schmaltz into success. And it’s also overflowing with envy. She got rich and powerful because of a priceless ability to draw in not only audience, but also fawning drones as guests and STAFF to serve her professional needs. Stop acting like a closet case hung up on a stink red silk petticoat from Mr. Rhett, wipe the mustard off your lips, and go see if Harpo has a job for you. BTW, you should rethink the limp-wiener in a hot bun as the illustration for this piece.

    • collapse expand

      Laaron — you must have missed the part where I mentioned how O’s success is to be admired and there is much she does with that success to make the world better.

      By your calculations, any arts/entertainment criticism that isn’t pure obsequious fawning must be sprung from a deep font of nothing but naked jealousy. I’m glad you’re incorrect, because otherwise much of the press would be very, very boring.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        You misinterpret what I said and reinterpret your own statements. 1.) You make only a passing reference to her leadership academy but only in relation to the tchotchkes. You talk about the Angel Network similarly. That’s NOT a discussion of using her admirable success to better the world as your response suggested. 2.) Don’t say “By your calculation” because it is NOT my calculation. It’s really MG’s erroneous summary of my premise. Don’t say “any arts/entertainment criticism…” because my point is not so absolute. Anyway you missed the point. I was only making an observation that the snark overload over sweaty petticoats suggests something else amiss.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    LOL at the O-basher’s* wife buying her very own “me-too item”. *Maybe “bash” is too harsh a verb here, but “one who eploits Oprah’s fame to exercise one’s literary talents” didn’t flow well in the sentence. Having said that, the piece was very good and funny. Hahahahaha @ “Become more of yourself” — which seems an odd turn of phrase from a woman who preaches endless self-improvement; instead of being better, just be more of what you already are. What if I’m an asshole?” rofl…

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    About Me

    I left journalism school with one goal in mind: to work at TV Guide. It didn't happen. So, I stuck with my day-job: retyping entertainment listings into the Prodigy computer service for The Los Angeles Times. Dial-up modems got faster and I stuck with the Web -- launching, editing and innovating national, political and feature news Web sites for ABC News, The Washington Post and AOL. I've spent 15 years making other people's content look good on computer screens. It's time the shoe finally landed on the other foot...

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