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The Pleasures of Life Dept.

Rockin’ Deals Around the Christmas Tree

Find more than you bargain for at Burlington Outlet Village

By David Claude Bailey

“Josh would be all about this,” I say, digging into the box containing an electronic squirrel-proof bird feeder. It’s August, hot as blazes outside and the spirit of Christmas shopping glows dimly in Anne’s eyes.

“Delivers a mild electric correction,” Anne says, looking it up on her phone. “$148 — half of which is $74. That’s a little steep for a bird feeder.” I agree, putting it back on the shelf at J&R Liquidations in Burlington Outlet Village. I also put the chicken-coop heater back, deciding that it might be like giving your special someone a vacuum cleaner or nose-hair removal kit for Christmas. Still earlier, though, I had scored two boxes of Lindt Gourmet Truffles for $8 each at J&R’s food outlet. Retail price? About $25 each — and, no, they aren’t expired. I resisted the 7-pound can of Italian gourmet Amarena wild-cherry syrup for $20 (retail: $80-plus), but did snag the plant-based “beef” jerky for a friend and thought about buying her some Tree-Free Toilet Paper, “It’s up to us to save our butts!” ($6 for 12 rolls.)

I’ve always loved discount shopping and every Christmas I’m on the lookout for over-the-top, gag gifts for friends and relatives. And Burlington Outlet Village (BOV) definitely offers laughs for less. I inherited the discount shopping bug from my dad, who loved nothing more than buying day-old doughnuts and dented cans — in fact, just about anything with a neon “Marked Down” sticker. (He also ordered stuff from those tiny display ads that once crowded the back of magazines. My sister and I still howl about a hot dog cooker that electrocuted the wieners with the touch of a switch, completing a circuit from one end of the dog to the other — causing them to sizzle, hiss and moan.)

For those of you high rollers, BOV was the site of the Tar Heel State’s very first discount shopping center, founded as Burlington Manufacturers Outlet Center (BMOC) by no less than Stanley Tanger, father of Steven, as in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts and Greensboro-based Tanger Outlets. But let’s flash back a few decades to my hometown of Reidsville, where Stanley Tanger was CEO of Creighton Shirts, to the day when he got sick and tired of absorbing pricey shirts returned by huge retailers wanting to balance their inventory. So he set up an employees store, where I remember buying, for a song, a fashionably pink, button-down Oxford — and loads of irregular army duds. Soon, Tanger was operating five outlet stores around the Triad, an enterprise he quickly realized “was more profitable, really, than making shirts and selling them to retailers.”

In 1981, he opened BMOC, an almost-instant success, with literally busloads of shoppers showing up to scarf up name-brand bargains. Forty-two years later, the company, with Steven Tanger as CEO, owns and/or manages 37 centers in 20 states and Canada, leasing 2,700 stores. But the years have not been as kind to BMOC, today’s BOV. Many of the name-brand stores moved to the tonier Tanger Outlet in Mebane. Others closed. Nowadays, it does what a lot of other struggling shopping centers do: hosts either specialty stores — Steve’s Leather selling motorcycle-related garb, for instance — or churches, day-care centers, hair dressers, bars, ethnic markets, nail salons, nonprofits, gyms and shops on the margins of mainstream consumerism looking for a safe space with reasonable rent. 

Five years ago, J&R opened its first storefront. “Now, we’ve got five stores here and 25,000 followers on Facebook,” says Joe Black, the “J” in J&R. Merchandise includes returns and surplus from Lowe’s, Target, Amazon, Walmart. “You name it,” he says, hawking everything from lawn mowers to leaf-blowers, vacuum cleaners to a Pearl drum set! In one of his stores, you pay half of the lowest retail price you can find on the internet. Customers have 30 days to return items, provided they keep the receipt.

J&R’s stores are more than a little messy, with piles of products cascading off display tables onto the floor and aisles, which are sometimes blocked with even more goods waiting for a shelf or table to open up. “It’s a jumble,” Black admits, “but people love to hunt around like at a yard sale.”

“Beer soap, $4 a bar,” Anne says, “and, yes, it smells just like beer.”

“For the same price we can get someone a gallon can of boiled peanuts,” I counter.

We’re back in J&R’s food outlet, half of which comprises a dollar store where everything is, in fact, still one dollar. Peeps-flavored Pepsi anyone? Or a 2-pound box of Kinder eggs? And there are literally hundreds of purple brassieres, $1 each.

Anne avoids eye contact with me and slips off to Ann Hope’s Corner by Peter Rabbit Consignment, where she scores some new baby clothes for our soon-to-be grandchild. A fleet of Grayson strollers sits on the sidewalk with a half-dozen children’s bikes. Gently used toys, games, books, along with junior and maternity clothes crowd the aisles, where more heaps of goods await pricing and stocking.

Looking for dozens of matching dining chairs or hundreds of identical lamps and lampshades? Stop in the Hotel Liquidation Store, where we bought a handsome bedstead a few years ago. Across the way, Hollo’s Bargains 4 U features teaching and instructional material, along with cake decorating and baking supplies, party goods and closeouts of every ilk. Sphinx Home Furniture features ornate gold- and silver-inlaid Rococo furnishings handmade in Egypt. Whether you’re looking for handcuffs or a bullet-proof vest, Davis Public Safety’s the place to go. Safa Market offers Armenian string cheese and other Middle Eastern groceries, and Sweet Rice Asian Market sells gallons of boba tea to Elon students. But I think the most unique outlet is What’s All the Rage, an axe-throwing venue where you can “unleash your inner lumberjack” and engage in family-friendly paint-splash and rage-room sessions.

Admittedly, shoppers are no longer showing up by the busload, but, as Steve Tanger once observed, “In good times people like a bargain. In not so good times, they need a bargain.” As for me? Thanks to my dad, I enjoy bargains 24/7, just like those, now, 28,000 shoppers who follow J&R on Facebook. As for my friends and family, be careful what you wish for. I just might find it.  OH

David Claude Bailey, a contributing editor at O.Henry, was gratefully only partially named after his father, Claude Colonelue Bailey.