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Crashing the Peterman Party

January 7, 2012

Technically it wasn’t breaking and entering. The place was already open, you see, though I suppose not to everyone just yet. I guess for any of this to make sense, I’ll have to go back to the beginning…

We were having a nice romantic dinner out and I said to my girlfriend,

“You know, the J. Peterman store is having their grand opening party tonight.”

“What?! When does it start?!”

“It started about a half-hour ago.”

“Let’s go!”

“We weren’t invited.”

“So what?”

“I guess we could go down and peek in the windows. Maybe they’ll open up the store to the riff-raff after an hour or two.”

Long before Seinfeld made a character and catalog called J. Peterman a household name, my girlfriend had been collecting their illustrated catalogs. The flowery descriptions in the catalog weren’t far off from how Seinfeld portrayed them. She had shoebox full of the catalogs. She was a bit of nut when it came to fashion illustrations and vintage (or vintage-looking) clothes, so the Peterman catalog was her favorite.

We drove to the shopping center where the store was. Because we were out on a romantic dinner, we were dressed up more than the average mall-goer. We approached the store and could see a bunch of rectangular tables forming a U-shaped barricade in front of the store, separating the party from the rest of the mall. But the area was empty–the party had moved into the store.

We walked closer and could see a small gap in between two tables, presumably where guests were initially let in to the party.

“I see him,” she whispered.

“Who?” I said.

“Peterman! He’s here. Let’s go meet him.”

“You want to crash the party?!”

“There’s no one watching. What’s the big deal? We’re dressed up anyway.”

“Oh God. Alright,” I said grudgingly.

They say the best way to crash any event is to act like you belong, so that’s what we did. We walked through the gap in the tables and into the store. I did my best to look calm and relaxed, though I did see one or two partygoers glance in our direction as we walked in. My girlfriend immediately started taking the store in, looking the clothes and displays. I politely refused servers offering appetizers, fearing that alarms might go off with my first bite. We canvased the entire store in about a half-hour.

“Now what,” I said.

“I want to get his autograph.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s outside!”

Indeed he was outside, talking to a couple on their way out of the party. My wife grabbed a store postcard from the cashwrap (they were out of the catalogs) and we got in line behind the couple.

They say don’t meet famous people, you’ll be disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed by Mr. Peterman, but he was nothing like “Peterman” on Seinfeld. Whereas the character was a bit over-the-top, silver-haired, and had a booming voice, the real Peterman was down-to-earth, had brown hair (with a mustache), and spoke normally.

“Mr. Peterman,” my girlfriend said, “it’s a beautiful store.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Would you sign this for us?”

“Sure, sure.”

We said our thanks, shook hands, and left.

Walking back to our car, we were giddy with what had happened. I’ve always been on the shy side, so crashing an event like that would have been unthinkable had my girlfriend not pushed me. She was always surprising me like that, though I’ve done my own share. I married her a year-and-a-half later.

Some of our collection of J. Peterman catalogs

The postcard that J. Peterman autographed. Four years and four days later, we would become parents.

Peterman was able to open a bunch of stores in the late 90s through selling some of his company to investors that provided the funds to do so. Unfortunately, Seinfeld ended the same month we met him, and the market for his clothes and trinkets wasn’t as large as expected. A few years later, all the stores closed, and Peterman was ousted from his company. The company sputtered around for a few years until an interesting thing happened. In that time, the real Peterman and the Seinfeld Peterman, John O’Hurley, had become friends. Such good friends in fact, that they along with a few other investors bought and revived the company. It’s turning a profit again and growth is slower, but more manageable.

When the store we crashed was closing, we picked up a few things. I got a bottle of 1903 cologne, some containers of shaving cream and a couple of bottles of aftershave balm, which I’m still going through. My wife loves the smell of the cologne.

We also got a beautiful Art Deco reproduction poster for a tenth of its original price (though framing it brought it closer to the original price). It hangs in our living room today.

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