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Everything you always wanted to know
about shopping
and weren't afraid to ask Corky.

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At Broadway Panhandler (477 Broome Street; 966-3434) commercial-weight baking pans in all sizes (including graduated pans for tier cakes), are shelved alongside the 250 kinds of shaped cake pans and the 345 kinds of cookie cutters, which are next to the thirteen kinds of rolling pins. For icing, there are spreaders, piping tools, decorative ornaments, even sprinkles and a full line of food coloring. It's an overwhelming maze of baking and pastry equipment, but the staff is expert in rescuing the culinarily confused.

Business Cases

My attaché case has just gone to its last reward. Where's the best place to look for a replacement?

Tops on my list would be Crouch & Fitzgerald (400 Madison Avenue, at 48th Street; 755-5888): No store in New York devotes more space to business cases, and no other store can match its range of styles, leathers, colors, and prices. Most are traditional and come in saddle or belting leathers, but recent hot sellers have been Tumi and Hartmann's lightweight and rugged ballistic nylon cases. You can get a good case for $395, if you're not intent on projecting an image -- for that expect to pay $550. The haute-est is a Goldpfeil ($900); the poshest, an alligator attaché ($5,000).

If your checking account will allow it, stop at Seeger (400 Madison Avenue, near 48th Street; 593-7678) next door. A Crouch & Fitzgerald licensee, this German company has been manufacturing luggage since 1889, and its luxe business cases are handmade in Germany of down-soft napa-lamb skin, deeply dyed so scratches don't show. Everything in this elegant little shop is black and sleekly understated, except the prices: at least $900, most around $2,000.

Top executives consider the Peal & Company metal box the only business case befitting their stature. It's made in England and available exclusively at Brooks Brothers (346 Madison Avenue, at 44th Street; 682-8800). But it's not just snob appeal (and price: $1,385) that attracts them to these cases, with their hunter-green leather lining; they have stainless-steel frames, not wooden ones, so they're lighter than most; the leather is hand-stitched; and, I'm told, they last at least twenty years.

It's nearly impossible to wear out a Coach (342 Madison Avenue, near 44th Street; 599-4777) business case. The leathers are so durable and the hardware indestructible. And prices are surprisingly gentle (from $400 to $795 for a bridle-leather zip-top brief). In the past the styling has been a tad uninspired, but recently it was radically updated, so now, in addition to Coach's classics, there are voguish cases in sleek black calfskin with nickel hardware.

If price is an object, the legendary Altman Luggage Company (135 Orchard Street; 254-7275) offers deep discounts on business cases by many of the major companies. Its stock is enormous -- though pretty standard and traditional -- but with a 30 to 50 percent discount off list, you may not care.

Engagement Rings

Do you know any secret sources for buying a diamond engagement ring?

No, and that's probably a good thing. Diamonds are costly, totally blind items, and since each stone is unique, it's impossible to truly compare prices. First ask yourself how much you want to spend and what kind of diamond you're looking for. Do you want a perfect stone or a large one? It would be wise to learn something about the four C's of diamond buying: carat (unit of weight), cut (shape and faceting of the stone, and how well it's proportioned), color (how white or colorless), and clarity (the number and size of the impurities). Everyone I know has gone the Tiffany or friend-of-a-friend route. With the big names you may end up paying a little more, but they'll be honest about the diamond you're getting and how it falls on the rating scale. And surprisingly, you can get a diamond engagement ring (modest in size but high in quality) for under $1,000 at Tiffany & Company (727 Fifth Avenue, at 57th Street; 755-8000). If you buy from a neighborhood store, in the diamond district, or through the friend connection, insist on taking the ring to an independent appraiser (Macy's Herald Square has an excellent department, or try the International Gemological Institute) and make sure you have a written money-back guarantee. If you've paid $1,000 for the ring in your neighborhood store and the appraisal comes in at $1,000, that's okay, but if you bought it from a friend of a friend (who allegedly is giving you a super deal), that $1,000 ring should be appraised for at least $2,000.

Classic Toys

I'm familiar with the catalogues, but are there still stores in New York that sell toy soldiers and electric trains? And who has the best selection of dolls?

Walk into Steve Balkin's seriously cluttered downstairs shop and, irrationally, you find yourself wanting -- needing -- a regiment of toy soldiers. Burlington Antique Toys (1082 Madison Avenue, near 82nd Street; 861-9708) is such a relic of what collecting was once all about: a friendly spot where you could sit and schmooze for hours. Ostensibly, the talk is about buying toy soldiers, but philosophy, the state of the world, child-rearing, and old times are bound to creep in. Balkin is the custodian of thousands of soldiers, about half originals and half new. Among his earliest are Britains (turn-of-the-century and pre-1966 hollow-cast figures), Mignot of France, and Heyde of Germany. New favorites include the New Zealand battalions by Imperial. Balkin's average customer? Not a dad with his kids, but a man in his fifties who has finished paying for his children's education and can now indulge a long-suppressed passion.

Jay Facciolo and Jon Rettich's passion is vehicles -- like Corgi Lotus Elans and VW Combis -- but they've also got a warm spot for toy soldiers. At their Classic Toys (218 Sullivan Street; 674-4434), boxes and boxes of sets are piled all over the floor, and the glass cases hold originals dating to 1893. They have the Britains, the Heydes, and the Marxes (old American figures), but Classic Toys is the place to come for plastic toy soldiers both old and new.

Awesome is the only adjective for the Red Caboose (23 West 45th Street, lower level; 575-0155). To the casual observer it feels chaotic -- the phone rings incessantly, the stacks of boxes threaten to topple. But there is order to the jumble, and the inventory of model trains is mind-blowing. Owner Allan Spitz can reel off a running annotation on the locomotives, cars, cabooses, doodlebugs, Mother Hubbards, tracks, and accessories. He has all the top names (Marklin, Lionel, Athearn, Bachmann, Kato, Croat), every scale, and everything from the IRT to the Southern Pacific.

For trains to hide under the Christmas tree, Stuyvesant Trains & Hobbies (345 West 14th Street, second floor; 254-5200) is the place. Though Tony Picciuto's store is pint-size, his stock is large and includes a sprinkling of prewar Lionels, all the current Lionel lines (Union Pacific, Illinois Central, New York Central, etc.), all the gauges, and scads of tracks and accessories. Picciuto, another in the long line of hobby-shop armchair philosophers, sees the electric train as much more than a toy: "It's a learning tool, fostering common sense, creativity, and ingenuity."

Dolls you know, and dolls you never even knew existed, are among the zillions at FAO Schwarz (767 Fifth Avenue, at 58th Street; 644-9400): from Baby Wiggles & Giggles to California Roller Baby to Madame Alexander's Dionne Quintuplets to Statue of Liberty Barbie. Ed Jacobowitz of the Manhattan Dollhouse Shop (236A Third Avenue, near 19th Street; 253-9549) primarily sells dollhouses, but he's been laying down a stock of dolls for twenty-odd years and now has the city's second-largest collection. Among his horde are Madame Alexanders both old and new, vintage dolls in native dress, early Barbies, babies with porcelain faces, rag dolls, and the Historical Society's limited-edition dolls. A Bear's Place (789 Lexington Avenue, near 61st Street; 826-6465) is not limited to bears. This mom-pop-and-son store also brokers a selective assortment of primarily collectible dolls -- Susan Wakeen, Gotz, and Berchet. For the city's largest selection of TV-advertised dolls that talk, eat, and do more than wet, it's Toys 'R' Us (24-32 Union Square, at 14th Street, 674-8697; and 1293 Broadway, at 33rd Street, 594-8697). There are dozens of Special Edition Barbies, but this national discount chain also has a huge inventory of baby dolls that kids can actually play with.


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