When I began working on this story, I was a Gambit intern — the poorest of the bunch. Finding dollar stores is easy when you're broke. Or at least it would have been easy before Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, but the local dollar store landscape has changed.
Since then, the New Orleans area has had a boom in national and regional chain bargain stores, such as Family Dollar, Dollar General and Dollar Tree — but also has seen the shuttering of many longtime dollar stores including The Penny Pantry in Chalmette, Dollar Castle in the 7th Ward and Silver Dollar Store in eastern New Orleans. The remaining local dollar stores are traditional in their having quirky inventories — but nontraditional in offering many items which cost more than one dollar.
The only store we found where absolutely everything costs one dollar is Dollar Tree (citywide; www.dollartree.com). Dollar Tree specializes in seasonal items and party goods, such as 3-D floral displays, blow-up balloon-grams and solar-powered hula girls (p. 27), teaching materials and cooking and cleaning supplies. Also, depending on the location, Dollar Tree offers name-brand frozen foods and movie theater candy. The mecca for New Orleans Dollar Tree shoppers is in Lakeview (5201 Canal Blvd., 488-0082).
Sometimes confused with Dollar Tree, Dollar General (citywide; www.dollargeneral.com) has a vast selection of clothes, books, DVDs, cleaning supplies, personal care items and name-brand foods. Dollar General also boasts an over-the-counter pharmaceutical inventory to rival most chain drugstores.
Years ago, the affordability of Family Dollar (citywide; www.familydollar.com) was the store's selling point, but with 39 stores in the greater New Orleans area — only six more than Dollar General — the selling point now is convenience. Family Dollar specializes in housewares, cleaning supplies, personal care items and groceries, making it a great place to outfit a dorm room. Two locations in particular (2125 Caton St., 283-7207; 3612 S. Carrollton Ave., 488-0077), thrive on the support of resident students at Dillard and Xavier University, respectively. A message broadcast periodically over the stores' intercoms suggests shoplifting may be to blame for the rise in prices: The message thanks customers for shopping and reminds them that all their activity is being recorded. A security employee in another location then asks employees if anything is amiss in the store. Employees respond dryly, leaving the store quiet until the next broadcast — a little too Big Brother for my taste.
The Buck Stop (1519 Metairie Road, Suite A, Metairie, 841-3405) specializes in items ranging from $1 to $3, including kitchen supplies, personal care items and beauty products. There is also a full inventory of greeting cards and stationery and a special section of items for people planning garage sales.
Dollar Zone Plus (712 Terry Pkwy., Terrytown, 394-0155) functions primarily as a party supply store, focusing on birthdays, quinceaneras, baby showers, weddings and bachelorette parties. Dollar Zone Plus also has a small selection of housewares, cleaning supplies (including the elusive baby-scented Fabuloso), religious candles and nursery items.
The largest traditional dollar store I've ever seen is Dollar World (9528 Westbank Expwy., Suite B2, Westwego, 437-1015). Dollar World has all the key features of a traditional dollar store: retro items like C.U.T.I.E. fashion-forward action figures from 1986 and musical boom-box pencil cases (pictured, top), interesting cleaning supplies like Care Bears fabric softener and Downy Libre Enjuague, comically terrible DVDs like the campy horror film Moonstalker and the obscure blaxploitation picture Black Fist and handy items like a banana slicer and TSA-approved travel containers.
Mohammad Ansari, former owner of a gift shop in the now-defunct Radisson Hotel on Canal Street and current owner of 99 Cent Warehouse (3116 Loyola Drive, Kenner, 467-1389), is struggling to stay afloat while competitors are constantly popping up nearby. "It's so hard to stay in business when people don't even know I'm here," he says. "They go to the Walmart, which used to be further down, and they go to the Dollar Tree and to the Family Dollar because that's all they see. I'm late on my rent right now. I can't own a store if I don't have a place to live. But I can't afford to compete with the big guys."
99 Cent Warehouse has many souvenir items for sale, undoubtedly a part of Ansari's unsold gift shop wares, and a colorful inventory overall. Among the most intriguing items are volumes of the 1988 edition of the Golden Book Encyclopedia, a wide selection of do-rags including children's sizes and ones in colors called Ebonics (silver) and Midas Touch (gold), Murray & Lanman Santeria supplies including Jackpot Money aerosol spray and umbrella hats. Shoppers also will find everyday items such as kitchen timers or medicated ointment.
Aids that promise sexual potency also are found at 99 Cent Warehouse. Such items include Ultimate Spanish Fly, with packaging that features a matador alongside a bare-breasted woman and her gape-mouthed lover, and Street Overlord "male enhancement," with packaging that features an anime couple engaged in a sexual encounter and a disembodied phallus. There's something for everyone — and it's cheap.