I have always called it Claire's Boutique. In 2016, the company does official business as Claire's Stores, Inc., but the classy boutique will always sound right to me.
My first defining Claire's moment was getting my ears pierced — second hole — at age seven. Very advanced for a second-grader, but I had one of those cool moms. Claire's is best known for its costume baubles: sparkling earrings, mood rings, crystal body tattoos. The big shtick was (and continues to be) a free ear piercing when you buy a pair of earrings. I remember purple fixtures and a purple logo and considered it all to be sort of expensive even though it really wasn't. (There were those famous five-for-$10 sales.) I was a child of the Pittsburgh suburbs; Claire's was my connection to a broader, much cooler world: slap bracelets, body glitter, rave-inspired pacifier necklaces.
And yet, any mention of Claire's and those sparkly memories quickly float out of my head and my cheeks flush with aggravation. The details are a bit tedious, but all you need to know is that at age 13 I was accused by a store manager of stealing a rainbow-colored beaded daisy chain. I didn't do it! My moral fibers were wound entirely too tight at that point to attempt any sort of robbery, no matter how minor. I managed to escape somewhat vindicated, but not as much as I would have liked. The woman still believed I stole the necklace, even though my guilt could not be proved.
Minutes after leaving Claire's, I ran into two other girls from school. They were also on an adrenaline high, but for the opposite reason. They were actual thieves, bragging about stealing beaded rings from the jewelry counter at Macy's. To get away with it, they popped them under their tongues. I was deflated for the second time in less than an hour. If being accused of stealing weren't bad enough, I knew those girls had somehow surpassed me. Not only had they intended to steal, they were savvy enough to get away with it. It illustrated that they were ready for life, and boys, and high school. The Claire's incident reminded me that I wasn't.
It turns out that, for many, Claire's was a place for firsts. Your first ear piercing, your first attempt at thievery, your first experience with self-expression, maybe even the first time you pulled bills out of your wallet and handed them to a cashier without the assistance of an adult. "I totally experimented at Claire's," my friend Anna says. "Piercing, stealing sunglasses. Also, it was the spot to get body glitter. Remember that? And those gem tattoos." Bruce Gaslow, a retail executive who spent nearly 20 years of his career at Claire's, says it was the first place many girls got a taste of independence. "The parents didn't even walk into the store, they just gave the kid five or ten dollars and let them go in alone," he remembers. "Nobody really bothered them. They were free to destroy the store! Nobody chased them. It was their place and their time."
Carlye, a work acquaintance who I wouldn't mind someday calling my friend, still shops at Claire's despite the fact she is nearly 30. (According to the Claire's corporate website, the target audience is between the ages of 3 and 18). "Their Katy Perry collection is UNREAL," she recently wrote me. "It has the world's best cell-phone cases. I spent almost a year trying to track down the burger cell-phone case she debuted at the VMAs." Unsurprisingly, Carlye's Claire's obsession stems from childhood, when her grandparents once lost her in a mall because she was so entranced by the earring trees that she wandered in without mentioning where she was going.