The power of the purse

Perhaps no other handbag has been coveted more than the Hermès Birkin bag, not just for its fine craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail but for what wearing it symbolizes.

As Samantha Jones – who in one episode of “Sex and The City” attempted to hoodwink her way into getting a red one – famously tells her friend, “Oh, honey, it’s not so much the style. It’s what carrying it means.” Twelve years since actress Kim Cattrall uttered those words on the HBO series, the must-have accessory’s allure shows no signs of abating.

“It’s the iconic status symbol. The Birkin says, ‘I have money and I want people to know it,’” says Kori Malandrino, social media and web director for Penny Pincher Consignment Boutique in Bedford Hills.

And it’s the crown jewel of Penny Pincher, which despite the name isn’t your run-of-the-mill consignment shop. Since owner Melinda Arkin opened its doors 24 years ago, Penny Pincher has grown into the largest consignment shop in Westchester County.

Wholly handcrafted by a single artisan and embellished with a discreet padlock, keys and hardware, the eternal “it” bag – which starts at $10,000 and can run as high as $150,000 for the limited editions made of crocodile or ostrich or encrusted with diamonds – has a waiting list that can span years. This might explain why a secondary market like Penny Pincher has seen an explosion since the bags were first introduced in 1984.

For Arkin, the talisman of style symbolizes understated chicness: “It’s for a very powerful woman who’s very understated and doesn’t need to be flashing Louis Vuitton, Chanel or anything with logos hanging off it. I mean, if you turn the bag around and if someone weren’t a savvy shopper, they wouldn’t know it was Hermès.”

Penny Pincher store manager Michele Cunningham adds, “Very rarely does a man come in here to buy a Birkin bag for his wife or girlfriend. It’s usually the woman who has made a conscious decision. She makes enough money. She does her own thing. She’s her own woman, and she comes in and plunks down the $15k for the Birkin bag. It’s not like, ‘Oh, my husband’s buying me a bag.’”

Naively, I ask the bevy of saleswomen who work at Penny Pincher, including the store’s Hermès specialist and eBay director, Lisa Dorset, if the famed waiting list includes one for the basic black Birkin, which evokes howls of laughter among the women.

“No, you’ll never get the black bag,” says Arkin with a smile on her face.

“That’s the coveted one. The black with the gold hardware in a 35cm is what every woman that walks in here wants, regardless if we have five or six others in beautiful colors,” Cunningham explains.

“Hermès has their high-end customers that can walk in and get anything they want, but they’re few and far between. You either have to be a very good customer of Hermès or get on a list and wait,” Arkin says matter-of-factly.

With access so limited, Arkin says stores such as Penny Pincher – which boasts the most extensive selection of Hermès bags in this area – have become invaluable to the fashion-conscious woman of means who doesn’t want to wait for the nearly unattainable and obscenely priced handbag.

But Penny Pincher is so much more.

“I try to make sure that there’s something for everyone here,” says Arkin, who started out small, selling clothing, before integrating designer jewelry, other accessories and furs. “You really do not leave empty-handed. We put in costume jewelry for that reason and we put ‘fillers’ throughout the store to make sure there’s always fun gift ideas.”

Also on display is an extensive mix of high-end clothing, J. Mendel furs and accessories from designers such as Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. The newly expanded jewelry department offers a stunning assortment of new and estate pieces.

“From Tiffany to Van Cleef, you’re not going to find these things in any other consignment shop or even online, because a lot of times we get things that are custom-made,” Cunningham says. “Many things are old and you’re not going to see them in a run-of-the-mill store. A lot of people come here first before going to a jewelry store or to the Diamond District when they’re looking for those special pieces.”

And if all that merchandise weren’t enough, there’s an eclectic mix of antique, contemporary and decorative home furnishings in the rear of the store.

The brick-and-mortar store began selling on eBay 10 years ago, servicing clients all over the globe, including royalty. (Arkin won’t name names). Last month, the store launched its companion online e-commerce site where it will continue to cater to a legion of loyal customers while expanding its reach with the click of a mouse.

A lot of business is also done through word of mouth.

“We have a very large wish list. People go on a wish list when they are looking for a very specific item and we call them when we get it,” Arkin says about the personalized service.

It’s no wonder that she adds, “We’ve had to move every five to seven years, because we’ve needed a larger location.” She says this casually of the sprawling 4,000-square-foot space the store occupies.

“Melinda is very modest,” Cunningham says about the petite blonde, who is impeccably dressed, not unlike the women who buy her Hermès handbags.

In the notoriously fickle fashion business, Penny Pincher has not only endured, it’s flourished.

“I think the fact that she’s been in business for 24 years is a testament to her great reputation, because in this business it’s a trust issue,” Cunningham says.

That trust, Cunningham says, is what drives customers to bring in a $20,000 diamond necklace or a $15,000 handbag to sell, because, “they know Melinda’s going to number one, take care of it; number two, sell it; and number three, get them the best price she can for it. People know her and trust her. ”

Penny Pincher is at 184 Harris Road in Bedford Hills. For more information, visit or call (914) 241-2134.

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