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Exile on Manhattan

For the past 25 years I have lived on an exotic island. Not the tropical paradise kind, rather the concrete jungle of Manhattan, a.k.a. “the center of the universe” and “the crossroads of the world.” Living with such lofty and self-centered monikers can skew one’s views about how the rest of America, a.k.a. “flyover country,” lives.

I’m reminded of this Manhattan vs. ’Merica disparity every time I venture off the island—and I don’t have to travel very far to see it. It happens whenever I visit my mom, a 90-year-old, born-and-raised Brooklynite who retired to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, of all places. Talk about another planet! Although it’s a mere 90 miles from Gotham, this flat, sandy-soiled, heavily forested and downright spooky region (reputed to be the home of the Jersey Devil) is nothing like Manhattan. As my mom kiddingly likes to say, “It isn’t the last place on earth, but you can see it from here.” Then there are the locals. They are a million miles from Manhattanites in terms of dress, mannerisms, accent, values, hobbies, diet, transportation preferences…you name it. I’m not saying the differences are better or worse. To each their own. But the fact is the Pine Barrens are very different from Manhattan. Even as a kid growing up in the northern New Jersey suburbs, we thought our southern state brethren might as well have been from Mars.

The differences are equally pronounced whenever I venture northeast, to the Connecticut coastline, where my mother in-law lives. New England and its locals are a world unto themselves. Thanks in part to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, most of America knows that the letter “R” is absent from the region’s accent. Much of Red Sox nation is also quick to notice my New York license plates. And their dagger-like stares speak volumes. For the record, I’m a (long-suffering) Orioles fan. But that’s neither here nor there. In my experience, New Englanders are insular.

Get beyond Greenwich and you’ll soon discover that Nutmeggers don’t all wear black or work white collar jobs on Wall Street. In fact, the region can get pretty rustic when you venture off the New England Thruway. Scattered among those quaint tree-lined towns and farms, you’ll see leather-clad dudes riding motorcycles without helmets—legally! Hit a Walmart in early summer, and you’ll likely find a vast display of fireworks for sale at the entrance. Those are two things you just don’t see in Manhattan.

The reality is that most of America, excluding Manhattan, is pretty uniform when it comes to what people drive (the top three vehicles sold in the U.S. are pick-up trucks), listen to (country music is the most popular genre) and watch (Yellowstone is the No. 1–rated TV series). And as for what most of America wears, think western-inspired fashion that often includes denim-driven attire and cowboy boots. (They currently rank as the 35th most searched of all items on Google.) It’s why Boot Barn, the subject of our retail profile (p. 16), is growing like wildfire. The now 300-store western lifestyle chain tripled earnings last year and just raised its projected future store count from 500 to 900 doors over the next decade. CEO Jim Conroy goes into convincing detail on why Boot Barn’s updated and fine-tuned formula is poised for explosive growth nationwide. That includes further penetration in core markets—like Texas (66 locations), California (56) and Colorado (14)—as well as fertile areas in the Southeast, Midwest and even Northeast. Despite (usually Manhattan-based) doubters and deniers in the investment field, Conroy has supreme confidence in the continued economic power and cultural influence of so-called flyover country.

Ron Owens, vice president and brand manager of Dingo, a division of Dan Post Boot Company, is also a firm believer that the western lifestyle market will continue to grow. The 50-year industry veteran, and subject of this month’s Q&A (p. 12), speaks from vast experience. In fact, Owens was the man who first guided Dingo to great success in the late ’70s. He was lured out of retirement, in 2019, to relaunch the brand—an opportunity that he deemed too good to pass up. This rodeo, Owens believes, has far more growth potential ahead, thanks to the convergence of macro factors including film, music and demographics. Western fashion is no fleeting fad, he says. Its popularity reflects a long-lasting lifestyle shift.

Whether this lifestyle shift will ever fully take Manhattan remains to be seen. In the meantime, I can report firsthand that life on my exotic island has changed dramatically since the pandemic. While we still talk and walk fast—and we still fold our pizza slices—life hasn’t completely returned to normal, and I doubt it ever fully will. The great reset has changed how, when and where many of us work. And that has changed how many of us dress—namely, casual and perhaps a little more torn and frayed. This is one time when Manhattanites are looking more like ’Merica.

If I see a Boot Barn open in Times Square, or in my Upper West Side ’hood, I’ll know our entire country is on the same page, fashion-wise. Just imagine if that could inspire greater unity among our divided selves…Fuhgeddaboudit.

The June 2022 Issue

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