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The $27,000 suitcase

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Bob Greene thought the $27,000 suitcase was a joke.
Bob Greene thought the $27,000 suitcase was a joke.
  • Bob Greene saw an ad for a $27K suitcase and thought it was a joke
  • Even in difficult economic times, extravagant luxury goods are for sale, he says
  • He asks why people would pay so much for an item that gets jostled around and endures all weather

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- Talk about a hefty baggage fee:

For months now I have not been able to get the $27,100 suitcase out of my mind.

The economy is rocky. People are out of work. Yet the $27,100 suitcase exists. It's not a joke.

At first I thought it was. Last fall I was traveling through Naples, Florida, and a cover line on a glossy local magazine caught my eye.

The magazine was called Gulfshore Life, and the cover line said:

"The $58,000 brooch... The $27,100 suitcase... Check Out Our Luxury File."

Perhaps, I thought, this was a teaser to a satirical story using literary exaggeration to whistle past the graveyard of America's fiscal hard times.

But when I flipped open the magazine, the feature seemed to be serious.

The $27,100 suitcase, the story said, was sold by Hermès, the luxury retailer, which has a store in Naples. The suitcase was called the Hector, and was "constructed of Officier canvas with Evercalf calfskin."

I closed the magazine, but could not stop thinking about the suitcase. A suitcase is something that gets banged around. It sits out in the rain and snow on airport runways. Baggage handlers toss it roughly onto conveyer belts. Sometimes it gets lost on flights.

Why would anyone pay $27,100 for a suitcase?

Weighty and important matters dominated the news. But there it was, always in the back of my mind: the suitcase, and the parallel world of wealth it represented.

Over the holidays, I was in New York City. One morning I walked to the Hermès store at the corner of 62nd Street and Madison Avenue. I took a deep breath and walked in.

"May I help you?" a clerk asked.

"I'd like to see the $27,000 suitcase," I said. (I shaved $100 off the price; the phrase sounded smoother that way.)

"Which bag specifically?" she said.

"You have more than one that costs that much?" I said.

"There was one that cost $200,000," she said. "It featured diamonds."

"Why would someone spend that kind of money on a suitcase?" I said.

"Hand-stitching," she said. "Sometimes exotic material."

She looked around, as if to be certain no one was listening, then half-whispered:

"I use my Samsonite."

She said that the $27,100 suitcase was not, on that day, on floor display. I left New York, still mulling: How could a person take such a suitcase on a trip? It would be like putting a baggage tag on $27,100 in cash.

At Midway Airport in Chicago, I went in the slush and slop to Southwest Airlines' curbside baggage-check area to commiserate with my baggage-handler friends there. I told them the story.

I would like to report their response, but it was so cold outside, and they were so bundled up head to toe, that all I could discern was their muffled laughter.

In recent days I was in southwest Florida again. This time I went to the Hermès store there, in the elegant Waterside Shops outdoor mall.

"I'm interested in the $27,000 suitcase," I said to the first clerk I saw.

She absolutely beamed, and I immediately realized she had mistaken my intentions.

"No," I said. "No. I don't want to buy it."

The wattage of her smiled dimmed a bit. She said I would have to give her more information about the product; she said some specially made Hermès bags sold for $40,000 or $50,000. "The people who pay that much for a bag usually fly on jets," she said.

"Most people fly on jets," I said.

She gave me a don't-be-dense look.

"Oh," I said, surmising that, in these circles, "jets" was a synonym for "private jets."

Back in my hotel room, I called Hermès' U.S. corporate headquarters.

There, a spokeswoman, Bernice Kwok-Gabel, said that for many customers, only the best that money can buy will do. "They want the finest," she said. "No compromises." She said that for people who might spend $27,000 on a work of art, $27,000 for a suitcase is not excessive. "If they want it, the price is not a big concern."

She said that the $27,100 Hector suitcase is actually a twinned piece of luggage: two compartments carried by a single handle. For a customer on a tight budget, a single Hector compartment can be bought by itself.

For $14,000.

I ended my quest where it began: at Gulfshore Life magazine, where I had seen the original mention. I called the editor-in-chief, David Sendler, to ask if he thought his readers had greeted the item about the suitcase with a shake of the head.

"Some probably did," he said. "But I'm sure there were others who saw it and thought: 'I'd like to have that bag.' We have a very high-demographic readership."

I will leave you with this thought. At that Hermès store in New York, I asked the clerk why someone would pay so much for a suitcase that would inevitably get scuffed and scratched in transit.

"Some people buy metal cases in which to enclose their suitcases," she said.

She saw the disbelief in my eyes, smiled, and said:

"They buy suitcases for their suitcases."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.