In the era of socially distanced shopping, people seem willing to wait for just about anything.

Karsten Moran for The New York TimesCredit…

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Introduction by Ruth La Ferla

Some people gabbed, some groused; others stood silently, forming a line that snaked around the block, waiting for Century 21, the Lower Manhattan bargain hunters’ mecca, to open for business.

It was a scene like many others popping up this summer all across the country: long waits in line, once rare at luxury boutiques, open-air markets and hair salons, have become a familiar rite of consumption as shoppers file gingerly back into stores.

Most wear masks, some crowd shoulder to shoulder; the majority are upbeat, their long-bottled-up shoppers’ enthusiasm finally coming uncorked.

“People want a touch of what is the old normal,” said Stacy DeBroff, who monitors consumer habits for Influence Central, a marketing firm in Boston. At the start of the pandemic they shopped online, often out of necessity, but also, for those with deep pockets, as a form of entertainment.

“Now it’s almost as if walking into a store has become the novelty,” Ms. DeBroff said, “an adrenaline boost and a way of exploring the world outside.” Long waits, some say, can breed solidarity. “We become a little band of survivors with a grim gallows humor to match,” writes David Andrews in his 2015 pop culture rumination, “Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?” “We’re all in this together.”

There is also thrill of suspense. As Andy Warhol once said: “The possibility of never getting in is exciting. But after that, waiting to get in is the most exciting.”

There were no stampedes as customers gathered. But bottlenecks formed as they jostled for entry, recalling the scrum as petitioners pleaded for entry to Studio 54. Now, as during that club’s fabled heyday, gatekeepers stand at the ready, tamping down tensions — and, this time around, spritzing customers with hand sanitizer as they make their way inside.

The Outlets

Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Not far from the vacation home of Joseph R. Biden Jr., the lines at Tanger Outlets were visible from the Coastal Highway all summer.

On a Monday afternoon in August, 30 people stood in line outside the Nike outlet. One would-be customer, Dev Surprenant, 21, who works at a hardware store, had been waiting since the store opened at 11 a.m.

“This is the longest I’ve waited in a line,” he said, his black mask muffling his words. He was giving it until 2 p.m., but he wasn’t optimistic: The store had only been letting in one person every 20 minutes, he said.

Across the street, the Crocs outlet was admitting 10 shoppers at a time. Denise Woodbury, standing in line with her great-granddaughter Quinn, felt optimistic that she would get in this time around.

“This is our second try with this stay,” Ms. Woodbury said. “I did a couple the last time I was down here last month and just gave up.”

Glen Greenwood, 21 and standing behind Ms. Woodbury, wore an American flag bandanna as a mask while waiting to return a pair of rainbow tie-dye Crocs. The previous day, he had waited in the same line for 45 minutes to purchase them for his girlfriend.

“She put them on and was like, ‘Well, I can’t fit in these,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Well ain’t that great?’”

Some shoppers retreated to their cars once they registered the wait time. Tracy Putman, 51, was close to the front when she gave up. “I have another store I want to go to, and I want to get out on the beach,” she said.

Next door at Vans, Rylee Wallace, 19, was acting as a bouncer at the Vans outlet. She had been working for the store for three weeks and found herself on line duty frequently, she said. Customers had been irritated, she said, even occasionally cursing her out.

“I don’t think nobody wants to wait three hours just to get into a store,” she said. JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH

The Department Store

New York

An outsize poster in the window announcing “the sale of the century,” prompted shoppers at Century 21 in Lower Manhattan to form a line that wound from Cortland Street around the block to Dey Street. The promise of steep markdowns was a powerful draw.

Shoppers hustling toward the entry the instant the store flung open its doors, were met by Matt McMahon, the gray suited security officer posted out front.

“Easy, easy, no need to rush,” Mr. McMahon told them soothingly. “You all will get in.”

Some of them were clearly looking forward to the prospect of adventure. The store, within view of ground zero, survived the 2001 the World Trade Center attacks. Unlike the now deserted Oculus complex, which rose in the wreckage, it still hums with activity.

“I haven’t been here in years, not since 9/11,” said Glennis Bell, a supermarket clerk who had made the trek from the Bronx “just out of curiosity.”

The wait didn’t trouble her friend Sandra Gutierrez. “Standing here is one way to get out of the norm,” she said, adding after a beat, “though right now, I guess, this is the norm.” RUTH LA FERLA

Socially Distanced Lineups

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