The third of my four children turned 18 yesterday, so a good part of last week was spent looking for an appropriate birthday present. I found the process rather depressing, and here’s why:
Everything was much of a sameness.
Think about it. Every individual is different (until we get to cloning, which opens a whole ‘nother kettle of fish). But the goods available for us to purchase are, for the most part, mass-produced in factories. They are very much all the same. Perhaps that struck me with a vengeance this week: visiting stores like Kohl’s, or Barnes & Noble, or Target. All fine and serviceable places. And not a special thing in any one of them.
Perhaps if I’d had more money it might have been different. Perhaps not. I ended up by buying him an electronic spider toy (remote-controlled; I used it to carry his birthday greetings into his room Sunday morning) and a moderately large package of fireworks (since he is now “legal”). These things were OK. They did the job. But, at the root, they too were mere mass-production goods.
We can’t escape mass production; it’s the way we live, and it makes life much more affordable and, to a certain extent, luxurious than it might otherwise be. Still, I have a nagging feeling that Syndrome is speaking to my hind-brain: “And when every[thing] is super, then no[thing] is.”
Thirty years ago, we were already in the mass-produced age. But there were holes. I remember buying a $10 leather pouch (in which I kept my daily insulin kit) that I wore for years. It was hand-made, not mass-produced. There was nothing all that special about it, I suppose, except that it was by its own nature unique. I could buy hand-dipped candles at the local co-op (it’s long-gone, but I’m sure those candles are available somewhere); there was a guitar shop that hand-built instruments, and it was not uncommon to see hand-built gear.
Much of that is gone now, or restricted to the high end of any product chain.
“Yes, get what you want to if you want, ’cause you can get anything. ” –Cat Stevens
Shopping has become something we do by numbers; indeed, something we do by computer, just like they said we would. Not only can you get anything you want, you can get it on-line.
What we lack is a sense of the bazaar–that place where (once upon a time) you could go and find, perhaps not what you came for, but something new. There’s a sense of discovery in a bazaar that you don’t get at a mall.
I think this is why I like places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army store. It’s very much a case of you never know what you’re going to get.
When I go to a Mall Store ™ to buy a tie, all the ties look the same. Even if they aren’t, they are massed in uniform numbers that tend to create an impression of sameness. But I can go to Goodwill and get something relatively unique. I don’t know why. I just can.
You’ll find music in these places that you will find nowhere else. And sometimes, something surprising.
I shouldn’t kid myself; second-hand shops are just the funnels for the detritus of mass production. I know it. But there’s still something left of the bazaar there, something that will never wink at me from behind plastic-encased, virginal electronic goodness. There’s a sense of adventure.
How very, very bazaar.