When I shop in the real world, whether on Main Street or Broadway, the blurring of boundaries makes me queasy. The more diverse the merchandise, the less I trust its authenticity.
There’s something fishy happening in the retail world.
I mean that literally.
Recently my partner and I stopped into a Duane Reed drugstore in midtown Manhattan. While she vanished toward the euphemistically named “feminine protection” aisle (really, what are they selling — pink cans of Mace?), I noticed a bit of quiet theatrics happening in the store’s front corner.
It was the sushi chef, getting to work.
You got that right. Duane Reed, the chain of drugstores owned by the even-larger Walgreens, now sells sushi, made — at least in this particular Broadway location not far from Times Square — by a Japanese man in a white jacket wielding a very sharp knife.
Just another notch in what I’ve come to call the Amazonification of commerce.
It’s one thing to shop online from the retail monolith, which started out selling books (remember those?) and swiftly branched into music, jewelry, clothing and thousands of other items. I like to imagine Amazon as a bustling, global souk, redolent of cumin and leather, with the gal who sells rickshaw repair kits swapping jokes with the fellow who hawks zirconia earrings.
I understand that the real Amazon is nothing like this. It’s virtual. I get it. I even embrace it: In the past year, I have ordered such items as a CD of the Broadway musical “Pippin,” a pair of red mugs with little chalkboard ovals for messages, a head-scratcher (don’t ask), and a $130 tow hitch for my Honda Fit. I’m grateful and amazed to live at a time when I can purchase these things while sitting at my computer in my jammies and have them delivered (next day, if need be) to my front door.
But when I shop in the real world, whether on Main Street or Broadway, the blurring of boundaries makes me queasy. Do I really want to buy a brown rice California roll in the same store that sells Maalox and adult diapers? Could I enjoy a vanilla latté from the Sunoco station, where the prevailing perfume is l’eau de gasoline?
The more diverse the merchandise, the less I trust its authenticity. Dunkin’ Donuts does pretty well with the chocolate-glazed and strawberry jam-filled, but their bagels are a sad facsimile of the genuine boiled-then-baked article. At Starbucks, I’ll fork over $2 for an Americano drawn by a deft barista, but I’m leery of the salads suffocating in their hermetic plastic cloaks. (On the flip side, the coffee at my favorite New York salad bar tastes like crankcase oil.)
Amazon-ification makes me suspicious of the stuff on the shelf (Why is it here? Is it real? What’s this doing next to that?). It also makes me think about the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, the writer whose science fiction/fantasy shows us the best and the basest in ourselves. She wrote, “To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”
What would it mean to shop with that mantra in mind?
It might mean grabbing lunch — as we did on another day in New York — from a farmer’s market in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza: two raisin-and-walnut-studded rolls, a giant honeycrisp apple, a log of soft goat cheese crusted in garlic and pepper.
The woman who sold us the cheese wasn’t offering custom skateboards or mint-flavored toothpicks. No goat-shaped key fobs dangled near the register. In fact, there was no register; I handed her a $10 bill and she dug into her worn wallet for the change as she told us about the purebred Nubian goats in Pine Bush that gave their milk for our lunch.
It’s that — not just the well-made thing, but the pride in making and the mano a mano experience of exchange — that’s so sorely missing in the Amazon-ified world.
I long for that connection. I think many of us do, even as we trundle down the aisles of the nearest Big Box, flinging bread and overalls, light bulbs and toothpaste into our overstuffed carts.
Why do we do it? Habit. Convenience. Greed. We want our jeans, our dinner dishes and our sneakers cheap and plentiful, which means not buying them from a woman who custom-stitched the inseam or a guy who shaped the stoneware bowl with his clay-splotched hands. It means not thinking too much about where those jeans come from, who made them and what the factory feels like at the end of the day.
There’s a cost to that willful ignorance. There’s a loss.
And then there’s the woven sweet-grass basket I bought on the side of the highway just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, the fall my daughter was four. The basket-weaver’s name was Mae Hall, and she told us about the highway before it was a highway, so quiet she and her sister used to lie down in the middle of the road.
When I use that basket, I hear Mae Hall’s voice.
When I wrestled the tow hitch onto my car, I heard nothing but the grind of steel on steel.
So, what to do with the Amazon-ified world — especially on the cusp of this shopping season? Because I’m guessing you’re more or less like me; even if you fantasize about a Little House on the Prairie life, you don’t really want to stir hot lye with animal fat to make your own soap, nor do you want to pay handspun prices for every necessity.
So I’m not suggesting that you boycott Black Friday, nor even that you shun Big Box shopping with its strange shelf-fellows (would you like some Pringles with that nail polish?). But I will offer one small, radical challenge. The day after the tryptophan feast, while that turkey carcass simmers into soup, go to your nearest neighborhood retail district and buy one thing — just one thing — directly from the person who made it.
I don’t care what it is: a banh mi sandwich; a custom-built fixie bike; a nubbly hand-woven scarf. Whether you spend $2.50 or $250, look the maker in the eye as she or he hands over the item, this well-made thing that called on a lifetime of craft and love. Say “thank you.”
It’s worth it.