Thursday, March 15, 2012

Retail Recreation

This stately madhouse is the lobby of what used to be the Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn, at one time the borough's tallest building, though it's in Boerum Hill, not Williamsburg.

The people who commissioned those lofty arches and gilded mosaics certainly never foresaw that one day the space would be harboring a flea market every weekend, but they probably should have. The urge to go shopping strikes me as the biggest single explanation for human aggregations larger than clan-size, and any space large enough to accommodate a market is eventually destined to become one.

It Science is still trying to pin down what distinguishes us from the other beasts, maybe they should consider the will to haggle and trade as uniquely human traits, although it's an astonishing world and I wouldn't be surprised if there are other primates or maybe even some obscure tree frogs or wasps who discovered the joy of buying and selling before we did.

Call it recreation, call it therapy, call it wealth creation, call it a way of life, it's what we do. In a big city, most of your street level surroundings and the visible comings and goings concern facilitation, pursuit and execution of retail purchases. Love is very nice, but it doesn't make the world go 'round. It's the urge to acquire more stuff that keeps things moving.

I was first struck by how urgent and primal the shopping instinct is many years ago when I had to organize a small editors' conference in Sumter, SC. I was told the agenda shouldn't be so tight that it couldn't accommodate some free time for retail therapy.

Sumter was tiny, and the only place to go for that was a shabby strip mall at the edge of town, anchored by a grocery store. But people packed a couple of shuttle vans for the chance to browse the fabrics and notions, greeting cards, pet supplies and hardware that were about all you could buy there. They returned only mildly disappointed, which told me they weren't expecting much to begin with but just needed to do it.

When you're younger, it's about the stuff. You imagine when you've bought it, you and your life will be transformed in some way. Later you realize that this isn't true, but it's too late, you can't quit.

Paul McCartney sang it best: 'Buy, buy' says the sign in the shop window. 'Why, why' says the junk in the yard.

That's from "Junk" on his debut solo album "McCartney." If I ever see it at a flea market, I'm gonna buy it.

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