The pleasure of beautiful things

Advice for the retail world:  make it an experience again.  Not the “rarified air” experience, like so many haute couture lines that opened retail shops in the recent past, designed by those who seem to think shopping should be like going to an art gallery, with the same high prices, cold air, and tomb like ambience lacking in any human presence (to their surprise, they lack the requisite robotic and emaciated shoppers as well).  No more the grab and go of malls either, or should I say teenager theme parks complete with heavy browed security to prevent those ever looming petty thefts and feared eruptions of violence.  These bastions of cheap consumerism, garish color and sound, and the worst edibles known to man, anchoring neighborhoods surrounded by big box stores, acres of asphalt, and exchange-name restaurants proffering the same fare trucked in every week are dying. The experience is run run run, acquire without thought, and keep going.  It is exhausting, boring, discomforting to observe and perversely, makes me both sad and glad to see it all go.  Change is difficult.  Atrophy limb by limb, week by week, while weeds peek up through the sea of black, and the workers left in stores that remain walk to the only source of sunlight, the front doors, and peer out. 

If retail is to have any presence in the future, re-examining what obtaining goods is about might be useful.  I do not intend to raise dairy cows, so I must procure dairy goods from suppliers (dairy farmers themselves, and I am lucky to be able to go to the farmers market or visit a local dairy if I choose) or the “middle men”, the grocers.  I can go to the Wal-Tar-K’s and pick up toothpaste, a tarp, and milk at the same time or I can go half a mile to a neighborhood grocery store; small, with a surprisingly wide variety of goods, cheerful and funny employees, and quirky promotions.  The experience of the latter is infinitely better, and the overall grocery bills the same. 

For other things, objects I do not buy on a regular basis, I had been retreating to the internet.  Shoes, clothes, and toys in the sizes, materials, and styles I wanted were available, even if the experience was the same as reading a catalog.  Then wide spread information theft arose, and already this year we have had our credit card company send us new cards because, they announced to us, our information had been “compromised” (read: stolen) by a retail merchant.  I am going back to cash, which helps me stay on a budget, and clearing out all my internet information.

I wonder about the pleasure of beautiful things.  Not only obtaining them, but observing them, seeing them, feeling them, and being surrounded by them in a retail space.  I suggested to our local Apple store manager that she put in a coffee station, as they already have the big circular bar to service patrons and Apple stores offer instructional chits that patrons can use at their leisure– go in and learn when you choose.  She replied that the mess would be horrifying.   She is a nasty old woman who is rude and condescending, and chalks up her lack of business to people not using her brand of machines.  She is a delusional idiot, like so many business managers at all levels.

If this contracting economy is teaching us anything, it is that the days of buying for buying sake is over.  Encouraging it any further is stupid, and the self-sufficiency and recycling of products (gardens, second hand stores, people learning to fix things) that is rising up is a good thing that may help us reformulate what it means to “have” anything at all.

Service, the idea that knowledgeable people with a good attitude can help you when you buy something, needs to come back.  Loyalty from consumers because a store backs up the things it sells (without hassle), because objects are easy to find, in stock, help is always ready, and provides the intangible social and informational resources buyers need (as we regularly experience at our local hardware store) all this should be valued again; not sheer loyalty for “brand” because it is marketed as chic, or used to be dependable, those superficial reasons of buzz, not truth. 

Spaces for social interaction need to be considered.  Think of department stores of mid-century, when there were comfortable places for people to rest, literally rest, have a coffee, or chat.  Also offering “public facilities” that had anterooms with mirrors and chairs (let’s add baby changing areas in ante-rooms of BOTH sexes too, with truly safe tables and disposal methods), a gateway between the intimate and the public.   Think spaces for truly examining items, not simply crammed together racks of confusion that dwarf individuals with claustrophobic environments.  Spaces organized with consideration for the process of appreciation and the ability of patrons to freely move, even two at a time are needed.  The old calculation of “items per square feet or inch” is useless to everyone but bean counters.

Think about spaces where light and sound could be calming, without feeling like generic elevator music; imagine spaces that encouraged patrons to be patrons, not just consumers.  Imagine learning to save and spend money on things you need, and to learn how to appreciate the things you want.  How to look, how to see- as John Berger has said.

Growing up I had an annual shopping trip with my grandmother.  She always made sure to teach me, to remark upon the quality of the items we saw.  Were the seams finished?  Was a blouse cut to a fit?  Were the sheets multi-thread?  Were the towels sized well?  Were the shoes leather, and sewn correctly?  With the raise of an eyebrow, she would dismiss much of what she saw.  A child of the depression, she knew it was not worth it to buy shoddy goods.  Even if it meant you only bought a pair of shoes rarely, you bought good shoes that fit, and clothes that would last, as well as appearing beautiful.

Of course, I had to live through my own young adulthood.  I squandered cash on stylish, but foolish items.  I learned.  I also learned that a terrific, barely used black wool swing coat that fit as if it were made for me, although made thirty years ago (and I checked the thread- it was well made and had not deteriorated) was one of the best things I ever bought, for five dollars.  A vicuna over-coat here, a vintage skirt there.  Quality fell out of favor as resale became a mark of shame.  No more.  There is great pleasure in beautiful things, in quality, and the experience of learning about them.  Retail, take note. 

This all points to a more local point of view.  Locally or regionally made and produced items, lower shipping costs, higher dependability, less production and consumption for a cycle of “throw away”, and responsibility to the deeply interconnected nature of commerce is necessary.  To have buyers, those buyers must be employed.  To have service, workers must make fair wages with life sustaining benefits of time and insurance.  The cries that objects will be too expensive if we do this are lies. There are trade offs in where expenses go, and, as we are learning the hard way, no manager or administrator (read: CEO.  They are only titled managers at best, nothing more) is worth the outrageous salaries they are often paid.  There are plenty of bright, energetic, dedicated people of all ages willing to work hard for fair wages who can run companies.

Also, encouraging farmers to grow such things as industrial hemp (no THC), and other fibers, and milling them regionally actually SAVES money.  The whole fast buck lie is falling down, and only those who want to steal the last pennies off the corpse are the ones screaming that any other model of capitalism is socialism or “worse”.  It is a complete lack of imagination, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of honesty that drives them; all this, and fear.  I have compassion for the fear, we are all afraid of change, the unknown.  I have no tolerance for the hatred, the thefts, and the willful ignorance that slows down progressive change for the better.  The hateful rants of the fearful greedy is a position not only immoral, it is ugly.  If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then maybe we all ought to do a lot more thinking, and talking, about what truth is right now.  The pleasure of beautiful things will only come when we know that they are truly beautiful, worthy, and have the time to consider them wisely.

Leave a Reply