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Shopping for identity

What ‘the treasures we cart home’ say about us

By Leigh E. Rich

I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers
By Thomas Hine
November 2002
240 pages

The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest shopping day of the year, followed by a feeding frenzy through Christmas.

Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t some conspiratorial plot determined to strip us of our humanity. It is part and parcel of who we are, and, as Thomas Hine affirms in his jaunty new book I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers, shopping is a means to secure our identities as individuals and as a community simultaneously.

Shopping, Hine writes, is as American as America gets. It is just as important as the “assembly line and the accounts-payable department.” In a seemingly paradoxical way, it is part of our dull, everyday routines and an escape from them.

In I Want That!, Hine explains the evolution of the “buyosphere,” a relatively recent shopping innovation that encompasses malls, supermarkets, home shopping channels, advertisements and the Internet. It grew out of traditional markets. “Unlike sex, shopping hasn’t been around forever. Some say it’s only about two hundred years old, though I put the age at closer to five hundred.”

Shopping became a part of daily life as markets of yore introduced small coins into the hands of the commoners.

While they were previously reluctant to part with valuable gold coins, shoppers felt free to spend these lesser coins on more mundane transactions.

Through the years, making material choices has become as natural as physics—and just as sophisticated. Increasingly, we don’t just seek specific items; we seek excitement, as well. Hines calls it the “shopper’s uncertainty principle,” the idea that “we want to find what we expect, but we may not return unless we can also find what we don’t expect.”

“The local Wal-Mart,” Hine writes, “is a wonder of the world. Never before have so many goods come together from so many places at such low cost. … Nevertheless, we yawn at Wal-Mart rather than marvel at it. … Never before has so much seemed so dull.”

Regardless of the appreciation he has for the buyosphere, Hine admits in I Want That! that he prefers outdoor markets and bazaars that invoke a sense of history and offer personal attention.

Hine writes about an Italian market in Philadelphia, for example, where he has “an outwardly hostile long-term bad relationship with a vegetable seller. She has sharp features, leathery skin, a scratchy voice and a short temper. She has looked ancient for the twenty-odd years I have known her, though she never seems to get any older. … Why do I continue to deal with such a woman? It’s a mystery, but I suppose I have come to enjoy these prickly encounters. I’d rather fight with her than be scolded because my lime has no ID number” and can’t be rung up by the computerized checkout system at a supermarket.

Despite its intrigues, the buyosphere, writes Hine, is designed to create a need that can never truly be fulfilled. It’s “a place of windows and mirrors. The windows allow us to be voyeurs, glimpsing countless transforming possibilities. … Mirrors induce purchasing by forcing us to doubt our own completeness.”

In a season when we search for the perfect gift at the perfect price, Hine implies that we will always come up empty, no matter how many things we buy. Shopping , he writes, “is ridiculous because what our spirits need is so vastly out of proportion to the goods we settle for. Like the prizes bestowed by the Wizard of Oz, the treasures we cart home don’t begin to satisfy the longings that sent us on our journeys.”

Rich, L. E. (2002, December 20). Shopping for identity. [Review of the book I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers by Thomas Hine.] Rocky Mountain News.

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