Fair Retail

in the mall (a retail sanctuary)
In the mall.

A few days ago, from my vantage point on northbound I-65, the look of the morning sun on the roof of the mall reminded me of a notion I formed several years back and one to which I still hold today: that there’s a comfort in the bland commercial aesthetic of well-kept retail spaces. By well-kept I mean clean and free of blemishes: if the floor tile is dingy or the carpet soiled, or there’s a hole in the drywall, or if there are water stains on the drop-ceiling panels, the common charm is lost. Of course, most retail spaces in the CoolSprings Galleria aren’t so basic: a sheetrock wall is hardly to be seen, because they’re concealed behind designer paneling; commercial-grade vinyl floor tiles, a la Kroger, have been eschewed in favor of hardier, better-looking ceramic tiles. At heart, though, all these spaces, whether banal or beautiful, serve the same basic function, and that is to sell stuff, and there’s just something ordinary about the whole enterprise of retail–a denominator to which we’re all pandering.

It’s comforting to buy stuff. The least self-conscious among us make a show of their retail habits, whereas the more self-aware may seek to transcend so-called retail therapy (that phrase makes me cringe), but at heart, everybody likes getting new stuff. In Don DeLillo‘s novel, White Noise, the narrator is an academic who, though he understands that hanging out at the mall is a taboo thing for people like him, can’t deny his urge to shop. He talks about walking through stores, “puzzled but excited by [his] desire to buy.” He’s just been insulted by an old friend he ran into in a hardware store, and his reaction is to go shopping. And while there at a mall with his family, he summarizes the experience in sensual and self-empowering terms:

“People swarmed through the boutiques and gourmet shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. I shopped with reckless abandon.”

He heard music and he smelled good smells. He exercised his illusion of autonomy by choosing one thing over another or by choosing nothing at all. He even felt a closer bond to his family for having gone shopping with them. But doesn’t all this sound ridiculous on the surface? How American, in the less savory way, to make spending money on things we don’t need into a noble act. Yet I won’t knock it. I have to be honest, or rather I’ve reached a stage in life where it’s easier just to admit I like hanging out at the mall than to pretend it’s below me somehow. I’ve enjoyed the CoolSprings Galleria for all the same reasons mentioned in that paragraph above and more: the people-watching, the smells, the deliberately designed mini-environments of individual stores, even catching unexpected glimpses of myself in cleverly positioned mirrors.

Speaking of mini-environments, Journeys shoe store has a very different feel from the gleaming white makeup and jewelry displays of Belk, but I appreciate them nearly equally. It doesn’t matter if the spaces are selling anything I want or would ever buy–I like to see them anyway. And if I happen to find the perfect flannel shirt on sale in Express, then all the better.

What is at the back of this enjoyment? It’s become one of those things I wonder about. I wonder if it’s class-based, as in because of my humble ancestry, it feels good to be able to spend money inconspicuously, even if it’s never very much at one time, because that makes me uncomfortable. Just a little bit here and there–a new pair of shoes on one visit, and then a Yankee Candle a couple of weeks later. Does it make me feel I’m doing okay if I’m able to go out and buy a random thing once in a while?

Then there’s the fact of comfort. The mall has skylights, yet it is gloriously climate-controlled, meaning I can appreciate the sky in July without ever breaking a sweat. And there are good smells, many of which come from food, although there are many others that are harder to identify–general kinds of retail smells, clean and elusive. There are phone-charging stations and free wifi; coffee, ice cream, and comfortable chairs. And nobody expects anything of you. Everybody’s minding their own business, which makes it an ideal place for an introvert who sometimes craves the presence of other humans but doesn’t want to interact with them.

Perhaps going shopping is simply such a staple of American life that I’m performing my patriotic duty in some perverse way–doing my part to grease the system’s wheels. It doesn’t matter if I buy something every time I go, I’m paying homage just by showing up.

the author
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger, Essayist, & Novelist

**Here are two other articles that address the hegemonic nature of retail.

Work Gets Done

work gets done; author with Christmas lights
Strange man with Christmas lights.

The current situation is this: my reading and writing life is bracketed into the spaces where my kids are either asleep or at school, and sometimes it happens even when they’re home and awake, that is, if a short trip to Barnes & Noble or the Fainting Goat is doable without making things too stressful. The life of my mind, or at least the productive and creative parts of it, limits itself to the fringes: the morning commute*; the evening commute; Mondays (which are part of my weekends, given that I work Saturdays–reference laboratory hours); and after everyone else is asleep; or on those rare mornings when I wake before the kids, feeling alert enough to actually get out of bed, even though I technically don’t have to yet. These are difficult conditions under which to write a novel, much less maintain a regular blog. My blogs haven’t had regular schedules since their inceptions. But the writing is happening. Somehow, some way, the work gets done. Is it a miracle–a disruption of time and space? Or simply a testament to human determination?

When I was an undergraduate art student, the chairman of Union University’s art department at the time, a man of modern artistic vision and a facility with acrylic paint, advised that I pursue my art before taking on the responsibilities of a family. He had my interest in mind, and the wisdom in this is obvious, but I never could seem to make such a reasonable plan work. Now in my forties, I’m certain that the young put too much stock in so-called “callings,” when there’s so little we can actually know about how life will turn out. I’ve always been one to lay out the pieces first, inadvertently tossing a few about without caution, and then seek to assemble them into meaningful compositions later. This is how I’ve done life so far.

Do people really exist who make a plan and then execute it? Malcolm Gladwell says Picasso was like that, and he contrasts Picasso’s approach with that of Paul Cezanne, who was more of an experimenter. Picasso had brilliant flashes and then produced them; Cezanne dabbled and re-tried things, and eventually he’d stumble onto something great. If I’m to produce anything great, it won’t be in a flash like Picasso.

Even now, my body is calling for sleep, but I’m resisting with thoughts of content generation and search engine optimization–blogger concerns. I hear the heater kick on with a roar–a roar that fades into a hum; it’s a cold November night. The heater noise comes from upstairs, right in front of the doorway through which my two boys are sleeping. But this does not wake them. No, they’re waiting for 2:41 a.m., so they can invade our bed with maximum disruption. We haven’t had an uninterrupted night of sleep in months. This is the glorious life I’ve chosen.

*Here are some earlier thoughts on how the commute to and from work proves productive: http://alandrue.com/commuter-blues-two-sides/.

the author
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger,
Essayist, & Novelist

A Brisk Rant

autumn blue sky on a brisk morning
Autumn blue sky on a brisk morning.

This morning, the sky’s autumn blue was the richest I’ve seen so far this year–electric-looking, stung with freshness. It was a morning in which I’d like to have been hiking. The word “brisk” comes to mind (if we can separate it from mega corporate-peddled iterations of iced tea). Yes, I’m reclaiming “brisk,” taking it back from convenience store shelves and returning it to the kinds of things it used to describe, like walks on chilly mornings, or breaths that tighten and tickle the lungs. I acknowledge I may be out-of-touch with consumer trends. If the word “brisk” conjures in my mind bottles and cans of iced tea, then I may be the one with the problem and not the consuming public or the marketing and advertising firms that promote the brewed (hopefully) beverage (I envision machines mixing water with a patented “tea syrup” in giant vats, with tasters on the side determining the degree to which the substance mimics iced tea). Is Brisk Iced Tea still around? I guess my next trip into a gas station might answer this burning question, which I truthfully don’t really care to know the answer to, if I’m being honest. I don’t care. This is just the direction this blog happened to go.

It’s clear to me now, though, that the problem is at least partially mine. Maybe on some level, it’s society’s problem, but I’ll just own it for now: I resent the way companies hijack legitimate words for the purpose of making money. Like “monster” and “wrangler.” I guess the logophile in me resents that consumer products come to mind when those words are used, often before their original meanings come to mind. I know–first-world problem. But culture hinges on language, and associating a word with a mass-produced beverage before associating it with what it actually signifies has a way of easing us up the slope and into the shallow end, intellectually speaking.

This very blog is an example of how this phenomenon works. All I wanted to do, when I wrote the first sentence of this post, was praise the quality of the autumn sky’s blue. I found it inspiring. It had been cold when I was walking outside, but it was that sunny kind of cold that seems more palatable than the cloudy kind, so I was inclined to find it invigorating rather than uncomfortable. And the intense shade of blue that served as a backdrop for the trees struck me as a uniquely autumnal thing–particularly late autumn, when trees are almost bare but a few orange-brown oak leaves still stubbornly cling. And what’s the perfect word to describe a cold, invigorating breeze? You guessed it: brisk. Except when I landed on that word, I also landed on the idea of that rather unsavory form of tea that exists in bottles on convenience store shelves and in twelve-packs of cans in grocery stores. It then became difficult to separate the meaning of “brisk” from the marketed product that bears that same word as its name. But it didn’t stop there. Soon, one of the beverage’s slogans came into my consciousness: “That’s brisk, baby!” Except it’s not! It’s high viscosity tea syrup in a can, and tastes of chemicals and artificiality. I’m not a fan.

So I ranted.

For a less angry, more appreciative, and generally happier post on consumerist culture, read this: http://alandrue.com/in-the-mall-i-was-in-the-mall/.

the author
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger,
Essayist, & Novelist