The Who--"Too Much Of Anything" (mp3)
Before it became a joke on Seinfeld, the J. Peterman catalog (with its fictional namesake) was one of the cooler things that came unsolicited in the mail. Working a kind of Hemingway vibe of a world traveler from the 1930's who had been everywhere from Africa to Europe and indulged in a lifestyle of rugged clothing, manly activities, and feminine, but not fragile, women. The items in the catalog, mostly clothing and accessories, reflected this lifestyle, and the reader of the catalog was invited to immerse him or herself in this nostalgic world via the little vignettes or scene-setters that accompanied each product in the catalog. There were no photographs of those products, only colored drawings of them.
And it worked, or at least it did for me. Among other things, I purchased a long-billed Hemingway fishing hat (that I still have) and crisp white cotton nightgown for my wife, made out of dress shirt material.
But then Warehouse Row came to Chattanooga, that cool-concept-but-never-quite-successful-enough "outlet mall" housed in a couple of stylish, rehabbed buildings downtown, designed to attract the upscale shopper who liked a bargain. And as part of the complex, across the street, actually, we got a J. Peterman outlet, the only one in existence that I know of.
Of course, we had a certain amount of excitement in anticipation of our first visit. But as soon as I stepped inside the door, that feeling dissipated. For in that well-stocked store were dozens and dozens of the same item, some nicely lined up or stacked, some piled into bins. And that was the end of the J. Peterman mystique.
In the catalog, each item was special, unique, and capable of being rendered only by an artist's palette of inks. In the store, those same things became just a bunch of mass-produced stuff on sale. Too much stuff.
The same thing has happened to me over and over, and not just in outlet stores. My first walk into Anthropologie, where the mix of nice things, overpriced things, and cheap crap sat baldly, without the fairy dust of the impossibly-French models in the catalogs to mesmerize me, was equally disillusioning.
I experienced the same feelings again in New York City a few weeks ago, as I followed my daughter and wife to the flagship locations of international women's merchandise--Zara, Forever 21, Madewell. Which is certainly not a knock on going shopping in New York City. The people-watching was exceptional.
But here's a different look at the same issue. In the many wonderful grocery stores, produce markets, and farmer's markets held in various squares, I saw the same kinds of stacked, lined up, and piled into bins products. Only this time, they were fruits, vegetables, herbs. Only this time, they were beautiful.
How is that thirty of the same t-shirt looks repulsive, but red, shining peppers stacked to the ceiling capture the world in all its geometric beauty? How is that a store packed with shoppers who can barely find a way around each other to the dressing room makes me yearn for the front door, but a market with just as many shoppers stocking up on fruit and other things they won't have to cook in anticipation of a hurricane seems like a beautiful gathering of humanity?
Though that, even, isn't always true. If I am in a Costco or a large grocery with so many of some perishable foodstuffs or types of produce that I get to thinking that the store can't possibly sell all of it and it will go to waste, I get that same sense of anxiety. It is joyful to know that there is an abundance of nature's bounty, but not if it will not have the chance to serve its purpose.
Better that it runs out and we have to buy something else? Better that thousands of people don't own the same thing? Better that what won't sell is re-purposed long before it goes bad? Better that a job isn't based on a supply that is not justified by demand?
I realize that those are not questions we are yet willing to answer. But it is coming. It is coming.