[9 July 2009]
This could be a purely personal idiosyncrasy, but I’m wondering if it might indicate something larger about why big-box stores are so successful in America. I’m extrapolating from my weird aversion to going to the local bike shop. I just started to ride my old bike that I had in Arizona, and I’ve quickly realized that I need a few things for riding in New York City—mainly a helmet and new handle grips. Even though there is a local bike shop five blocks from my apartment, I find myself procrastinating about going over there. Maybe I spent too much time in record stores as a teenager, but I have this unshakable paranoia that the people in the bike shop will laugh at me. They will see that I am not a “real” biker; riding a bike around is not my lifestyle, it’s not my brand. I’m not going to ride my bike to work, let alone be one of those guys darting through traffic in midtown, menacing pedestrians and drivers alike. I’m not going to join Critical Mass and try to blockade the transit grid. I don’t wear special gear to bike around in and I am not even sure I know what model of bike I have. (It has gears.) I’m strictly “entry level,” to use Hipster Runoff terminology—I’m a novice, an amateur, too clueless to even know what is at stake with the subcultural signifiers. If I had more strength of character, perhaps, I would brazen it out in the bike shop and get what I need, despite my vague sense that it will be slightly more expensive than it need be since I’d be paying the specialty store/small business tariff. I wouldn’t care what people might think of me.
But instead I am attracted to the possibility of shopping anonymously. I think of going out to Target to get my bike helmet. There I can be assured that no one in the store particularly cares about what I am buying. I might even be required to check myself out at a self-service register, permitting me to have no encounter with another person at all. How convenient!
Anyway, my suspicion is that convenience, anonymity, freedom from other people’s assumptions about our lifestyle, the automatic assumption that we are pursuing a lifestyle inauthentically, the desire to face as little human contact as possible while we are in consumer mode—all these things are intertwined ideologically, and make up the field of consumer capitalism as its experienced by ordinary people—or at least people like me. Big-box stores seem engineered to supply a specific retail experience that protects our anonymity and minimizes our need for human contact, preserving our bubble of narcissistic fantasy as we roam around handling the merchandise. When this bubble gives way—when we seek the nuisance and insecurity of human contact—we mediate the relation through the signaling function of our goods and disappear into the life that they imply.