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Too many stores?

In a recent Slate piece, Daniel Gross considered whether America has too many stores and whether the current recession (or near recession) will spur an anti-retail backlash.

Developers opening new malls this year clearly timed the economic cycle poorly. And the cultural cycle isn't helping matters any. The extreme consumption of this current gilded age has inspired a backlash. In December, hedge-fund bil­lionaire Ray Dalio ran full-page advertise­ments in newspapers urging Americans to eschew Christmas gifts and instead make donations to charity. Maybe he's just run out of things to buy. Or maybe he's surfing the zeitgeist. "There's a glut of stores," says Judith Levine, author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. "Our physical, intellectual and emotional and psychological space is filled up with consumption." Levine laments the wholesale transformation of open spaces into enclosed retail environments (like, say, Barnes & Noble superstores, where you can buy Not Buying It). And the in­cessant bombardment of advertising may be inspiring a backlash that pushes people to consume less. The anti-con­sumer freegan movement—urbanites who try to get by through recycling, scrounging, and foraging—are taking it to the extreme. These modern Henry David Thoreaus have opted out of the whole rot­ten capitalist system. Working 60 hours per week and chasing job promotion "for the sake of buying the latest crap off the Sharper Image store shelf is no way to live," says Adam Weissman, spokesman for Freegan.info. (Hey, dude, one might say the same about diving into Dumpsters in search of day-old bread and discarded futons.)

Clearly, Gross is skeptical of just about anyone's anti-consumerism, as most commentators (me included) tend to be. It's not that we aren't inundated with advertising and retail spaces. Of course we are, and these things are virtually inescapable in America. The problem is that anticonsumerism becomes an identity pose that is either manifestly hypocritical or deeply reliant on the same individualistic values that support consumerism in the first place -- one advertises oneself as an anti-consumer, making that one's brand on the marketplace of social approval. Not to get all poststructuralist, but when you found your self-concept on not shopping, you are in effect deeply invested in shopping. In some ways, you'd be better off making your shopping as unconscious as possible, which is actually one of the chief gripes against consumer society -- that it makes us take shopping as an activity for granted. We are already inside consumerism, and it's virtually impossible to construct an identity outside of it -- it's the only viable language of identity that we learn in the West.

Since experiences have been reconceived as products -- by the tourism industry, by retail psychologists who want to sell -- its hard to undertake any activity that doesn't feel like shopping, that doesn't feel as though it has been mediated to us via marketing. This is bad enough, but it seems to have broader ramifications, in that stores in and of themselves become a soothing sight, destinations and havens independent of any particular shopping need. Their presence becomes reassuring and familar, a reliable guide to the sort of place you are in, and the sort of place you want to be. We understand places, then, mainly through retail (and what it tells us of demographics), rather than any other natural or geographic considerations. So the need fulfilled by the rapid proliferation of stores is not merely a matter of the specific things they sell but the marking function the stores serve in telling us what sort of place we are in. And shopping in such stores can be as much about endorsing those demographics and belonging to them as actually buying anything.

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