American Consequences - December 2017


you went on your honeymoon – or where you’re having brunch on a Saturday.” At a French bistro brunch spot in downtown D.C. the first weekend in December, I overheard three girlfriends debating whether to brave the crushing mobs and attempt some Christmas shopping at a nearby off- price apparel outlet. Shawna Guillemette, a 33-year-old geneticist visiting from Boston whom I later bothered for a quote, told the two others she’d already done every last bit of her gift buying on Amazon. From trinkets for the yearly Yankee swap at work to ski gloves for a family member who’d coveted hers – everything was easier to find, and typically less expensive, online. But what really made her quit the time- honored tradition of the in-person transaction? “I just can’t stand all the people,” she said. Her two friends nodded along. But one of them, a red-haired woman who said she makes all her Christmas gifts – soaps, sachets – by hand but orders the materials on Amazon, leaned over to confess, “Watch, we’ll probably end up going to TJ Maxx anyway.” While main street department stores thrive only in Jean Shepherd’s childhood memories – and shopping malls, though they’re harder to romanticize, grow over with weeds and graffiti across the country’s emptying midsection – “fast fashion” purveyors survive as hunting-grounds for bargain shoppers. Here, the shopping is the experience. The root of their continued success also answers the literally perennial question of why Black Friday rioters behave the way they do when they run wild, mad for a deal. Yearly

reports of tramplings and fistfights in the first hours after Thanksgiving are enough to make anyone fear the modern agora. In-person retail still serves a primordial purpose, deeper than the social need to illustrate for beset shoppers the importance of good manners. It’s an itch most satisfyingly scratched when one finds a solid enough justification for a frivolous purchase, like my footnote from Walker Percy. Experts like Underhill call such thin rationalizations symptoms of “shopping sickness.” But it’s also exceptionally American: The overfed acquisitive impulse springs from the aspirational core of what it means to pursue happiness. And, even while the venue for the symptoms’ recurrence has mostly left physical reality, the sickness will persist. Retail shopping – particularly the fevered variety that takes place between now and, for some of us on , December 24 – isn’t going anywhere. For now, there are even retailers to rush out to when you remember you’d forgotten that one cousin’s new baby. But apart from the adrenaline kick of that last-minute sprint to a still solvent big-box store like BuyBuyBaby for a set of Margaret Wise Brown board books, most of what once made the all- American hassle of Christmas shopping oddly enjoyable has faded from necessity. Come the inevitable dawn of the Amazon drone , our old rituals will have died completely. Browsing for and buying stuff no one really needs, like all small joys, we will only ever do alone with our phones. Alice Lloyd is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard .

42 | December 2017

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