Shopping and the Self

Shopping and the Self

London is an uncommon example of a city that is a political, cultural and commercial capital. London would not be what it is without this triumvirate, but it’s the last category that is most present in the city. From the pushy Shoreditch waiters to the straight-from-the-tailor salespeople of the luxury boutiques, you are constantly being sold something. Even in quiet neighborhoods, colorful flower shops and tiny cafes border the inconspicuous residences. Signs scream at both locals and travelers, and there are more advertisements in Piccadilly Circus Tube station than there are books in my home. I own a lot of books.

I’m not concerned with businesses doing what they have to do in order succeed in a market economy. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of visual noise in the metropolis. I find hope in the fact that despite the glut of advertisements in this place, there seems to be a thriving economy of businesses that prefer personal account to posters. Independent newsstands, bookshops, coffee bars, and even clothing stores are interspersed between familiar brands. It is common here in a way that it is not in the United States. Perhaps the British government has been friendlier to small business, or maybe the people in this city are more inclined to pay a premium for something special.

These shops around town have me thinking: what is this “something special” that independent shops have to offer? There several arguments. Independent shops ensure product diversity and prevent monopoly. (Vote with your wallet!) They might offer better products, thereby encouraging bigger brands to do the same. Or maybe it’s nothing more than the fact that there is something charming about discovering a hidden gem and absorbing it into a part of yourself. In the world of excessive advertisement – and advertisement of the self through social media – and we're constantly building a brand.

In an uncanny coincidence, my literature professor shared with our class an article that has to do with a similar subject: the individual in the modern metropolis. Written by 20th-century sociologist George Simmel, the piece begins as follows: 

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life.

If you can get past his flowery language, it’s clear that Simmel’s point is just as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. It’s hard to differentiate yourself in a crowd; each day in the modern metropolis is a struggle to be different, a struggle to be noticed. Being a good person is important, certainly, but you can’t assign a value to inherent goodness (and you definitely cannot put it on a resume). Rather than promote meaningful connections between people, this way of living encourages calculation, specialization, and downright eccentricity.

We can apply to same principle to independent shops. Let’s look at coffee shops as a representation of small business. I was very pleased to discover that London has well over one hundred “specialty” coffee shops. You can get your fill of velvety flat whites and caffeine fiends in any of these locations. But I also discovered that you do not open just a coffee shop in London. You open a newsstand with a coffee bar[1], or an underground bathroom-turned-café[2], or a clothing boutique-espresso station hybrid – with a slide, of course[3]. You open something that marks you as different. You open something that places you, in the words of Simmel, “against the sovereign powers of society.”

Independent shops are intertwined with individual identity. They are an extension of the identity of the owner, who pours her personality into the venture she has spent years dreaming about. They are an extension of the identity of the consumer, who chooses not only to shop small, but also to pick one independent store over another. Every person could seemingly open up her own, store, varied enough from those around it so as to become a literal embodiment of personality. But as we delve deeper into this, it is important to see how this system falls apart on itself.

Consider the following: I am and will continue to be a supporter of independent brands. I sit in my raw denim jeans and Warby Parker frames, sipping a Kenya aeropress from a small independent roastery as I flip through one of the dozens of minimalistic print magazine that you can pick up. My friends remark, “This is the most Xander picture I’ve ever seen.” Having received the mockingly endearing endorsement that I so love, I return to the publication, where I bask in the words of dozens of creative individuals who think exactly the same way that I do.

We’re all alike in this quest to be different, and we risk becoming caricatures of ourselves if we don’t recognize our smugness. I’ve been trying to come to terms with this fact.

I’m somebody who loves platforms like Instagram, the tool that has come to epitomize the brand-building of my generation. There might be beauty in a well-curated gallery, but don’t confuse beauty for profundity. There is nothing profound about showing off a pattern of consumption, no matter how small you shop. Instagram is a place where my peers and I are able to cultivate an idealized image of ourselves. We do ourselves a disservice if we do not reject a display of thoughtless patterns of consumption in favor of something more wholesome.

The building of a brand is only as good as the intentions behind it. This brings me back to the idea of independent shops. Rather than incorporate a small space into our identities because it’s fashionable, let’s do it because it’s meaningful. Let’s shop small because it gives us the opportunity to form relationships that big corporations deny us. Leave your laptop at home and treat your weekend latte as a catalyst to conversation with your friends, your family, or your neighbors. Shop at your local bookstore so that you can be kept in the loop about when your favorite authors are coming to town. Purchase your bike from down the street because you’ll meet somebody with whom you share a passion – and maybe there’s a free repair in it for you down the line, too.

Shopping small is shopping smart. I’ve spent less money, found better experiences and made more meaningful relationships. It has taught me that when it comes to things, you will be amazed at how little you actually need.