As Covid-19 vaccinations began to open up the world for some of us in pandemic-battered Los Angeles, going back to restaurants, dance clubs, bars or theaters was at the top of many wish lists. But at the top of mine was going back to malls.
I had missed browsing and shopping at will, wandering through favorite stores and boutiques with no real plan, fingering flowy blouses on hangers, rummaging through a table of purses on sale, inhaling the scent of a new body cream at the makeup counter — languidly weighing the decision of whether or not to buy. That lifelong shopping habit went into hibernation during the Covid-19 pandemic, but I figured it would return. While I’ve always been vaguely critical of its indolence, I could never shake it. This was the normal that I figured I’d return to.
But something amazing has happened: I’ve realized that I no longer want to shop. Even though I’m vaccinated and now can stroll the mall corridors again (masked, in accordance with the latest guidance as cases surge again), I have zero motivation to go forth and browse. At first I chalked it up to a lingering reticence to be indoors and among crowds — a hangover from my Covid paranoia (not so paranoid, given the new Delta variant). But that’s not entirely it.
A year-plus without shopping has wrought a whole new perspective on stores, and the nature of my attachment to them. Simply put, the thrill of the hunt that once was so integral to my life is gone. It’s like losing extra weight unexpectedly, without even trying or understanding why you lost it — mystifying, but undeniably liberating. Marie Kondo, the doyenne of declutter, would applaud my evolution. So would J.B. MacKinnon, the anti-overconsumption activist and author of “The Day the World Stops Shopping.” In a recent article, Mr. MacKinnon urges us to resist the calls for a “consumer-driven recovery” from the pandemic downturn, pointing out that overconsumption has “surpassed overpopulation as the greatest driver of our eco-crises.”
Mr. MacKinnon sees some hope in the disruption of our closet-stuffing, flash-sale-hunting habits. “It isn’t only that we know that our consumption comes at a tremendous cost to the environment,” he wrote. “The pandemic also gave us pause to reflect on what we want from consumer culture, and what we can happily live without.”
Looking back, I’m starting to realize how it happened for me. During the pandemic, whenever I was tempted to go to any retailer that wasn’t a grocery store, I asked myself: Is it worth the risk? The answer was always no. As Covid’s danger to me receded, the question has morphed into: Is it worth my time? Still no. Somewhere along the line, I became convinced that shopping without any real need for the items I might purchase presents its own kind of cost, in that it saps my most precious commodity — time. Definitely not a price worth paying.
Another experience that brought me to this new enlightened space, ironically, is online shopping. Pre-pandemic, I almost never indulged. Stripped of all the tactile and social stimulation of the in-person consumer experience, filling my online “shopping cart” seemed depressing. But last summer, I succumbed. Online shopping did offer some pleasures. Ordering things via a screen was like sending myself Christmas gifts to look forward to and unwrap. But the satisfaction was fleeting. The process made me keenly aware of how much stuff I was willing to buy just to amuse myself — to pass the time. Every empty UPS box I took out to the recycling bin was weighted with a certain remorse and, though I didn’t know it at the time, each helped me build my resolve to dispense with the enervating cycle of acquisition.
Finding that I can maintain that resolve has been gratifying. But I’m still uneasy. What am I going to do with all the time that shopping used to take up? Where will that dopamine hit of finding the perfect pair of jeans at 75 percent off come from now? Without routinely plunging myself into the marketplaces of my world, will I still be part of the world? What will I do if I’m not preparing my face “to meet the faces that you meet,” as T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock put it?
Shopping itself was mindless, true, but the wandering it required was gold. Wandering brought me into random contact with people, attitudes, conversations, trends, feelings in the air. All of this informed me, gave me much to ponder and measure myself against. The price of my new enlightened shopping-free state is that I am feeling less defined. Not quite so sure of who I am.
But maybe that’s appropriate for this moment. The country itself is going through a Big Shift, perilously unsure of what it is, and what it wants. The flux and social upheavals of 2020 have continued into 2021, with more developments virtually every day. This is maybe the biggest reason shopping has lost its luster: The distraction that was so pleasant and rejuvenating — not to mention so quintessentially American — now feels totally superfluous. It feels wrong.
Market analysts say Americans are regaining their comfort with shopping at malls and other retailers. But many of us are also feeling the urgent need to keep tabs on everything going on, to connect the dots of current events from one day to the next, even one hour to the next. With the backdrop of this nation’s existential crisis, shopping looks more and more like an attempt to ignore and forget. That is to say, it looks more and more like what it’s always been.
I still shop for the things I actually need for my survival or comfort. But my shopping is now far more focused and intentional — for example, I patronize Black-owned businesses in my neighborhood more. Instead of drifting in and out of stores for hours looking for bargains or serendipitous finds, I go to specific places knowing exactly why I’m there and what I want to buy. This engagement in the economic life of my community is pleasurable in its own way, and even fun — when I get what I need from a merchant who appreciates the business, I want to spike the ball, do a victory dance.
Still, the uneasiness persists. I am clear that I want progress more than I want stuff, a change that I think will last. But on its own my decision to buy less solves nothing, at least not the big things that need solving.
It’s proof, however, that positive change is doable, even to the activities so fundamental in our lives we don’t think about them. The Big Shifts will keep happening — from racism to antiracism, democracy on autopilot to democracy in peril. In that context, giving up browsing at the mall seems like a small shift. But it’s a start.
Erin Aubry Kaplan (@aubry_erin) teaches writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is the author of “Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line” and “I Heart Obama.”
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