Of mall-dwellers and yo-yo shoppers

Animal behaviourists researching intelligence discovered some years ago that birds show similar patterns to humans with regard to provisioning themselves. If the food source is close by (local convenience store) a bird will only take that which it needs immediately. If the food source is further away (supermarket or food mall), a bird will stuff its beak full, so as to make the trip less often. This is intelligent shopping, particularly in the freezer age (an advantage our feathered friends cannot share with us).  Or is it? What we are actually doing is often little more than taking the burden of storage away from the retailer (shelf, frozen food section) and transferring it to our own living space and budget. The ideal solution is yo-yo shopping: live next door to the food source, collect what you need each day as you need it and leave the burden of planning and storage to the retailer.  Don’t worry; you’ll still pay for the privilege. This obvious little truth helps to explain the appearance of a new type of consumer in America (where most things still happen first), to wit: mall-dwellers.

The mall-dweller is feeding a new, if still modest, property boom in apartments and condos that are actually integrated into the upper galleries of shopping malls. They offer some interesting advantages over conventional apartments: round-the-block and round-the-clock security service, an “outdoors” that is always clement (because it’s actually indoors), easy access to stores, restaurants and cinemas, secure parking, a view that remains lively and attractive at all times of day (though rather eerie at night), a clean and well-ordered environment (if you don’t mind having your eyes “branded” by flashing logo-rhythms), the soothing sound  of bland music to calm your agitated spirits (“Jingle-Bells” 24/7 from October to January, who could ask for more?), and – not least – the opportunity to look upon that which is fairest in our modern world in the form of vapid, gum-chewing mall-rat girls of heartbreaking beauty, and equally heartbreaking empty-headedness, doing what they do best …

Exiles from Main Street

So, are the days of Mom’n’Pop’s local store gone forever? Whatever happened to shopping as a social interaction with one’s neighbours? Have we entirely lost the “quartier” feeling so beloved of the French, that sense of knowing your beat and the folks along it? Well, let’s not cry. For one reason those days are not gone, they’ve just shifted up a gear or two, and for another, they weren’t so great anyway.

It’s 1986, and here I am standing in line at the local organic store. Did I say store? It’s basically a narrow hallway between two other equally sombre establishments. It takes half the afternoon hour to get served, only in part because the place is run on a shoe-string and there’s only ever one person behind the counter. The real reason for the long delay is that the storekeeper has to tell everyone his life story: of how he’s not in it for the money, but for the ideal, of how hard it is to find reliable suppliers, of how this kind of grain or that kind of vegetable is currently unavailable due to mildew, or rats or bugs, or price-gouging middle-men, of how the supermarkets are killing off all the competition, etc. Having been lectured, once again, on the difference between bio, organic and fair trade (and I still don’t know) I need to get some bread, but the only decent baker has a queue that reaches out into the street. Figure I’ll come back later. So it’s off to the butcher’s. The man’s wife is massively overweight and suffers from diabetes and severe arthritis in every single joint of her body. I know this, because she has just told me in great detail while trying with her poor swollen fingers to pinch open a plastic bag for the chicken pieces she has just taken an hour to gather together in one little heap lest they try to escape. Then it’s off to the grocer’s, where I can hardly move inside at all, because the twice-weekly delivery is taking place and two hulking lads are staggering in and out of the already restricted space with sacks of this and crates of that and palettes of the other. But not to worry, a neighbour I’d rather not meet, because she always talks your ear off about how negligent the town council is, corners me up against a stack of diaper cartons and tells me at great length that the town hall has once more failed to reply to the last five of her letters complaining about thoughtless dog-owners. Finally I shake her off and gather my modest necessities. By the time I get back to the baker’s there’s nothing left worth eating that doesn’t have jam oozing out of the edges. Please, please, spare me the social interaction of shopping!

Chewing the fat down at the Superette

No, these days, no fuss, no bother, it’s off to the supermarket for me. One of the classier kind: clean and well-organized, with quality brands, everything really fresh and even quite good music, such a place as is fitting for an expatriate snob like me. That, however, is accidental. Once it comes to stuffing my beak, this store happens to be the closest, full-range food source. And don’t think that this is maybe because I live in an upmarket area. Far from it, my “quartier” is increasingly home to Turks, Russians, Pakistanis, Croats and Ukrainians … and looks all the better for it – growing daily younger, livelier and more colourful. But this store has survived for two decades where numerous others of the cheap-street variety have long-since gone belly-up. Even those of modest means prefer to feel that someone rates them higher up the scale than they might rate themselves. Here at my favourite supermarket I cruise my caddy around the gleaming aisles, gathering food into its ample steel-mesh bosom, tagging each item with my wonderful hand-scanner that goes “beep”, and breezing through checkout without even the hint of a queue. Shopping Nirvana!

Except that I happen to meet a local author in the drinks section who spends twenty minutes telling me how hard it is to get a book deal but that he’s too scared to self-publish and not savvy enough to blog. Then, while I’m standing enraptured by the glorious purple of the aubergines, I chance upon the lovely wife of a friend, who has one of those voices that is so intoxicating that I could happily spend the day listening to her read me the phone book. She might as well have read me the phone book, because afterwards I realize I haven’t understood a word, so entranced by the cadence of her speech that I have, once again, entirely missed the content. Later, up by the dairy produce, I run into a cultural historian who would like to know if he can count on my support for a new project on the history of migrant labour from our region, lost to the vast farmlands of France and Germany in the 1890’s. Finally, just as I’m speeding down to the electronic checkout in the last seconds before closing time … a freak thunder storm crashes all the computers and I have to wait in line forever with all those less-fortunate, card-less and scanner-less shoppers, while the usually ultra-friendly check-out girls (now totally frazzled and depressed) laboriously note the bar-code and price of every individual item by hand before painstakingly doing the addition … a function severely atrophied since leaving school last week. No, it seems I shall have to travel a lot farther afield to fill my beak with anonymous, aseptic shopping if I don’t want every Mrs Finch and Mr Robin to talk my weary little wings off. The supermarket has simply become much too neighbourly and socially interactive, now that everybody goes there.

Stranger in a strange land? Not likely

So, here I am, in an unknown aisle of an unknown store in one of those faceless dormer-towns that have formed like satellites around any major city in Europe. Where is everything? How can I find out where the sliced almonds are if I don’t even know what colour aprons they wear here? Why on earth are the breakfast cereals down among the pet food? Better not ask! Is this place staffed entirely by robots? Out here in these bleak lanes I can’t see a soul with a box-cutter and a tagger, let alone a fork-lift. And why does the bloody trolley only have back wheels that steer, so I keep bumping into teetering piles of not-very-artfully arranged stuff … and other shoppers: “Oh, my goodness, Gina! Of all the possible people, fancy meeting you all the way out here, of all the possible places! Small world, isn’t it? Stocking up on cheap South African plonk on the sly are we? Sure your guests can’t tell the difference at three times the price? Well, you’re probably right. We live in sadly uncultured times. Do my eyes deceive me, or is that a crate of frozen lasagne in your cart? So much to do, so little time to do it in when you run a gourmet restaurant, isn’t that so? And anyway it hardly makes sense to cook the stuff yourself when it tastes that good straight out of the deepfreeze.  Well, I must be getting along. You don’t happen to know where they keep the sliced almonds, do you? Next to the grated parmesan! Of course, why didn’t I think of that?”

Edwin Drood

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