Thursday, December 04, 2008

notes from a church of shopping

I'm not much of a shopper. I love to buy beautiful clothes, pick out the perfect gift for friends and family, and get nice things for my house, but I'm not someone who shops for the simple pleasure of shopping, or as therapy. I always shop on the fly: when I happen to be out, and I see something I want, I buy it. If I know exactly what I want and where to get it, I order it online. That's it. I can no more imagine a day at the mall than I can imagine stabbing my own self in the eye.

Last year the holiday shopping season took on a whole new life for me. My shop on Etsy put me out there in the bigger shopping world than I had previously been, and I was slammed. In my Etsy shop alone, I sold 48 separate items. That, combined with my Open Studio, and normal call and walk-in sales, made it an insanely busy month. While I really enjoyed it, I was left feeling sort of beached at the end of December: exhausted, picked-over, and unable to swim another stroke. I also considered for the first time that a business that depends on those end-of-the-year sales is not a sustainable business, that it was really important for me to build up my own business to a point where Holiday Sales was a nice bump, but I didn't have to depend on it.

And more: if we've learned anything in the past couple of months, we've learned that spending and buying is what our economy is totally dependent on. No matter what is happening in the world, in our economy, we are told to buy, and to shop by the people "in charge". It bothers me. It's like we are all children who can only find comfort in things. We can be distracted by our toys, and ignore what ails the planet, and the people on it. Isn't that what the word "retail therapy" means? I listened yesterday to a wonderful and dark essay by Andrei Codrescu that totally mirrored my feelings about the religion of shopping. And I don't think I'm overstating it by calling it a religion.

As someone who makes things and depends on people buying them so I can continue to make more, I know I'm in a tricky position here. If shopping is a religion, then there can be no doubt I run one of its chapels, and I love me a large congregation, tithing on a regular basis. So what am I saying? That we should all stop buying stuff right now? Of course not. You should buy stuff, and you should buy it from me. All I want for Christmas is some more thought about what we purchase, where we purchase, and why we purchase it. More reflection about these things will probably not do much to pull us out of recession anytime soon, but maybe it could be one, tiny little baby step to making a more sustainable economy for ourselves. And if that meant that I had to lose some sales this season, I'm okay with that, because I do feel as if I'm participating in a group psychosis this time of year. And I really prefer to be psychotic on my own. What do you all think?


  1. I wrote about this recently, too. I'd like to shift more towards a service economy, rather than a commodity one - I'd like to commission your work, have a conversation about what I want, rather than have you agonize about presenting things that I don't know I want yet.

    Of course, artistic progress demands some risk from the artist, otherwise how can I be seduced or inspired by foreign ideas? But more commissioning, rather than more consumerism.

  2. ditto

    btw, hi! xox,
    see you next week.

  3. "Of course not. You should buy stuff, and you should buy it from me."

    My favorite part.

    Kidding. It is bad and It's getting worse. If anything, people should be thoughtful in their gift buying and giving... Buy it special, Buy handmade.... but I think I'm preaching to the choir here.

  4. As someone who has only recently started making things & therefore, obviously wishes to sell them, I still agree. I find myself completely frustrated at the lack of independent outlets where I live & where maybe, just maybe, if such a place existed I might be able to sell some pieces which people would appreciate for not being mass-marketed.

    Who invented the idea that we all want to dress/eat/watch/listen to/read the same?!

  5. I have been a dedicated reader of your blog for a long (in interent terms) time and often find myself saying -"You go, sister!" to my monitor. This time I had to make it real and post it here...

    "YOU GO!, SISTER!"

  6. I too have given thought to this
    issue. One way I am able to find
    balance is through being a teacher, helping others to learn
    skills to express their own ideas.

    I am also able to sell some of my work through a weekly craft & food
    market. I continue with this,in spite of some of the inconveniences of weather, etc. partly because of the opportunity
    it affords for buyers to get to know me, and it can be rewarding
    to work with them on designs
    which suit their lives.

  7. We are encouraged to buy stuff because that's what our economy is based on. The minute people start watching their budget and spending less, the stock markets dive, some of the biggest companies are going bankrupt and/or asking for a bailout, and the blame goes to the poor guy trying to save a buck.

    I completely agree with the handmade purchases (go etsy!) and being conscious of your spending habits. If only all of us would stop spending like little consumer robots.


  8. I agree, we have committed to only hand making everything this year, but when I saw your pieces, I literally gasped. It's fantastic, I love it. So when I can put myself back in the shopping world, I'm coming to you for gifts. Thank you! What a gift you have!

  9. I actually have a reaction to shopping which includes: nausea, overheating, agitation, sometimes claustrophobic-like panic. I don't claw at people to get out or nothin., but I recognize that I as american this qualifies me as having a disorder, and so I park in the loading zone and give myself 10 minutes. I know that my reaction mall related. I do not like being fed through a maze while bad music is played and air is recirculated. I say a little prayer when I those cement islands (malls) pass through my mind. However I am a crazed shopper as evidenced by a craft fair yesterday that I was supposed to attend as a vendor. I (before the show had really opened) was in the hole 140.00, and I was restraining myself. It was very good shopping I scored Three seperate artists (and me with shrinking shelf space). I really love collecting the work of other artists. I like drinking wine from a vineyard I've visited when I know the people who grow the grapes, sell the wine etc. I want to buy food from my friends who grow it. I am tempted to by cheap crap from china. I tell myself it's ok if it came from the gap if I've gotten it second hand. There are creative ways to be a consumer. I love trades.
    Things have shifted. My parents don't buy stuff. They were exemplary: paying off cc bills in full, etc. They darned their socks and used their tea-bags twice so they could sock almost every penny in the stock market. They retired and then watched as their portfolio lost half its value. Now they are both working again.
    If anything all this has taught me that their is no fixed god of anything. Trust yourself as to what has value. If you gamble cash out frequently . Understand when you buy somthing why you just got it. I'm really proud of all the art in my house, and when I look at a piece I see the art in it and some part of me says the name of the person who made it.

  10. I am a maker of things. I rely on people to buy, and it gives me great joy that someone will spend their hard earned money on my products. It's such a compliment to know that what I do is wanted by another. Plus it allows me to continue. And while I loathe the consumerism and waste-ism that this country's economy seems based on, the idea that someone will choose my personal, more expensive and unique product gives me a warm feeling. The consumer's dollar is a loud statement and the more people opt for a handmade/small scale/independent/conscientious product the more it gives me hope that the ugly cycle can be slowed and weakened.

  11. Well said Whitney. Materialism and consumerism have really made the push for people to fill voids by shopping. I've never felt the retail therapy rush of shopping, but I do pay close attention to where I spend and feel much better when I'm buying direct from an artist or a small company vs. large corporations. I am also touched when others choose to buy from me whatever time of year instead of going to Pier One and getting a mass produced item at a fraction of the cost.

  12. I've struggled with this very same issue, even going so far as to stop making ceramic work for extended periods of time twice in the past 5 years. On the other hand, I think you and I are other people like us are part of a shift in the way people shop and spend money. Buying from independent businesses with real people behind the store front. My solution is to continue the cycle and to spend my money locally if possible and then from independent artisans and businesses who use ethical business practices. It doesn't work so well with things like TVs, cars, appliances etc....

    The latter has been tricky when I know I can go out and buy what I need cheaper from an anonymous big box store. In the end, I think this is the right thing and gives me hope.

  13. Preach it Sister! I've had a few clients reconsider their Christmas orders in order to cut back on their consumer habits at Christmas, and while it kind of sucks for me, I can still appreciate that people want to simplify, spend less but spend well.
    On the topic of consumerism: I think the thing that gave me a shake in the head was the poor guy who got trampled in a Walmart after American Thanksgiving. It was the most sad and almost vulgar thought- that people were so determined to buy, buy, buy, that they actually overlooked a human being and stepped all over him. That's just crazy. Anyways, great topic, as always!

  14. I like to buy from (Etsy) artists and I prefer eat locally. I also love to sell my own made little items. What is most important for me as a buyer and as a seller, is "longevity" of those things. I love to think that the Bunny I made is staying in family for years, for generations! And I tend to buy things (clothes especially) that I can wear for years!
    I absolutely hate cheap things, what are supposed to get broke and then you are in situation to buy it again......
    Every little thing in the world can carry love, and I'm looking exactly after those things :)

  15. Whitney,

    Thanks for this post. Despite my job, I have not always been very good about buying gifts consciously. This year, we chose not only to buy handmade, but also to purchase that handmade item from an artist in the city/state that the gift recipient lived in.

    Most of our family is in Michigan, which has been particularly hard hit, and we felt it important to try to put money into the state's economy (even though we don't live there) while also still purchasing and giving holiday gifts.

    It means not everyone will get exactly the perfect gift this year (which actually took a lot of stress off of me), but that they will get a gift that means something beyond the item itself.