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Stuff Is The Drug

Please, anything but a big box store

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I've dipped into the delights of a drug or two, but compulsive shopping isn't one of them. I can get a boost from retail therapy with the best of my fellow countrymen, but I like my shopping stints to be spread out and either high-end or funky. Pushing a shopping cart up and down the aisles of a bleak retail bunker strikes me as more punishment than pleasure.

They're called "big box" stores, but "ugly cube" would be more accurate. Once in a while statistics come out showing the percentage of Americans who routinely visit these places, and from what I can gather there's maybe a dozen of us, tops, in the entire country who don't. The "big three" cubes have replaced churches as the destination for people who feel loneliness or a certain yearning emptiness. Instead of looking within, they seek out a fantastic deal on high heels or electric drills.

Beyond that, the activity of picking out individual gifts has been replaced by purchasing slices of plastic from these unattractive blocks that everybody adores shopping in except for me and some monks in upstate New York.

Although I usually try to avoid stores whose names end in the word "mart" or are symbolized by shapes, I was forced to go into one recently to buy gift cards for our team's coaches.

My problem with an ugly cube begins the minute I walk through those security sensors that look like hostile robots ready to zap. I expect my soul to soar when I step into a retail establishment but, instead, here it shrinks back from the harsh lighting and total lack of windows. If you really want to sense how unappealing their atmosphere is, just go to one when you're high. Even the aggressively bright colors can't make up for that squeezed-in sensation of the ceiling threatening to meet the floor and squish all the shopper drones in between.

I guess I have lofty store standards that come from going as a kid to one of the country's most exalted temples of Stuff, the flagship John Wanamaker Department Store in Philadelphia. The cathedral-like department stores that once crowned every city, including the now-vanished Belk of downtown Charlotte, represented the highest achievement in retail. You might argue that some specialty shops match them in elegance, but let me ask you this: has Santa ever held court in a specialty shop? I don't think so. The regal scale just isn't there.

Annually, my mother dragged us up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with me hanging behind to stare at the spiky graffiti sprawled all over them, but it was really our trips to Wanamaker's that had the bigger impact on my artistic sense. Surrendering to its revolving doors was like passing through a magic portal into a realm where everything looked, smelled, and even sounded better than in regular life.

If you're thinking, What a total snob, let me mention a store at the opposite end of the financial spectrum that was an equally influential part of my childhood: the neighborhood Woolworth's, conveniently located within walking distance of our house if you traveled through a thrillingly empty lot. Woolworth's was proof that a store could be a budget establishment and still have natural light in addition to plenty of character.

What place wouldn't have character when it included a pet department featuring turtles sporting roses drawn on their shells with toxic paint, and Easter chicks dyed punk shades of purple and pink with equally fatal results. Hanging out in the pet department among the doomed peeping and scrabbling critters was the highlight of every trip.

Today's discount stores have neither the class of the nicer places or the personality of the funkier ones, not to mention the dearly departed Woolworth's. Somehow they manage to feel emotionally sterile and physically scummy at the same time, and the effort of hunting down their salespeople is a laughable exercise in futility.

Yet on any day, a sizable portion of the American public can be found shuffling along their aisles pushing junk-loaded carts with a whining brat or two wedged in. You see shoppers with the same expression on their faces as the habitual drunks who slump at the end of every bar: glazed, vacant, but seeking another fix of what they came for.

"But the money we save!" they cry in justification. Any habit gets costly unless you're addicted to something that's usually free, like normal sex, so if Stuff is your drug, it's less expensive to consume in an ugly cube rather than a department store, but it's even cheaper to just stay home.

People who pride themselves on being bargain hunters are frequently Stuff addicts who, under the cover of "shopping the sales," spend an ungodly amount of time cruising cube aisles for deals. Funny how the self-proclaimed "cheapskates" are often the ones with symbol-covered bags piled high in the backs of their cars. Shopping takes dough, period. I much prefer the occasional trip to SouthPark to inhale its rarefied air. It's not as intoxicating as Wanamaker's was, but it comes close.

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