Will We Ever Be Able to Shop Again?

Online shopping has worn out its charms. I long to return to the sensory delights of retail.

Photo by Tristan Colangelo on Unsplash

I miss shopping. I really do. I love shopping; I love wandering around a store, seeing the goods, evaluating the displays, marveling at the merchandise. I love acquiring things, but even more, I love the process of being in the world of stuff, high and low, useful and frivolous. I am just as happy looking at the absurdly overpriced merch in a Rodeo Drive boutique as I am in a Harbor Freight or a Dollar Store. I’m just interested in what we humans create. It’s the amateur anthropologist in me, wandering the rows at Target.

I shop like crazy when I travel (that is, back when we traveled). In the olden days, before retail globalization, before you could buy Gap sweatshirts in Bangkok and before Zara had leaped from Spain to every single street corner in New York City, part of the fun of shopping while traveling was finding things you couldn’t find at home. But the biggest part of it was just seeing what the people of, say, London or Madrid or Houston or wherever, encountered when they went shopping. If people asked me what I had done on a particular trip, I would always say I had spent time at the Museum of Consumer Goods, which sounded classier than saying I had spent hours in the biggest department store in Singapore. One of my happiest experiences while traveling was giving myself permission to spend most of a day in Tokyo at a massive stationery and office goods store called Tokyu Hands. I saw all the requisite tourist sights in Tokyo, too, but browsing through the pencils and erasers at Tokyu Hands gave me enormous pleasure — and I would argue, some real insight into what the day-to-day life of a Japanese person might entail.

I shop online all the time — who doesn’t? — and I love the convenience and the quick access to obscure products I might have otherwise had to drive miles to find. But I really miss the serendipity and exploratory nature of being in a store. Since the pandemic, I’ve been grocery shopping and, with a few exceptions, that’s about it. It’s made me realize how much of my experience of living in a city is based on poking around in retail institutions.

Will we return to our old ways of shopping when this virus is behind us? Retail has been in a crisis for years, and the vise of the pandemic has only hastened it. Malls, certainly, are dead. Will places to shop in person be reduced so much that the main commercial centers of cities will be empty? What a depressing thought. The other day, I took my son to buy a bicycle in Santa Monica. The main drag through town has always been jammed with pedestrians and cars and the fizzy energy of people dipping in and out of shops and cafes. The street now has the vacant feel of a stage set, with FOR LEASE signs stretched at jaunty angles across empty storefronts. It made me incredibly sad.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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