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Buying My Way Through Boston

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I walked through Downtown Crossing in Boston last week, with my 15-month-old daughter strapped to the front of me in a carrier we bought for the trip. The familiar smells of roasted nuts, the subway, and sewage greeted my wife and me as we weeded our way through the lunchhour crowds to a used bookstore we’d been itching to raid.  We were relieved that Charlotte was napping so that we could hit the famous Brattle Book Shop and browse the stalls outside. Our daughter Charlotte has patience for many things, but not for the amount of time that Mom and Dad spend in any given used bookstore. She was open-mouthed and completely asleep when we reached West Street and the stalls. 

Boston Common

We took our time.  Then Charlotte woke up, and we left the stalls before going inside the rest of the store.

Ironically, that day I bought a book about consumerism about which I’d read in The Phoenix the day before, when our train came into South Station. The book was a buck. Since returning to Baltimore a few days ago and thinking about my own rampant consumerism, I realized that our week-long tryst with a city we love (and in which we used to live) was based largely on buying stuff.

We planned our trip in a set of Massachusetts “County Fair” edition Field Notes notebooks, and the graph paper is filled with tiny brown inked letters listing locations to buy stationery, books, art supplies, and coffee.  Instead of an itinerary, we carried around a shopping list.

I suspect that we’re not the only people to morph traveling into a sort of intrepid shopping trip, substituting another city for a semi-local mall on the outskirts of our own town.  On several of the trips I’ve taken to New York City in the last few years, a large proportion of the evening commuters heading South to Charm City have traveled three or four hours (each way) just to go shopping.  In June 2009, I took the Bolt Bus, which got a large group of shoppers and me to New York in three hours, for $10 each way.  I thought to myself that, at least that way, the people who traveled all the way to Manhattan to shop for the day got at least as good a deal on their transportation as they did on their blouses and handbags.

Still, I sat on the bus’s nice seats, with a heavy shoulder bag full of my own purchases from The Strand looking down my prominent nose at their Macy’s bags.  Because I wasn’t using my time in New York just to go shopping.  No, not me.  I went to The Strand, yes.  I bought a pile of books there, yes.  But we spent most of our day in New York walking around, relaxing, eating, and listening to bands play in Washington Square Park.  We were above mere consumerism then.  Sure.

Bracketing the truth of that claim, I don’t understand what happened to make our week in Boston with our daughter turn into a hunt for good deals on books, notebooks, and fancy art-pens.

Caffe Paradiso

My wife and I lived in Boston from 2001-2003, in our first apartment together, when we were very very young.  It’s a special place to us.  We’d been looking forward to the trip this summer, to showing Charlotte where we lived in North Quincy, where Mommy went to school at Harvard, and where Daddy used to walk on the beach between study-sprees in graduate school.  We wanted her to see the T, the Public Gardens, Boston Common, Quincy Market, South Station.

At first, I started to write the information for museums and other “cultural” information in the notebook we were using for planning and directions and train schedules.  But, dang, $22 for admission to the Museum of Fine Arts?  Nah, we thought.  We don’t have a lot of money, and it’s not like Charlotte would tolerate a quiet museum very well (to say nothing of how said museum might tolerate her).  We’ll find…something else to do, we agreed.

But that something else turned into a relentless crawl across Boston’s and Cambridge’s bookstores for deals on books we wanted, as well as unheard-of tomes full of enjoyment and/or information.  While we didn’t subject our active little daughter to museums or lectures, we spent hours upon hours in bookstores, at least half of which didn’t have air conditioning.  Anything for a new stash of late summer and early fall reading!

Three years ago, in Boston, we bought so many books that we had to mail them home at the post office near South Station.  Then we went to New York on the early Acela.  After a day of bookstores and hunting for a Manhattan Portage bag in Manhattan, we hit our hotel, exhausted.  What got us out of the room again, for an evening on the town?  Reading about the Barnes and Noble that boasted being the largest bookstore in the world (it was a disappointment) in our guidebook, which we bought in Boston.

Walden Pond on the level

This summer, I even managed to make our veritable pilgrimage to Concord and Walden Pond into a shopping trip.  The last two times I went there, I half felt like walking around the pond was just a good excuse to buy some crap with Thoreau quotations on it.  Because, you know.  Buying Thoreau replica pencils and T-shirts that support the Thoreau Society (my Dad has three I’ve bought him over the years) is high-minded shopping

In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, Daniel Harris claims that a lot of consumers of “quaint” items like chipped chamber pots (my example) approach such consumption as less “base” than merely buying a bunch of shoes.  I think I’ve gone and done the same thing with books and stationery.  I don’t think anything of spoiling my daughter with six books from the Shop at Walden Pond and then another trip to the bookshop in Concord (one was closed).  If anyone’s child had the amount of toys or clothes that Charlotte has of books, I’d judge them as terribly shallow and materialistic.  She probably has as many books as I had when I started graduate school. 

But, of course, books aren’t just things we buy, right?

And consuming in a different place than that in which we live is not consuming.  Of course not!  It’s an adventure, albeit maybe only a minor one.

If you’ve ever been to an REI or read Outside magazine, you know that our sense of Adventure itself and our own possible personal adventures are all tied up in buying the right gear.  You have to read the right books ahead of time, train with the right energy bar/gel/pill/whatever.  You need the right shoes, the right rip-away pants, and shirts with pockets you’ll never use.  And, of course, you can’t forget some high-tech underwear that wicks the moisture from your nether-regions before it can evaporate and actually cool you off.

Things weren’t always this way.  John Muir, the father of our National Parks and the Sierra Club, didn’t take much with him to go into the outdoors.  His famous advice on packing was, “Throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” And Thoreau put more in his hat than in some 19th century version of a space-age lumbar-pack when he brought specimens home — when they weren’t pressed into the music notebook he carried for such a purpose.

But maybe Thoreau and Muir weren’t so much out for adventure as they were just out.  They didn’t lead boring lives tied to a jobs they hated in order, as Tyler Durden tells us, to buy things they didn’t need.  But many of us are so burdened, just like Thoreau’s contemporaries in Concord.

When we’re traveling — and especially on vacation — we get to throw whatever economic self-control we might have to the wind.  We get to buy stuff we wouldn’t buy back home.  We’re not fettered by our work-selves and whatever level of consumptive normality we’re used to.  It’s time for bare-knuckle consumerism! 

Or are we just incapable of taking a break from consuming when we’re traveling?  If we’re not buying stuff, what else will we do?  Visit historical sites in order to experience them, not just to get a T-shirt or mug at the giftshop?  If we can’t buy stuff when we’re traveling or on vacation, does that mean that we are required to do the work to create an adventure out of the combination of ourselves and an unfamiliar place or situation?  If we can’t buy stuff, it won’t be like our real lives.  Isn’t that part of the reason a lot of us travel or take vacations, though, to get outside of our normal lives?

Maybe what I should have brought back from Walden Pond this time was the truth that traveling is the time to experience wherever you are, not just the bookstores and coffeeshops (or sale racks or shoestores). While the global economy means that I can shop virtually anywhere, I missed the opportunity to reject consumerism, at least temporarily, when I was not at home.  There’s nothing wrong, and probably a lot right, with a temporary moratorium on acquiring new possessions — even books.

I’m sick to my stomach thinking of all the fun things we could have done last week if we weren’t so busy buying our way through Boston.  But at least I have some good books to read.

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About JohnGamber

  • Thanks, Jon! I tried to keep my camera at bay, but I failed miserably during a gorgeous afternoon at Walden. Still not as bad as spending $178 there, though.

  • Great piece, G. Another way people shunt aside the actual experience of experiencing what they’re doing is by scrambling to take photos of everything. I’m guilty of that one myself…