Ralph Gardner Jr: The Case For Crowds

Dec 2, 2017

With holiday shopping season fast upon us, I’d like everybody to shop local --for entirely selfish reasons.

No, I’m not a main street merchant. I don’t have some charming storefront that sells bric-a- brac. Whatever bric-a-brac is.

Truth be told, I’m not much of a shopper, period. If the economy depended on me we’d be in a perennial Great Recession.

Advertising agencies would go out of business since I’m almost unpersuadable.

I’d don’t enjoy the ads on TV. I enjoy talking back to them.

However, I do love Christmastime. I love walking down Main Street in Chatham, New York; Warren Street in Hudson (by the way, celebrating Winter Walk this evening;) and Fifth Avenue in New York City, absorbing the energy. Window shopping.

Which explains why I’m planning to make a pilgrimage to Lord & Taylor this week, or next at the latest.

In case you haven’t heard, Lord & Taylor is selling its flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 39th street to WeWork. That’s a company that leases office space to small companies.

The department store will become one of those companies, renting back a quarter of the building and becoming a smaller – much smaller – version of itself.

It’s one more victim of the move by shoppers from brick and mortar stores to the Internet.

I can’t say Lord & Taylor’s demise comes as a great surprise. After all, I was one of their customers. And, as I’ve stated, I’m a lousy customer. I loved the fact that I could wander the store without a single salesperson ever asking whether I needed help.

And the end of all my wanderings might be to buy a 20% off flannel shirt marked down an additional 40%.

I grew up in New York City and my mother used to take me to places like Bloomingdales, Best & Company and Saks to shop for clothes as a child. Best and Company is long gone. Bloomingdales and Saks have gone high end. Apparently, that’s the only way to survive these days since the middle class has been hollowed out.

What that means, practically, is that if your budget doesn’t allow you to spend $50 on a bottle of bubble bath or drop several hundred more on a Hermès scarf you might want to go elsewhere.

Even Wal-Mart is trolling for the wealthy, ironically recently announcing that they’re going to start selling Lord & Taylor merchandise online.

I wish them the best of luck.

Once mighty Macy’s today is worth more for its real estate than its merchandise. It’s only a matter of time until its block-long store on Herald Square becomes a hotel or condos.

And what of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? Will it be sponsored by Amazon a dozen years from now?

But retail storefronts are what make communities, large and small, major cities and small towns, not just livable but desirable.

I, too, love the convenience of shopping online. Even though I don’t do very much of it. But there’s really no substitute for squeezing the merchandise, for trying stuff on. I don’t see how you buy a pair of shoes without putting them on your feet. Or even something like a tennis racquet without swinging it.

I had an epiphany recently. Admittedly, a very small epiphany. And it was this: just because something works elegantly is no guarantee that it’s going to survive.

I suppose it’s called evolution and it effects technologies as well as organisms.

Take newspapers. There’s no substitute for a physical paper. I mean, there is, of course. Which is why print journalism is dying.

But there’s no substitute for the lovely leisure of getting waylaid by five other stories while turning from the story you were reading on page 1 to it’s continuation on page 15.

That doesn’t happen when reading online. You travel only where you click.

And I’m sure there were dozens of other cultural high points that had their moment and then vanished from the stage.

I’m not much of a student of history. But I suspect Florence during the High Renaissance or even New York City in the Sixties, the 1960’s that is, were in some ways more civilized than they are today.

Actually, I know something about New York in the Sixties because I lived through it. And there were half a dozen bookstores within ten blocks of each other on Fifth Avenue.

They’ve all vanished, replaced by the likes of Abercrombie and Hollister.

What would you prefer? Leafing through an art book at Doubleday or Rizzoli or being bombarded by a remix of “Like A Virgin” at Abercrombie?

However, it’s apparently not all bad news. While the numbers are still preliminary this holiday shopping season has gotten off to a decent start. With both online retailers and brick and mortar stores chalking up solid sales.

But it’s inevitable that more and more business will gravitate online.

So it’s up to each and everyone of us to shop locally. We’re not doing so just for our friendly local merchants but also for ourselves. We’re striking a blow for civilization, the feeling of well-being that accrues to those who still regard shopping as a purposeful form of socializing.

Buying local helps define our humanity.

And what about the holiday decorations? Lord and Taylor’s Christmas windows, for starters. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

It’s hard to hang tinsel from a website.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.