THE BEST OF SHOPPING:
You are what you buy
By Chris Wright
YOU ARE WHAT you eat. You are what you wear, what you listen to, what you read.
You are the bed you sleep in, the car you drive, the shampoo you use. You are
your cell phone, your favorite hat. You are that darling little novelty
corkscrew you bought at Restoration Hardware last week. All the other stuff --
body, soul, substance, essence -- is just a peg from which to hang the
true you. Want to know thyself? Then take a long hard look at your most recent
Okay, this may be overstating the point a little. But where we shop, and what
we buy when we do, says a great deal about who we are. This thought occurred to
me the other day when, walking through Copley Square, I caught a glimpse of my
reflection in the Hancock building. "Christ, you scruffy bastard," I thought.
Which was okay -- I am a scruffy bastard. And yet all it would have
taken was a short stroll to some spotless Newbury Street boutique, a few
minutes rummaging through the Balenciaga, and a swipe of the beleaguered credit
card, and I'd have become, almost instantly, a debonair bastard.
But this isn't going to happen. I am simply not the kind of person who is given
to thumbing the lining of Italian-made sports coats at Louis Boston, and I
never will be. For one thing, I cannot afford Italian-made sports coats --
unless I am lucky enough to pick one up for pennies at a local Salvation Army
store. And when I am in the money, it's the kind of money that will only
stretch to a couple of Old Navy dress shirts or a pair of pre-ruined jeans at
Urban Outfitters. The bottom line is, I am not an investment banker or a drug
dealer -- I am a writer, and I shop accordingly.
But it's not only a matter of finances. I have friends who recently bought a
70-section sofa made from the skin of infant albino Kazak mountain goats -- I
think it set them back something like $800,000. Another friend has the kind of
white carpeting that compels her to constantly cry out, "Shoes!" Who
needs it? My own place is furnished in what might be termed Crazy Old Man
Mismatch. I have never set foot over the threshold of Mohr & McPherson or
Abodeon, but on any given Sunday you will see me trawling local flea markets
and rummage sales, toting armfuls of begrimed knickknacks to place upon my
already groaning shelves. My most prized piece of furniture, meanwhile, is an
orange pleather armchair I bought for 10 bucks at a secondhand shop on
When I visit the low-end shopping outlets I favor, I not only know the kinds of
things I'll be able to pick up, I know the kinds of people I'll be competing
with. It's very rarely, for instance, that you will see a Gucci-wearing,
BMW-driving beauty-salon owner making a desperate bid for the last remaining
plastic toothpick holder shaped like an elephant. By the same measure, you
don't often find Eminem look-alikes pulling the crinklies from their baggy
jeans at Brooks Brothers, or bejeweled septuagenarians flapping their gold
cards at Allston Beat. While our neighborhoods and workplaces grow more
diverse, the places we shop in adhere to an almost primeval sense of group, and
thus personal, identity.
An anthropologist looking to categorize Boston's various communities could do
worse than to look at its shopping districts. Sunday morning at Filene's
Basement brings out the dreaded Pointy Elbow people from the Outer Suburbs.
Newbury Street attracts the Tiny-Cell-Phone Users of Various Nations and the
Nose Piercings Are So Yesterday tribes of Belmont. Medford's Meadow Glen Mall
entertains Harrowed-Looking Women Whose Husbands Trail Three Feet Behind. The
CambridgeSide Galleria is filled with Incessantly Shouting Youth. Charles
Street has its People Who Buy Brass Lamps and Exorbitantly Priced Rugs. And so
Occasionally, these various shopping tribes will cross paths -- you may see a
Shouting Youth and a Trailing Husband, for instance, come within sneering
distance of each other in Harvard Square -- but mostly they stick with their
own. To do otherwise feels like a violation of the natural order of things. Not
so long ago, while rummaging through the shoes-I-could-never-afford section in
a high-end local boutique, I found myself face to face with another Scruffy
Bastard. It was an awkward encounter. A look of recognition, tinged with
embarrassment, passed between us. The other Bastard cast his eyes downward and
continued scrutinizing the sleek leather brogues we both knew he would never
buy. His expression said it all: "These aren't me."
Chris Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.