Less Is More

Less Is More

A shopping-local manifesto.

For me, shopping is all about looking, smelling, tasting, walking, talking. As a child in Germany, I accompanied my mother when she shopped for our family of three. We would get milk, butter, and jam at the grocer, soup bones at the butcher, apples and carrots at the fruit stand, bread at the bakery, and carry our modest purchases home in string bags. En route to these more functional stores, we would pass beautiful window displays that kindled my curiosity and broadened my world: The drugstore presented a stuffed wild pig, surrounded by silver mirrors and boar bristle brushes; the konditorei lured with mouthwatering cream tortes and chocolates; the hardware store showed off gleaming saws and pyramids of colorful plastic buckets; the luggage shop arranged its leather suitcases amongst palm trees made of papier-mâché. During holiday season, the displays became magical: scenes of elves or mangers, glittering Christmas trees, beautifully wrapped presents, piled high. As a child, I would have given anything to open them.

What I loved most about those outings was the sense of wonder: so many things! Who made them? What were they for? Who would buy them? Today, I know that the wrapped boxes in the windows were empty. But I still have that sense of wonder when I peer into small shops lining city streets, no matter where I am.

In the ’60s, my mother married an American who brought us to Minnesota. There, the maze of shelves and stacks in supermarkets and the size of the shopping carts took my breath away. There was no way we could have carried all those heavy bags home on foot; we always drove. Once, I couldn’t find my car after a shopping center spree. Had I parked it near the elk sign? Or in the bear section? Loaded down with boxes and bags, I searched for what seemed a long time. Ah, there it was. As I stowed my purchases in the trunk, I noticed the sky—a wash of blue and orange-gold. I realized that I had completely missed a gorgeous day. What was I doing in the stifling air and piped-in Muzak of a shopping mall, buying things I didn’t really need? Looking at that sunset, I realized that the rush I had felt navigating bargain bins and special-offer racks was actually a kind of anxiety.

I moved to Berkeley shortly after that epiphany. Imagine—not a single shopping center and no department stores. In those days, tight rows of artisan vendors lined Telegraph Avenue and the book shops, record stores, and boutiques were open until late evening. Walking along College Avenue in the Elmwood, I could buy all my necessities at the greengrocer, hardware store, pharmacy, and bakery, while enjoying the colorful displays of more fanciful stores. In the company of many other pedestrians, I felt like I was in a European city. Even today, the closest thing Berkeley has to box stores are Office Depot and Target. Chain stores and franchises are not lined up in strip malls, but surrounded by small independent shops. So it is easy for me to steer clear of airless, anonymous superstores.

My one visit to Costco was disconcerting—the towering shelves dwarfed me and the mass of goods made me feel completely disoriented. I forgot what I needed. In a way I even forgot who I was. I wanted to get a can of tuna, but it came as a 10-pack. Sure, the one can was pretty cheap. But the other nine languished in my cupboard forever, so in the end, the math didn’t work for me.

Every time a family-owned business closes down, it makes me sad. I think of small shops, which keep the streets and neighborhoods lively, as a dying breed, like tigers or condors. I support diversity by shopping locally. I am boosting our community’s economy, encouraging humane working conditions, and minimizing driving.

And it’s a pleasure, to be sure. My mother calls it flanieren, this happy pastime of walking the streets in sunshine or drizzle to peruse—and perhaps partake in—the delightful world of things artfully arranged by small proprietors. My friend Robin calls it kugeling; he likes to spend an afternoon meandering from boutique to cafe to bookstore, alternating product-inspired banter, deep conversation, and people-watching.

It makes me happy to see things beautifully arranged: produce at the farmers’ market stalls, nuts and grains at Natural Grocery Company, fabrics at Stonemountain & Daughter, clothing at any of the dozens of boutiques along College, Solano, or Piedmont avenues. I appreciate individual book recommendations at Mrs. Dalloway’s or Black Oak Books. I like walking into a shop filled with whimsical beauty, like Tail of the Yak, or with colorful folk art, like Global Exchange or Ethnic Arts. I like to pick out my pens and cards from the manageable selections at Elmwood Stationers. I prefer buying my shoes from someone who remembers my size, and my earrings from the man at The 14 Karats who recalls piercing my daughter’s ears. Sure, picking out cheeses at the Cheese Board takes a little longer than grabbing them out of the Trader Joe’s cooler, but I get to taste samples from all over the world, and I know that anyone who’s down and out gets a free sandwich—and a friendly smile. I enjoy talking with individuals who know what they are selling, who beautify the sidewalks outside their doors, who donate to local nonprofits. When I browse the shelves of Mexican, Indian, or Ethiopian shops, I feel like I am taking time out from my own life.

Knowing how easy it is in our culture to fill up an empty apartment, a closet, or a refrigerator, I see it as a challenge to keep my space clear and clutter-free. Local independent shops help me do this. Their owners do the work of choosing special items from that infinite mass of available things. Their selections kindle a spirit of appreciation and mindfulness in me. As I go about my holiday shopping, I like knowing that the festively decorated small shops—as well as the craft fairs, the artisan stands on Telegraph Avenue, and the farmers’ markets—are full of treasures that delight me as much as the recipients of my gifts. I enjoy taking this time out. And in true holiday spirit, I marvel at the lavish creativity that is evident everywhere I go.

Christine Schoefer is a writer and self-defense teacher living in Berkeley. She proudly continues the family tradition of flanieren with her daughters, who have grown up cultivating a taste for small shops and window displays.

Faces of the East Bay