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What will we do after all the shops close and we’ve already ordered all the stuff we need or want from Amazon? And suppose, while we’re waiting for the packages to arrive, the Amazon warehouses go on strike?

We might find some ideas by looking back at what folks did before all the shops and shopping and online browsing and waiting impatiently for packages to arrive to satisfy our needs for instant gratification – what folks back then did.

We’ve already seen how the Sears Catalog was a precursor to today’s online shopping guides. But what of before the Catalog?

We get a glimpse of development and changing attitudes, from rural all the way through gentrification, in just a few pages in Frances Spalding’s “Stevie Smith: A Biography,” and we see that many of the attitudes are not much different from those since:

“Even the advent of the railway had brought little change, for the area was protected by owners of large estates who refused to carve up their land and therefore kept the speculative builder at bay….Then in 1902 Captain J. V. Taylor of Grovelands sold large tracts of his land for development. After this more and more land came on to the market and suburbia spread.”

Once the urban growth boundary falls, shops grow:

“Already by 1906, when Stevie and her relations arrived, Green Lanes was entirely lined with shops and houses. The surrounding fields, country lanes and toll gate that gave the area its charm were steadily diminishing with the spread of bricks and mortar, pavements and private hedges.”

Long time residents expressed concerns that with “all this building a poorer class of resident would be attracted to the area. Shopkeepers in Alderman’s Hill complained about the muddy state of the road and the need for more pavements.”

Feelings of entitlement boiled over. Citizens brought vegetables to town meetings and apparently showed little restraint in tossing them at speakers whose opinions differed from their own:

“Very quickly Palmers Green developed a reputation for being one of the most snobbish of London’s outer suburbs….The political flavour of this up-and-coming residential area was already noticeably right wing….The tone of the area is reflected in the correspondence columns of the local press, where a persistent demand for better services from Southgate Urban District Council is coupled with a violent antipathy to paying for these services in increased rates.”

Yet “the building of churches helped establish the community life of the area….and played an important social role…for its church hall hosted society meetings and, during the First World War, a great many concerts, plays and bazaars in aid of charity.”

Following the establishment of churches which fulfilled certain community gathering needs, came a “first cinema.” Still, “much entertainment was home-grown; societies and clubs flourished. The area had its own branch of the Fabian Society….The issue of women’s suffrage could not be ignored.” And a “Literary Society met once a month, on the Monday nearest to the full moon.”

Where should we live and what should we live for?

“Stevie never tired of extolling the virtues of Palmers Green, a true suburb, according to her, because it is an outer suburb and not one of the inner ones which have been captured by London. In her own lifetime it grew shabby and down-at-heel and has since her death deteriorated still further. But even before its decline few could share her view: Grovelands which for Stevie was ‘a happy place even when it is raining’ is a very average park, dull and dreary in bad weather; nor did the colours of Palmers Green, with its windy shopping corners and people attached to dogs or prams, seem to her friends quiet so fresh and exquisite.”

Spalding’s book on Stevie came out in 1988. Palmers Green is still a place, more urban than in Stevie’s time or even Spalding’s of the 80s. And there is today an Amazon locker located in the area.

A certain shabbiness and “down-at-heel” sentiment might be necessary for the proper inculcation of poetic or literary values. One wants to avoid being a snob, even while snobbishness remains one of the fuels that light up literature, and even literary critics might want to avoid being snobs of any sort.

Modern Man in Search of a Sofa

It is 1985, and a corporate colleague tells me his grandfather and father had built the house he would come to grow up in just before World War II, having ordered it out of a Sears Catalog. The house was delivered as a kit, with plans, in parts, via rail to a nearby town, where it was then trucked to the lot where they put it together. Yes, “some assembly required.”

We were reading “In Search of Excellence” in the mid 80s, at all levels of the organization. But what many workers were actually in search of was a job with benefits that paid at least enough to buy a house for the fam and stuff to put in it, including sofa in the living room, pram in the entry, and car in the garage. For my part, I had recently come to realize the community college adjunct job I’d been working full time since the close of the 70s wasn’t going to produce such excellent results.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Sears Catalog served a bit like today’s Amazon. But I searched Amazon this morning to see if I could buy a house online and have it delivered, and all I found were backyard sheds. Sears discontinued its catalog division in the early 1990s. It’s hard to stay close to the customer when the customer is constantly on the move. In any case, most corporations (and stores and shops) only affect concern for the customer; what they’re really after is a share of the customer’s wallet, or, in Amazon’s case, the whole wallet. But what happens when customers no longer pack wallets?

Or no longer want stuff, or at least, not so much stuff. Or still want some stuff, but different stuff. In other words, does Amazon sell souls? Or, as Jung put in his “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”: “No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity” (209).

There are, it is argued, certain efficiencies that promote the use of Amazon over the emotional expense of leaving one’s safe harbor for the voyage out to the mall or downtown or the shops of Hawthorne. Why should consumers feel shame about where or how or for what they shop? In any case, it appears most feel no shame. But is that because they are driven by unconscious desires, wants that may be manipulated by elevator music, trance inducing ads, or atavistic urges to covet one’s neighbor’s goods?

I don’t know, but it often seems shoppers are led to the market like the Eloi in “The Time Machine” are pulled to the Morlocks. In return for the seemingly safe setting the Morlocks have created, the Eloi serve themselves up as food to sustain the Morlockian system.

Shops

To Hawthorne, hopping nuts with holiday shoppers, the shops overheated, crowded with festive folks wearing wet weather gear, so it felt fresh again and good to leave a shop and back out onto the sidewalk. On the corner at the Hawthorne boutique Goodwill, the usual Cannery Row characters occupying the sidewalk, sharing beer bottles noted, something craft, where the money for that, wondered, and another sign, next a panhandling hat: “Too honest to steal. Too ugly to prostitute.” Got the to too correct. Literary bunch. Probably all with English major degrees.

Distribution the problem, Buckminster Fuller said, Earth enough resources, but inefficiently distributed. And saw a news report last week where down in Los Angeles a new project encouraging grocery shops from throwing away food deemed unsaleable, systems now being created to collect and redistribute the food in a number of ways – to the homeless and hungry, to compost feed for animals, to entrepreneurial startups creating energy from the food scraps.

At the same time, reports afield of Amazon mistreating employees, robots running over their own, for example, while on TV we’ve been seeing obviously propagandistic ads showing these same employees as happy as Tiny Tim when miserly Scrooge shows up with the surprise goose.

But deep waters, this anti-Amazon sentiment. Was retail clerk ever a great job? And suppose Nordstrom or Macy’s does goes under – would that be some sort of cultural catastrophe? Suppose Amazon actually capable of solving distribution inefficiencies Earthwide: Water, Food, Shelter, Medicine, Grain, Tools. Suppose Bezos awakes from uneasy dreams some Christmas morning and converts his current medieval style dungeon warehouses into chic campuses like the ones employees currently enjoy in Silicon Valley? We should focus on problems of distribution and job satisfaction and livable wage, not on some romantic notion of brick and mortar life in shops.