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Future Shop

Glenn O'Brien ponders how we will buy in 2013

How will we shop in the future? I’m sure half of Silicon Valley is working on it. We’re already paying with our phones, stores are accepting PayPal, and we’re ordering by app. Maybe we’ll soon be paying in person by fingerprint or with funds “deposited” on an implanted chip. I suspect the apocalypticminded people believe that our foreheads are going to be marked with some kind of scannable code. Somehow, though, when I think about shopping in the future, I think about my grandmother.

My grandmother was an incredible shopper, enthusiastic, determined and resourceful. She’d make a day of it, including lunch and cocktails, and hit about four department stores, doing them top to bottom. She liked to take me along because I had infinite patience for the retail environment, and even at eight I could sit in a cocktail lounge for an hour while she had martinis—as long as they had decent hors d’oeuvres—and if I found something amazing she’d buy it for me.

There was something intriguing about the stores and their merchandise from all over the world; for me, it was like a museum of things not from Cleveland, Ohio. The people working in the stores seemed worldly or otherworldly, registering as “You’re not from around here are you?”—as if they all had some exotic and possibly tragic story to tell about how they wound up at the cosmetics counter or the shoe department. I remember my grandmother saying that Veronica Lake had ended up working in a department store, and how Vivien Leigh had gotten a job at Neiman Marcus as a kind of psychotherapy. To me, the stores were exotic people selling exotic stuff. Everything was brand new, so somehow shopping seemed to be about the future, and every purchase seemed life-changing. Even the shopping process was futuristic.

My grandma had what was called a chargea-plate. Actually, she had a purse full of them. These were small aluminum plates embossed with the customer’s name, address and account number, and when slotted into a sort of press, they stamped a sales slip with this info. When she said “Charge it!” the sales slip was printed then stuffed into a brass pod that was inserted into the store’s pneumatic tube system. I was intrigued to read that there are several such systems still operating in New York. But at the time, it was practically like “beaming up” in Star Trek, and it made a fantastic swooshing noise. The sales slip was shot up to the credit department, approved and shot back. Fantastic!

I knew as a child that when the future arrived, it would probably appear first in the form of shopping. Another futuristic miracle was a machine in the shoe department. I think it was what was then called a fluoroscope, which was a sort of live TV version of an X-ray, and it was an aid to fitting. You could try on shoes, then stick your feet into the bottom of the machine and see the bones in your toes right through the shoes, so it wasn’t even necessary to press on the toe of the shoe to determine if you had enough room. I would spend ten minutes wiggling my toes in this

thing, probably absorbing even more radiation than I got from drinking milk containing strontium-90, fallout from all the H-bomb testing that was still going on in the atmosphere. I still wonder if the problems I’ve had with my feet—and I’m a

Pisces—had something to do with nuking them in the kids’ shoe department at Higbee’s. But who knew? It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was at that same department store that I got hooked on antiquarian books. I still have leather-bound Byron and Trollope volumes that were bought with Grandma’s charge-aplate from Higbee’s.

But then came plastic. I remember being amazed when my stepfather took out his wallet and I noticed that it was designed to accommodate dozens of credit cards—and all the slots were full. The poor guy had a master’s degree from Wharton, but he was a terrible financial manager of his personal finances. Somehow, he had become as entrenched in deficit spending as the United States government. It seemed that his plan was to die in as much debt as he could incur. Of course he was paying heroic interest, but his was a generation of heroes that had fought a world war. They were gamblers and risk takers whose wartime experience must have led them to expect to win. I remember when I was in college the old man took me to the track and handed me money. “Go bet,” he said.

“Couldn’t I just keep the money,” I’d answer and see a disappointed look in his eye.I’m sure he thought that one day a horse would come in and wipe away all that interest he owed. And I think he believed that maybe  he could make up for all that debt by devoted bargain shopping. I never saw him happier than when he was at this early discount big box store called Uncle Bill’s. If only they’d had a beer garden.

I think for my parents’ generation the future of shopping seemed to lie in quantity discounts. There is a lost generation of shoppers who talked about Sam Walton the way people once spoke of Marcus Aurelius, and they talked about their shopping club the way earlier generations talked about the country club or the DAR. I remember a girlfriend’s dad proudly showing me the fifty pounds of croutons he just bought for a ridiculous price, a hundred quarts of motor oil and his lifetime supply of Band-Aids.

Today, when we imagine futuristic shopping, it’s all about the Internet, but ten years ago, it was catalogs. I still get them every day, for reasons I can’t determine. I never buy from them. I guess the companies bought my name—and the catalogs go straight into the “recycling.” My mailbox eats a small forest every year.

I thought it would stop when I got divorced. My ex was a catalog hoarder. She had filed reams of them, alphabetized so that she could order anything in the world without leaving the house. That was one irreconcilable difference. If I was going to buy something, I wanted to pick it up and feel it.

My present and hopefully future wife is different. She hated catalogs too. But then it turns out that she loves the convenience of shopping online. As a result, I am on very familiar terms with the UPS guys—I know their life stories. And this advancement in shopping probably doesn’t eat up as many trees. Maybe it uses a lot of gas, because if the item arrives and the lady of the house doesn’t like it or it doesn’t fit, it goes right back by UPS, no questions asked. Is that convenient?

What amazes me, though, is when the online ordered groceries are wheeled in on a huge trolley and I open a dozen corrugated paper boxes. What’s in this giant box? A piece of cheese! This one? A salami! They still haven’t figured out how to consolidate, so I’m guessing that you know whose company trucks roll out boxes one-quarter full of stuff. Is that the future?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against shopping on the Net. It has revolutionized my book buying addiction, perhaps even enabling it. I used to spend countless hours at book fairs browsing and then stagger home with a semi-impossible burden of shopping bags. I still like book fairs, but now I browse in some bookseller’s booth, then go to the smartphone, and I generally find the book I’ve eyeballed, handled and admired priced far less elsewhere: click. Sorry physical bookseller. And I go home with two books. The rest arrives by mail days later. And booksellers are cheap. They rarely overpack anything.

Nothing against shopping by app—if it turns you on, but I think the real future of shopping is live and in person. Why? Because I think people really want to touch the stuff, try it on, look in the mirror and ask someone if it makes them look fat. They want the experience of the hand! Not to mention to get out of the house. I want to get out of the house too. There’s no room there because of all the books I bought online.

When I walk around Manhattan I marvel at all the boutiques. The Lower East Side, Nolita and Brooklyn are filled with amazing new shops. These aren’t chains, they are mom-andpop operations. Well many are mom-and-mom operations, or pop-and-pop, too. There is something totally nineteenth century about them, and something totally twenty-first century. They are genuinely personal. It’s like walking into someone’s home. The dog or cat is lying there. There’s music on. They might offer you a drink. Or a piece of home-cured prosciutto from a Tamworth pig that had a name. And they made the merchandise. It’s Artisan World. And it’s got great personally imagined, handmade, hand-bought stuff.

I find that shopping now gives me hope for the future in the way it did when I was a kid. Some day I’m going to walk into a shop in Brooklyn, and a guy in a denim apron with muttonchop whiskers is going to give me a charge-a-plate, and I’m going to buy a handknit sweater, and my sales slip is going to get sucked up in a pneumatic pod, swoosh. Well, probably not. But I am encouraged by the new retail environment with all its beards, tattoos and piercings and one-of-a-kind items.

I know that if I walk into a New Age cobbler shop, they are not going to irradiate my kid’s feet. Somehow, maybe, we have acquired some wisdom. I think in the future we may find whole communities of shops popping up, like little colonies of intelligence. I can imagine artisanal malls. Maybe they’ll be squatting in abandoned big box stores after all those have gone the way of the thirty-two-ounce sweet drink.

Meanwhile, I’ve had an idea. What do you think of a bookstore/wine bar/shiatsu/shoeshine parlor? BG

Glenn O’Brien considers genre-defying shopping the future