January 5 , 2006
I wasn't going to rant again this year about shopping. With the Christmas/Hanukkah gift-giving frenzy finally behind us, I figured I'd skip the diatribe about materialism and gluttony, capitalism and fashion, consumerism and guilt. Besides, complaining about something I've been known to dabble in myself from time to time can get pretty weird.
Three news stories changed my mind.
The first, in last week's TAB, describes a new Brookline Village eyeglass shop. Now, I don't mean to pick on the owner. Really. I applaud the Brookline High School graduate's effort to build a small independent business in defiance of larger chains. I appreciate her enthusiasm. I'll even wander inside the next time I need glasses.
But although my trifocals still work just fine, the store's owner already thinks I need another pair. As she put it, in words the TAB repeated in "Quips & Quotes," "Glasses are one of the most important things you wear. People have 10 pairs of shoes but only one pair of glasses. People should have just as many glasses. They change your expression. They change your face."
There's more: "When you work during the day, you don't wear the same outfit out at night. Why would you want to wear the same eyeglasses?"
I'm not as completely out of it as I sometimes seem. Despite advancing age and crankiness, I'm not against people trying to look nice, even though I don't always bother myself. I know that non-dorky eyeglass frames matter to people who care about fashion. I even let my daughter talk me into buying her frames our insurance plan doesn't completely pay for. But one pair. Not 10.
Even here in high-income Brookline, there's got to be a limit.
That brings me to last Sunday's Boston Globe, which informed us that 1 in 20 Boston-area households now consist of millionaires. That percentage rises to 20% in Chestnut Hill, which straddles Brookline and Newton, and to 26% in Lincoln and Weston. Although "a million dollars isn't what it used to be" and can't buy private planes or private chefs, the story tells us, Boston's millionaire-profusion is drawing even more high-end stores and restaurants.
At the new Back Bay Smith & Wollensky's Steakhouse, I learned, the average diner spends $72, almost an order of magnitude above my own usual restaurant tab. If I had $72 to spend on dinner, would I? Or would the price make me gag? I don't know.
I do know that my family falls somewhere between the two emerging classes the Globe described: "One earns above the region's median family income, about $75,000 in the Boston area and lives in comfort, with job security, stock holdings, and little debt. The other half earns below the median, has far less job security, and worries about credit card debt and student loans." Brookline remains economically varied, but its tilt toward the upper end shapes its economic base beyond the new eyeglass store and distorts the values transmitted in school and on the streets.
The conglomeration of excess and class and inequality and waste makes me appreciate the third news story, which appeared just before Christmas. The evangelical group American Family Association is asking people not to buy Christmas presents for other adults next year and to send the money to charity instead. As AFA president Tim Wildmon says, "We want people to get back to what Christmas should be about."
I'm not sure what Christmas should be about, but as a Jew I'm glad to see Tikkun Magazine's Rabbi Michael Lerner join the call. Lerner's Network of Spiritual Progressives demonstrated outside shopping centers against consumerism during last month's Christmas/Hanukkah shopping rush, part of a broader effort to focus attention on values beyond what money can buy.
I hope AFA extends its anti-buying appeal to gifts for kids, too, even though I'm not sure how successful that would be given popular culture's fascination with the new and the fashionable, the impact of corporate advertising, and the mixed-motive determination of so many families to spend to excess whether they can afford it or not. Reining in shopping mania may seem quaint, but it's worth the effort.
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