Citizen vs. consumer

It was almost exactly a month ago that I tossed out a few ideas for posts, The things I didn’t say. Given the 14 posts in between, I clearly didn’t quite stop blogging entirely.

One of the ideas that I believe is “post fodder” (not C&I essay fodder) is this one:

A post about “citizens and consumers,” recognizing one peculiarity of my household that probably warps my perceptions on some issues. Maybe later.

Maybe now. Not dressed up–this is a lunchtime post–but this is what I have to say.

Background: I had NPR on while shopping or driving home or something. A woman was being interviewed who had, with some friends, tried to go for a “year without shopping”–that is, a year without buying anything new except food (or whatever–I only heard a few minutes).

The woman discussed one difficulty: You get bored, you go shopping. That’s what we all do. If you don’t go shopping, what do you do when you get bored?

Recognition: I realized at that point that there’s something wrong with me. My wife too. I don’t believe it would ever occur to us to use shopping–and, worse, buying–as a way to relieve boredom. Maybe that’s because neither of us is particularly fond of shopping. Or of buying, for that matter.

And I resent the hell out of it when I’m “addressed” as a consumer or customer, by the government, any agency of the government, a magazine… (or, yes, a library: I am not a library customer although I am a library patron).

While it makes me hear Patrick McGoohan in my mind’s ear, and visualize a big bubble floating nearby, I am inclined to say: “I am not a consumer. I am a citizen.” Not as catchy as “free man,” but there it is.

I want to be treated as a person/citizen first, consumer second (actually consumer third: member of my community second). I resent being treated as a Set of Shopping Preferences, as a Buying Demographic.

It’s not that we don’t shop, or that I leave it all to my wife. We go grocery shopping together–always have. (Well, she goes to the farmer’s market for most produce; I wouldn’t be any use there, and it’s a good time for me to vacuum the house without deafening both of us.) Since we mostly fix our own meals, that makes eminently good sense. I’m the one who does a “Sunday run” every two or three or four weeks for stuff that makes sense to buy at Target or Trader Joe’s or Office Depot or the like. The fun part of that is that I get to hear a few minutes of Car Talk, but I still love it when it turns out there’s nothing that needs to be purchased on a particular weekend.

But shopping for the sake of shopping? Buying stuff to relieve boredom? Not a chance.

We don’t get bored easily. There’s always a backlog of reading material. My wife’s spending more time playing piano these days, along with gardening and a research project. I spend a certain amount of time writing, of course, and on the web. We both watch some TV (right now, including the weekly movie and old series on DVD, that works out to right around 8 hours a week–a week, not a day–for both of us, and an extra 90 minutes for me each week for the next 15. WPT, if you must know. Taped on a VCR. We don’t own a DVR, partly because they seem to be great ways to Watch More TV.).

And there are always books to be read. A couple hundred thousand about 7 minutes away, neatly arranged and all for free!. I figure there are at least four or five thousand that I want to read or should read.

To those who feel the need to Go Out and Buy because they’re bored: Most places have one of these collections of free books and other materials, usually with experts who can help answer questions and find what you can use. Reading is a great way to conquer boredom. So are meditation and deep thinking, but I know that’s a lot to ask.

So there’s the shameful confession. We’re Bad Americans. We don’t feel it’s our duty to Consume. When we do buy, we spend enough to buy something that will last, rather than buying something cheaper several times over. We’ll cheerfully pay for quality (and, within reason, we’ll cheerfully pay to keep local businesses alive). But we buy because we have use for something.

Maybe that’s one advantage of always living in a starter home: There’s really no room to keep acquiring stuff. You learn to buy only what you have real use for.

And no (another Unamerican alert), we haven’t carried a balance on credit cards in a very long time. We use them, to be sure–but we use them (and get 1% cash back), they don’t use us.

I know: It’s not a deep or philosophical post. But someone asked for it. So there it is.

18 Responses to “Citizen vs. consumer”

  1. jennimi says:

    I love this post and I do think it’s deep. And I think I heard the tail end of the same piece on the radio! I shop… but I HATE shopping, I especially hate shopping when I have to drive and use gas. I can at any given time think of a million things I want to do – read, write, listen, coffee with friends, pet-sit… The idea of shopping doesn’t enter into it (unless it’s walking to my local cd emporium – the owner of which is my friend and a member of my community – to browse, or to my food co-op to buy Italian sorbet, my downfall).

    I cannot imagine a moment of such emptiness that it would need to be filled by consuming things I don’t NEED. Well, I guess as a young adult I dreamed I’d one day own a NEW car. Now, that dream is amended to “hybrid car” (or no car… living close enough to things to not need one).

    Totally off topic, but I notice in myself a tendency to visit and comment on posts where I can relate, or I agree, or I almost agree, and leave alone those with which I don’t so passionately relate in some way. Hmmm. Just a self-liblogservation.

  2. walt says:

    Thanks for the comment. Your “totally off topic”** paragraph relates, perhaps not deliberately, to something I just said in commenting on Steven Bell’s piece on the lack of serious discussion/disagreement within library blogs (or, really, within library literature).

    To wit: In most blogs I’ve looked at–not only liblogs–commenters tend to agree with the post more often than not, even on a hotly contentious topic. (Those who disagree are more likely to agree with a post on another blog that disagrees with the first one.)

    Maybe that’s natural–we’re more likely to participate where we feel welcome, and some degree of intellectual community may be part of that. And maybe it’s good: As I said in the comment, I’d rather have substantive posts that explain how wrong I am about something (or taking issue with what I’ve said) appear as blog posts, not semi-buried among comments to my wrong or contentious post.

    Ah, the middle paragraph. For the first year or two of our married life, my wife and I lived about 1.5 miles from the Berkeley campus, where we both worked or studied. We made a point of taking the car out at least once every two weeks or so…but that was about it. For that matter, I didn’t own a car (or have a driver’s license) until I was 30. On the other hand, I’ve never owned a used car. (And my primary car has always had the same maker and line name, albeit with different model designations.)

    **I begin to wonder whether it’s possible to be totally off topic. Maybe I’ve lived in Northern California too long: Everything is everything…

  3. Pete Smith says:

    My partner and I shop to get stuff we need. When bored, we go for a walk, or get out a game or somesuch. Sometimes we book shop for fun, which explains the list of books-to-be-read…and the frequent visits I make to charity shops.
    My feelings on what we call people have been aired elsewhere, but I too do not like “customer” and all its implications.

  4. Carrie says:

    Walt – thank you for a great post to start off my day. As our life has expanded from DINK to 1.5-incomes-one-grad-degree-in-progress-three-growing-kids-lovely-small-home-that-needs -lots-of-sweat-equity, we have been transformed from Mall Rats to people who can hardly make it to the grocery store, let alone shop for fun. (I do most non-food shopping online, and even that is only done out of absolute neccessity!) Our life is full and, by the grace of God, greatly enjoyable. I find myself longing for even more time for non-shopping activities (like piano- your wife must add to her ‘to read’ list “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” by Thad Carhart).

  5. Anne Knight says:


    Whenever I hear talk about boredom, I remember part of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book The hidden life of dogs. She described sitting on a hill with her dogs in the afternoon sun calmly watching the scene below and concluding: “Primates feel pure, flat immobility as boredom, but dogs feel it as peace.”

    Judging from a television news account of a coyote that somehow wandered into a large grocery store, canids probably aren’t that big on shopping.

    Thanks for being such an eloquent spokesman for all of us curmudgeons!

  6. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own!”

    Words to live by. Add “demographed” and “marketed to” and we have something.

    I completely befuddle demographers anyway. OINKs are rare in comparison with DINKs (who themselves aren’t common after a certain age).

  7. I have two very different comments:
    1) I am a searcher — I enjoy searching for things and it extends to shopping. When I was alone in Florida in the Navy and was seriously battling depression, I found shopping very comforting. If I called family they worried about me and I did read an awful lot (to the point of having to call the Jax public library from the Caribbean on deployment to renew books). I didn’t actually buy anything but the walking and looking for patterns and understanding the layout of the stores… I guess I’m weird that way… and I *love* grocery shopping!
    2) I’m very troubled about how the social services that are supposed to be provided by local government have been taken over by stores. Like bookstores doing storytime (and some mothers not even knowing that libraries do this for free!) and like hardware stores doing what we used to have an Extension office for (they laid off a ton of staff and stopped offering many services at our local extension office — but HD has all these ads on tv that they can tell you what’s wrong with your plants and your soil)– sigh.

    Sorry for the long comment, your post obviously sparked something in me, too.

  8. Steven says:

    And there are always books to be read. A couple hundred thousand about 7 minutes away, neatly arranged and all for free!. I figure there are at least four or five thousand that I want to read or should read.

    Perhaps there are those who would rather pay for things then go into the public library for free. I don’t often enjoy my public library, and I know that, in many instances, I would rather not go there.

  9. jennimi says:

    @ Anne Knight: yes yes YES! The Hidden Life of Dogs comment. I loved that book and hadn’t thought of it in forever. Thank you for that reminder.

  10. walt says:

    My overall response: I’m glad I finally wrote that post, rough as it may be. The conversation that’s taking place here is great–I do love good comments!

    Steven: I responded in a comment on your blog.

    And in case it’s not clear: I have nothing against shopping, either of the browsing or searching variety. We just don’t do it much. When I was at UC Berkeley and we had a great local record store, I spent more time there (and more money) than I could justify–and, of course, got to know the owner and mixed good conversation with good shopping.

    Back when staying-over-Saturday made a huge difference in air fares, I would sometimes stay an extra day after speaking at a conference in order to reduce the conference’s costs. Some of those days, I’d spend an hour or three at a local mall in walking distance (including the Mall of America). That was “boredom shopping” and exercise–but it was also a special case.

  11. Ruth Ellen says:

    I, too, am not a shopper. I do actually enjoy the process of grocery shopping when I’m at the store, but I buy way too many vegetables at one time so that I don’t have to go too often. And shopping for clothes – eeeeeuuuuggggghhhhh. I have plenty of other things I’d rather be doing – gardening, playing music, taking the dogs to the park.
    However, one of the productive things I do for entertainment is knitting. And, unfortunately, knitting leads to shopping. For yarn. Lots of yarn. It’s not the shopping – it’s the falling in love and having to HAVE that yarn. Show me a knitter without a way-too-big stash. Dare you.

  12. Moyra says:

    You might be interested in the recent column in an Australian newspaper by one of their fashion writers, who took the decision not to go shopping for a year. This was a particularly difficult decision as she was a addicted to shopping for clothes. She found she had so much extra time that she decided to take up quilting! (a very time consuming hobby).
    Personally, I get bored with shopping – I don’t shop because I’m bored, that’s for sure! There are so many things in the world to do, why waste the time?

  13. Jill says:

    Love to “shop” as a way to observe pop culture, hate to shop when I actually need something. Rather shop on ebay! As a librarian I am interested in how Barnes and Noble et al draws people to read books, often without actually buying anything, yet the library experience is so negative by comparison.
    On several nurses blogs there are comments about “retail therapy”, as a way to de-compress after getting off work in the middle of the night, after an especially gruesome shift involving lots of blood and death. Wandering through brightly colored stores looking at meaningless trinkets seemed to serve as a way to abolish the horrors of their work.
    Seems like someone could do an article or Phd on that one.

  14. walt says:

    Brightly colored stores looking at meaningless trinkets: Reminds me of the first time I encountered a dollar store on a speaking trip (there were none around here at the time). Mucho multilingual strangeness and all for a buck.

  15. bowerbird says:



  16. Mary and I sometimes say semi-seriously that one of the big couple compatibility issues that doesn’t usually get brought up in the guides is shopping compatibility. Happily, we’re both about equally shopping-averse. Our one notable exception to this is bookstores. (We visit libraries too, but in our local area the bookstores have better hours, and often more interesting– or at least *different* in interesting ways– selection.)

    For the best of both worlds, we like to check out library Friends booksales. The main Philly Free Library Friends bookstore has lots of interesting stuff, some of it weeded from collections, others donated by people who like libraries– and for the most part, it’s very cheap. So if we’re in a hunter-gathering mood, and don’t want to spend a lot, it’s often a place we like to go.

    And if we end up with too many books for the house, it’s also the place we can go to donate the excess. Get you coming and going, they do.

  17. Greg says:

    I like to shop and sometimes I have bought stuff out of boredom. The world is a cool place and there’s always new ideas and designs to be found (or stolen) out there that you can incorporate into you’re own life or work. There’s certainly a lot of junk too but I often say the same about books. Shopping is just seperating the wheat from the chaff and people do it as much at the library as they do the mall.

  18. i’m one librarian who approaches libraries and bookstores with some trepidation. i’ve learned to set my phone’s alarm when going into libraries, and enter bookstores only when i’m killing time. why? because i know i won’t be able to get in and out in a few minutes, even if i know exactly what i’m looking for. i will, inevitably, start looking at other books, and before i know it, the five minutes i can spare has ballooned into an hour that i really shouldn’t have “wasted.”

    in contrast, when i go “shopping,” it’s very rare that i find anything beyond what i really need to buy that will keep me in a store longer than i expected. if i do go “shopping” when i’m bored, it’s usually because i’m just waiting for someone. more often than not, i will look for a bookstore on those occasions because i know i have time to spare, and that when the person i’m waiting for arrives, it will be so easy for me to leave. and if i find anything interesting, i usually just save the title on my phone… and borrow it at the library =)