Schafer: Shopping excess is an all-American tradition

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 21, 2012 - 6:47 PM

Norm Tiedemann and his family in Woodbury have enjoyed hosting high school exchange students from Europe, and two years ago one of them insisted on shopping Black Friday. She argued that it "needs to be part of my American experience."

Tiedemann said via e-mail that no one in his family is a shopping enthusiast and he had no plans for Black Friday, that frantic and crowded day of sales that happens the day after Thanksgiving.

But Christin was from Homberg, a small German town. She explained that shops back home are not open on Sunday, as that's family day, and there are typically only two small annual sales. She would not let the subject drop at the Thanksgiving dinner.

Tiedemann finally agreed to go if Christin at least tried a slice of mincemeat pie, and so a few minutes before 5 the following morning the entire family was in the parking lot of Kohl's in Woodbury.

Christin snapped photos of the hundreds lined up outside the adjacent Target store, and then they jumped into the line at Kohl's for its 5 a.m. opening. After grabbing a few items, it took at least an hour to get through checkout, as two lines wrapped around each other.

"Christin absolutely enjoyed it," Tiedemann said. "She just liked being there with all the people and the excitement. It is, unfortunately, a perfect example of the American experience."

Many of us share that view, that it's at least a little disappointing that an over-the-top shopping excess like Black Friday can be perceived by a German teenager as an essential part of a genuine American life.

Social critics have deplored it and preachers may have inveighed against it, but there is another take on our distinctive consumer culture -- that how we came to buy stuff became an essential part of our becoming a diverse, egalitarian and "democratic" society.

That's the case made by the historian Daniel J. Boorstin in his book "The Americans: The Democratic Experience," which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

There may have been other consumer histories before his book, but Boorstin put the consumer experience at the very heart of our shared cultural history.

Boorstin loved "Go-Getters," as he called the ranchers, miners and entrepreneurs of the latter 1800s, and his story really gathered steam when he began describing the impressive buildings that shopkeepers began erecting. He called them "Palaces of Consumption."

These beautiful new stores, later called department stores, stood in the very heart of downtowns. They did a huge volume of business compared with the small shops of neighborhoods by offering a staggering array of merchandise. They had high ceilings and wide, unbroken expanses for the most appealing displays. Prices were fixed and even advertised and were the same for everybody.

Boorstin wrote that 20th-century Americans had forgotten or had no idea how revolutionary it was to open up a department store "palace" freely to anyone, that for the first time you did not have to be a person of quality to view goods of quality.

What's notable about Boorstin's work is its tone of celebration. For him the big department store was liberating, as was the mail-order catalog for farmers treated poorly at the local general store.

Gone were the confines of class distinction typical of Old World living. When Americans wanted shoes, they went downtown and sat next to the banker or judge trying on a pair.

The things folks wanted to own drove their aspirations, and it was a shared experience with others who wanted the same life, even immigrants from different parts of the world.

Boorstin gave us the memorable term "consumption communities," with folks linked not by bonds of neighborhood or ethnic origin, but by what they bought or which stores they favored.

Not surprisingly in a nation of consumption communities, all festivals seemed to evolve into events that required a trip to the department store. Mother's Day, for example. And, of course, Christmas.

There's plenty not to enjoy about shopping on Black Friday, whose bargains come at the price of long lines and other inconveniences. The term Black Friday, after all, was first given to us by the Philadelphia police, as officers dreaded dealing with traffic snarls and outbreaks of incivility every Friday after Thanksgiving.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond to the decision by Target and others to start Black Friday on Thanksgiving evening.

Some will certainly celebrate in the style of a more traditional community, and when the lines form outside stores on Thanksgiving they will be at home playing board games or in conversation, with the volume on the televised football game turned down.

But for those waiting at a Target store, part of a consumption community that gathers in force once a year, think of it as another opportunity to participate in this grand American experience.

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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