Saturday, Jan. 25, 1997:
shopping in Philadelphia (South St.) for studio art supplies
I go into a ritzy little card shop. Its walls are lined with highly priced postcards and cards with a wide range of different images. There's a section of cards with black and white photos: a small wrinkly baby's foot in the palm of an adult's hand, waves splashing against rocks on a beach, a multiracial closeup of two men kissing, a rodeo rider, a toddler with angel wings who is running through a field of flowers. The visuals capture me for a moment, but then I remember that I have to go find a list of supplies for my art class. I'm the only customer in this shop; I ask the man behind the counter (older, with a silk vest, grey beard and high voice) if he knows how to get to Pearl's Art Supply Store. He nods, telling me to cross the street and go down one and a half blocks and that I won't be able to miss its big sign. I thank him and leave.
It's an overcast day, with a gray sky. Not many people are out. 11AM is probably too early for much action on a Saturday. I see the big "Pearl's" sign. The first thing I do is check in my heavy backpack at the front counter when I enter; I get a plastic card with a yin/yang symbol painted onto it in order to claim my bag before I leave. "Need any help?" asks a redhead wearing an apron. I tell her yes, pulling out my sheet of supplies:
18" x 24" Strathmore drawing pads
12 set Alphacolor Char-kole
2B Graphite sticks
Pink Pearl eraser
large Sumi brush
18" stainless steel ruler -- non-skid
small glue stick
Yarka (30) pastel set
black portfolio 20" x 26"
She takes the list and leads me through the store. Each aisle has rows and rows of items. So many choices. I'm captivated by the aisle of colored pencils, pastels and pens -- I love looking at the dozens of cubbies filled with bright colors and shiny plastic. When we get to the graphite sticks, we notice that each is priced $0.90 above the estimation on my list. Uh-oh. At the college-age herself, this salesperson has the empathy to suggest we go talk to the manager about a possible student discount. Sounds good to me. We walk to the back of the store, and she sticks her head into the open door of a small office. I'm escorted inside, greeted by a guy (young, urban style) sitting behind a desk in the middle of the room. We discuss the situation (graphite sticks are the key example), and he ends up offering me a 20% discount in his heavy Philly accent. What an unusual situation: negotiation in a retail store.
* * *
The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola gives the readers a real feel for the hustle & bustle of the store scenes of Paris in the 1860s. Visual descriptions are a key part of this, as we are exposed to many material details. (Hmm, this skill of Zola's seems to be parallel to the storekeepers' use of visuals to manipulate their customers...) One of the book's major themes is the struggle between the new big department store and the little specialty shops. As Zola writes in his notes, "My first idea [is] of a department store absorbing, smashing all the small commerce of a neighborhood... but I would not weep for them..." (xi). This same controvery has sprung up in my hometown (Ashland, OR) regarding the new Starbucks coffeehouse; many people are boycotting the place on the grounds that its mass-production, national-chain power should not be favored over the locally-owned coffeehouses. Many fear that Starbucks will take money away from Blue Mountain, Garo's, Paper Moon Cafe and the other small locals that have been social gathering spots for years, potentially wiping them out of business. The same debate has developed over bookstores, as some say that the several little shops owned by Ashlanders will not be able to compete with Barnes & Noble's immense stock of books. Emotions can certainly get extreme regarding these sort of issues, which is also true for the characters in the book. When Madame Baudu looked across the street at the Ladies' Passion, "a mute, blank despair swelled in her heart, and filled her eyes with scalding tears," while Denise was filled with a seductive desire, "a passionate longing for life and light" (17). At the same time, Uncle Baudu burns with a raging anger. Thus the store evokes many strong emotions.
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