Vanity, thy name is hardware.
A new kind of chain store has emerged to cater to affluent baby boomers who think of themselves as practical, but who are easily gulled into buying things for which they have no obvious practical need. It is a store that knows yuppie materialism is a kind of materialism that thinks of itself as anti-materialistic, because yuppies tend to confuse their restless pursuit of Authenticity when purchasing retail goods with an indifference to material things. It is a store that takes everyday items and buffs them up just enough that they seem like luxury items and yet (usually) keeps prices relatively low. It is a store that, if you happen to be an affluent baby boomer, understands more about you and the things that give you pleasure than you understand yourself.
The typical posture of such an enterprise is that it is, to quote promotional material for REI, a popular chain of camping gear stores, "more than a store." It is a community. You may wander into Borders bookstore without a thought in the world of buying anything, except perhaps a cup of coffee. Should you happen, amid your browsing, to find something you want to purchase, the store will labor to treat it as an unexpected windfall. At the more aggressive (and youthful) end of the spectrum, Urban Outfitters turns its stores into theatrical sets suitable for staging the works of Eugène Ionesco. J. Peterman, a catalog retailer with a few stores here and there, goes so far as to make its products seem incidental to the spirit they're meant to evoke. The company "describes" a $345 cream colored silk jacket thusly in its catalog:
The photograph on the dust jacket of her book shows her in jeans and blazer, standing at the edge of a deep canyon (inherited from her father). The book itself is "serious, perceptive, skirting the edges of hilarity and terror." You'd never guess she's a lethal player of poker. But the book doesn't go into any of that--the congenial barge trips on rivers in France, the "innocent" trips down the Nile, the lucrative transatlantic crossings, making grown men cry.
As this passage suggests, a common theme in these stores is camp nostalgia. Another is the soullessness of retail as practiced by the nonelect. "I think that giant American corporations should start asking themselves if the things they make are really, I mean really, better than the ordinary," the eponymous Mr. Peterman avers on his catalog's first page, under the heading "Philosophy."
Two chains in particular excel at this new style of retailing: Trader Joe's and Restoration Hardware. Although they position themselves as "practicality" stores, you'd never visit them to buy more Jell-O for the kids or a molly bolt to hang a new warehouse lamp. Rather, they invite you to question the underlying assumptions behind your everyday needs and to reorder those needs.
Both stores are somewhat difficult to classify. Trader Joe's sells food, but it isn't really a grocery store. "The traditional grocery store handles between 25,000 and 40,000 items," says Trader Joe's spokeswoman Michele Gorski. "We handle between 1,500 and 2,000." But don't think of it as a gourmet shop, because it's bigger and less pricey than most gourmet shops. (When the prices are high, the store is quick to make a joke of it, as it does with its private-label "Really Expensive Authentic Handcrafted" frozen chicken burrito, which sells for $2.19.)
Similarly, Restoration Hardware calls itself a hardware store and stocks a few items that might legitimately be termed hardware--multiple-head carbine screwdrivers, fold-up pliers, flashlights with old metallic ribbing, etc. But these items, along with a sprinkling of kitchen ware, gardening supplies, and whimsical doodads such as an old-fashioned hand warmer, are essentially the amuse-bouches served up before the main course, which is a sleigh bed, a leather and cherry bentwood recliner, or some other hunk of massive retro furniture. Restoration Hardware is a home furnishings store for people who think of themselves as too austere for such fripperies (but really aren't).
Both chains present themselves as bucking the aesthetic and moral poverty of corporate America. Joe Coulombe started Trader Joe's in 1958 as the Pronto chain of convenience stores in Los Angeles. A decade later, Coulombe reoriented the stores toward gourmet foods offered at cut-rate prices. Eventually, the store ceased to carry "lines" of goods at all, instead selling mostly private-label versions of a few staples (corn flakes, olive oil) and more exotic goods such as British-style crumpets and carbonated water blended with elderflowers. The chain guarantees that if any item can be found cheaper elsewhere, it will stop carrying it. "We like to suggest that some of our best customers are unemployed Ph.D.s," says Gorski. "These are knowledgeable people that have traveled and read, but they're still looking for a bargain." Gorski has no secretary; neither, she says, do the company's CEO and two presidents.
Such austere commitment to Quality and Value would be easier to commend wholeheartedly if it didn't reek quite so much of snob appeal. One has to remind oneself that this is an enterprise whose ultimate goal is monetary profit. Who owns Trader Joe's, anyway? Coulombe sold out in 1979 and retired in 1988. Although the chain preserved his hokey South Pacific décor and still touts the chain's goods in its eccentric "fearless flyers"--illustrated with 19th century pen and ink clip art, no less--it treats the identities of its new owners as some sort of state secret. When pressed, Gorski says they are European and that she's met them. Clippings from the Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report identify the owners as the Albrechts, a German family that owns about 10 percent of Albertson's, a U.S. supermarket chain. What? Trader Joe's is owned by supermarket people? Say it ain't so!
R estoration Hardware's origins smack more distinctly of counterculture rebellion. The company, which is now traded publicly, was started in 1980 by a psychologist named Stephen Gordon, who was restoring a Queen Anne-style house in Eureka, Calif., and found it maddeningly difficult to locate the period-style fixtures he needed. Finally he started selling the stuff himself. The company's Web page depicts him as a Cincinnatus of retailing, one who "did not set out to found a retail group, but did so as a result of one of his passions, the discovery of fine craftsmanship and design."
Like Trader Joe's, Restoration Hardware does not carry "lines" but rather selects individual items that seem to capture the store's "spirit," many of which are made exclusively for the chain. The presentation of these items is hushed and museumlike, with just dash of whimsy. The little identifying cards psychologist Gordon sets beside each item display an impressive mastery of the manipulative arts. "FOUR GENERATIONS OF MAINE FISHERMEN COULD BE WRONG ... BUT WE DOUBT IT," reads a card beside four sizes of woven metal baskets in Restoration Hardware's Georgetown store. To refrain from purchasing one would insult the working class and dishonor the labor of our fathers' fathers! "Hey ... we, like you, secretly covet recliners," purrs the card beside a 1952-style Metro Finer Recliner, priced at $990. But there are only "a few of us who possess a stout enough psychological profile to allow ourselves or even imagine ourselves purchasing a big cushy wonder boy or girl reclining chair." Let's pause for a moment to map the nuances of that pitch. 1) Snob appeal: We all know recliners are tacky. 2) Sympathy: And yet you secretly desire one so you can capture some magical moments from your childhood. 3) Challenge: Dare you rise to the occasion, like Raskolnikov, and reject the petty rules that govern lesser men? 4) Smugness: You may be buying your dad's chair, but you are not going to play that gender dominance game that he played. It's your wife's chair too! Wonder boy indeed!
The editors of the Baffler, a little magazine of cultural criticism, have coined an extremely handy term to describe the spirit of stores like Restoration Hardware and Trader Joe's: "Commodify your dissent." In a book of essays with that title, the process of turning counterculture rebellion into profit-making opportunity that does absolutely nothing to challenge the status quo is described in various settings, such as Nike (which used William S. Burroughs to sell sneakers) and the films of Quentin Tarantino ("always hip but scrupulously content-free"). In the case of Restoration Hardware and Trader Joe's, the dissent (hence the commodification) is a bit more subtle and has more to do with the harnessing of postgrad hauteur mingled with a longing for simpler times. But in both stores, one is similarly invited to live out vain fantasies about who one is, or should be. The spell is broken only when you leave the store, realize that you've just bought $200 worth of merchandise, and understand you're just another schmuck consumer.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.