Around the corner from where I live is my favorite store in the neighborhood, the GEM Discount Super store. I don’t know if GEM stands for something or if its meant to summon the image of jewels to your mind — I think their bags might have an illustration of a diamond on them. It’s one of many discount stores around Broadway in Astoria — Dee & Dee, Bargainland, Super Bargain Store, etc., including one place the size of a bodega that claims in a window sign to stock 100,000 items. I haven’t counted, but I’m somehwat skeptical of that. I suppose what I’m about to argue about GEM applies to all of these places, but GEM seems to stick out as the largest of them, and as the chain that’s most brazen and craven simultaneously.
First of all, there’s a leanness to GEM. It’s trying to address all the mutifarious needs of modern life — whether they be for polyester lingerie or factory-reject linens or novelty socks or wafer cookies or something called hair mayonnaise — with about ten percent of the floor space Wal-Mart has, and so there are skinny, skinny aisles piled high. It’s impossible to imagine your stereotypical Wal-Mart shopper — overweight and sweating with several kids in tow (I know, that’s extremely unfair) — clamboring down these rows. You could be whisper thin and still struggle. You don’t pass someone in the aisle; it’s pretty much single-file shopping, and it requires a good deal of patience if someone’s in the area you need to get to.
What’s amazing is that everyone, more or less, is patient, and this shows especially at the check-out, which is, inexpicably, at the back of the store, about as far away from the exit as possible. Is it only old-school discount stores that do this? I’ve only seen it in New York. And why? It has got to be the most inefficient arrangement that can be imagined and offers the least protection against shoplifting. (This is why iten that run at $7.99 have security tags on them.) At the back of the store there’s a long counter with registers, most of them abandoned — there’s always one person cashiering, no matter how busy they are. Some of those registers must be for show; I suspect that some haven’t been opened for years. To reach this one cashier, who has been beaten into an indifferent, leisurely pace by the assurance that no matter how quickly she works there’s always going to be another person in line (so why hurry?), there’s nothing like a comprehensible line: no cattleshoots, no directions, no nothing, just a sort of ad hoc arrangement of people filing in, like you find at the Holland Tunnel when aits backed up or a lane is closed (which is pretty much always). There is no justice or rights to this system, you’re never assured of being next without showing some aggressiveness, but amazingly, there are rarely problems. I have never seen a dispute about it. It flows. There seems to be a lesson in this, one dear to the American way, about how assured individual aggression and self-interest and unregulated competition can lead to a functional system that no one feels the need to contest. Never mind that its hopelessly wasteful — it’s a system that doesn’t hassle you with rules, it’s one that gives you a chance to strategize (maybe if I loiter in the aisle with the old Easter candy i can dart in after the guy buying the oscillating fan. Maybe I can pretend to be with that Columbian woman with the armful of wicker baskets, and saunter up to the register beside her), it’s one that respects you as an individual without catering to you insincerely with the glad-handing and ass-kissing of the rhetoric of customer service. GEM has no customer service and I like it that way — if I can’t figure something out there I can just leave. The idea that the customer is always right would seem to help all customers, but in fact it amounts to this, that all the customers who don’t complain are wrong and will have their time wasted by the incessantly squeaky wheels who do.
I like the GEM approach because there’s no effort to disguise the brutality of the marketplace. It’s a dangerous place, where all the participants are in competition, and where no underhanded or disingenous trick will go untried. Hence the GEM store’s preponderance of overtly exploitative items like the “internet-ready keyboard” or the knock-offs designed to look like some more desirious brand, such as the Barkley’s mints in the familiar Altoids tin. They are like the Mad magazine version of the product, it seems like a joke, harping on the original’s design quirks toexpose how meaningless they are. In this way, GEM parodies the entire consumer sphere, undermining the practices of branding, the bogus ideology of customer service, of there being some sort of lasting value in the crap we spend our money on — everything in GEM is explicitly substandard upon manufacture; this is stuff that is sub-Goodwill quality, stuff that lacks the endurance to be owned more than once, stuff that even Goodwill wouldn’t try to re-sell (It’s enough to make me want to invoke Bataille’s notion of expenditure, and see this explosion of crap as a means of destroying dangerous surplus in the guise of making surplus).
At GEM, it’s easy to dismiss these marketing ploys and congratulate yourself for being the sort of person who would never fall for them, but the glow of self-satisfaction blinds you to the way you’re being duped by something else, something you’r enot considering. The laughable ludicrousness of these products make all exploitation seem harmless; the way self-deprecating ads that flatter the customer’s savvy in resisting them do; ultimately they both break down a resistance, they melt away what should be a furor at what is second-rate, what is wasteful, what is crass.
Baudrillard, in The Consumer Society, writes about the drug store, “the synthesis of profusion and calculation,” rather than the department store being the primary emblem of late-capitalist consumerism, excerpted here for our convenience. The crux of his argument seems to be that “Whereas the large department store provides a marketplace pageantry for merchandise, the drugstore offers the subtle recital of consumption, where, in fact, the “art” consists in playing on the ambiguity of the object’s sign, and sublimating their status and utility as commodity in a play of ‘ambiance.’ ” GEM has no ambiance, commodities are stubbornly commodities, but there is a calculated profusion for sure, which in and of itself creates a sensation of abundance, an eagerness to spend and expend, because supply seems inexhaustible. This seems to me the essence of American optimism, this carefree, spendthrift bonhomie amidst an endless array of commodities too copious to try to disguise their calculatedly false appeals. The chaotic profusion, which obliterates categories — not only descriptive categories but ontological ones (useful/worthless) (sturdy/flimsy) — somehow makes junk not junk; sheer quantity bulks itself until it amounts to a kind of quality. Another quintessential American attitude: the all-you-can-eat more-is-always-better approach to acquisition.