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I grew up in an alpine suburb of Vancouver so remote as to be technically rural. The nearest store of any sort was five miles away, which is moot, because we never got to go there anyway. So until I got my driver’s licence I was a prisoner of remoteness and, as a result of this, to this day retail seems like magic to me. You walk into a space filled with well-lit, cunningly arranged, tantalising objects, you see something you like, you hand over this stuff called “money” and they give you what you want. What could be better? I’m always amazed by people who grew up in a town or city and how cavalier they are about shopping. You don’t understand, shopping is amazing. It’s like transmutation.
I like the way stores work so hard to earn your enthusiasm. Stores are so well thought out and make your head feel shiny and new, and then you get home and your house is a mess and you think to yourself, well, at least stores have their shit together.
The first thing I do in any new country is go to a hardware store. Hardware stores anywhere are inspiring and make you want to make things. Foreign stores add a new twist, especially when you find a tool that obviously has a specific use; you just don’t know what it is. It’s like shopping in a parallel universe, or like eating in that nightclub in Star Wars.
The Japanese have the best department stores. The stores aren’t so much brands as they are fully immersive lifestyle experiences, and they sell everything from toothpicks to (yes) whale sushi to Robert Rauschenberg paintings. They’re so well put together that you feel like you should dress up just to go there. On this topic, there’s a line from The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) in which dad Brady says, “OK kids, put on your best sweaters — we’re going shopping at Sears!” This is funny because you’d never in a million years ever think of dressing up to go to a Sears. If anything, you’d try to dress down so as to blend in: fleece pants and a day pass from the local clinic clearly pinned to your inside-out T-shirt.
Japan also has a category of department stores everyone calls zombie stores — nobody can figure out why they still exist but they lurch along anyway, as though undead. You walk into a zombie store and they have stuff lying on tables and things are technically for sale but it’s so depressing that you flee before buying anything.
It’s similar to another Japanese phenomenon called sabishii (sa-bee-shee). Sabishii is when you look at a restaurant from outside but there’s nobody in it, which is kind of depressing, so you don’t go in . . . which reinforces the restaurant’s sabishiiness, and soon the restaurant goes out of business.
I was really excited to go to Harrods in London and when I got there everything was . . . shiny. Everything looked like it was designed by the same guy who did Michael Jackson’s wardrobe, which is fine. I guess I was expecting a whole other level of luxury, which sounds so corny. And what would a whole new level of luxury look like, anyway? In the old days, more luxury meant more jewels and shiny stuff. These days, it usually means a lot less, like Muji or airport interrogation rooms. Humanity actually seems to be split down the middle on luxury: those who want gilded leopard-shaped teapots, and those people who want to live in the white box their iPhone came in.
I like department stores because there’s always something to surprise you. I was in the Macy’s in Union Square in San Francisco two years ago, buying pyjamas, and there were all these young hip inner-city kids buying pyjamas too, and I thought to myself, Isn’t it great that kids are discovering something good and sensible like pyjamas. And then my friend Liz told me that they buy pyjamas because they’re the exact sort of thing a 50-year-old white guy would buy, and that kids wear their pyjamas as streetwear, and with much irony. Owned!
I was leaving a Hudson’s Bay store in Vancouver a few years back and this woman who looked like she lived in her car grabbed me and said, “Not so fast. You’re coming back inside with me.” She was a store detective and she was convinced I’d shoplifted a bottle of Eau Sauvage. She was genuinely excited about taking down a customer — frothing at the kill. A small crowd gathered, I produced the receipt, her face collapsed, and I’ve never gone to that store again. Once the trust is gone at a store, it’s over.
The most seductive retail on earth is the Paul Smith store in Heathrow’s Terminal 5. You’re already discombobulated from jet lag and sleeping pills and then you drift through the mall and the store is like a vision of . . . unexpected quality and uniqueness: old books and architectural scale models sit alongside Paul Smith’s official merchandise. Nobody leaves empty-handed.
Right now I like these new hipster stores that each sell exactly four and a half things and it feels like the Great Depression when you walk in. A painted rock, a really good paper notepad made in Antarctica, a knitted cosy made to display heirloom tomatoes, vintage aspirin holders and a sock. I’m never sure if it’s a pop-up conceptual art gallery or if it’s for real, which is actually the very best thing retail can be.
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris
Photograph: ken mayer studios © douglas coupland