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Magic Markets And The Safety Of Warehouse Shopping

by andrew haley

We need to eat. We like to eat. We have to find something to eat. Sometimes the other guy has all the grub and you have to get it from him. Sometimes you can't steal it, so you go for the checkbook, or barter with seashells, or trade for ten minutes in the back seat instead. Maybe they won't accept your slip of paper, they think your shells are scratched, or that your five o'clock shadow don't look so good. So, next time you shave, wear cologne. This is called marketing.

And from there it's a hop, skip and jump to the market. Sometimes the market is a tough shed with a Korean, a shotgun, and fifteen cases of beer. Sometimes they sell children and irises and Turkish towels. Sometimes the market takes up a whole neighborhood and inside you can find every kind of fruit that grows in the jungle, every shape you can weave cloth into: stacks of oriental carpets, miles of silk pajamas, used velour blankets that smell like Mike Tyson.

People like markets. They always have. They filled walled cities knee deep with blood just to get a deal on black pepper, got themselves eaten for piano keys and turned off the world's oxygen for toothpicks and designer furniture. People will do anything for a deal.

We live in a funny country. We make and sell the lump sum of the world's cold cereal, personal computers, military hardware, pornographic movies, torture devices, and processed cheese. We are the central nervous system of global exchange. Our polyester suits rearrange the course of rivers, the languages of foreign countries, and national beverages. With the lift of a finger, asses get fatter all over the world, children go to work stitching logos on tennis shoes, dams go up, and skyscrapers are covered with water. But in this country built on marketing, on markets, on the real American dream that you can sell anyone anything with the right one-liner, you'll find a very strange kind of market.

A friend of mine has this funny idea of a contest: five guys go to New York City at nine in the morning. They have 12 hours to buy a human toe, ignoring gruesome shortcuts involving rufies and rose clippers. Could they do it?

What about here in the beloved city of salt? We're an entrepreneurial people. We go on missions. We know all about foreign cultures and customs. We believe in the right to profit on anything anywhere no matter the cost. So, in Salt Lake, could you go out right now and buy a pig face? Poison darts? Tiger semen? A human toe? Not likely. But there are a lot of places on this planet where you probably could. Bangkok. Bombay. Istanbul. Cities of grand bazaars. So what's the deal?

We come from very nice old people. We like our fun, but we like it clean. We like shopping, but only for very clean, safe things. Our grand bazaar is on third west and 18th south. It's called Costco. They don't sell human toes at Costco, nor ancient remedies, nor dried llama fetuses. Why? There is no market for them. Instead, at Costco you have your pick of five gallon drums of soy sauce, five pound bags of multicolored paper clips, boxes of jellied fruit snacks larger than your arm span.

It's a bakery that smells like a catalog. A butcher shop with no blood on the floor. A cheese shop with no flies. The fruit grows on trees in plastic sacks, presorted in dozens by the caring hand of nature. There are books, but not enough to make you wonder which ones are worth reading. Yogurt in plastic tubes. Ready-to-eat turkey dinners, packaged in plastic just like mom used to make. Free samples by the dozen of hot, odorless snacks, all on toothpicks-no worries! No hassles!

Fifty-pound bags of dehydrated milk! Pre-framed antique posters straight from the warehouse! Boxes of tampons big enough to staunch the Ganges!

Costco is the land of golden opportunity. It's a middle class paradise: everything you could ever imagine in your cupboard at nearly half the cost! It's clean. Packaged so that you don't have to touch or smell anything. Conveniently located in one climate controlled, sterilized, odorless environment. It's what on-line shopping would be like if you could actually be there, and that's why it's so successful. You get the pleasure of spending money, yet you get the little tickle of knowing you saved a nickel. You are overwhelmed with options and the fun of wandering among canyons of goods so you feel you have the variety of the world at the mercy of your visa card, of your vocation, of you.

But like Survivor, there are no snakes in this garden. There's nothing to tempt you, nothing illicit, or even fanciful. No aphrodisiacs. No potent odors.

It is the shopper's Disneyland: no traces remain, no history, no origins. Everything at Costco magically appears hermetically sealed on the shelf. You can walk away with fifteen-dozen pork chops, five gallons of milk, an oak book shelf, or a vintage poster for Absinthe without ever even thinking pig, cow, farmer, forest, lumber jack, addiction. Costco sells the high of spending-risk free.

The woman at the door (checking for memberships to this brotherhood) protects its happy shoppers from mere bargain seekers and stragglers looking for a quick deal. Its happy shoppers are also protected from the guilt of spending by the low, low prices. Its happy shoppers are protected from stress by convenience. Its happy shoppers are protected from desire, curiosity, disgust, hunger and ideas by plastic wrappers that make each item in the basket-be it spare ribs or software, olive oil or orange juice-odorless, formless, sanitary, without past, and without future.