In Consideration of Stuff, Part 1

The New York International Gift Fair is taking place next week, and I’ve been receiving the usual pre-show flurry of marketing materials.  Seeing all those glossy pages advertising just who will be selling what at the show brings me to a point somewhere between intrigue and despair.  Just like a bad romance.  Actually – for most of us anyway – our relationship with stuff does qualify as a kind of troubled romance.

For those of who don’t know and would like to, the Gift Fair is a wholesale show, open to purveyors of stuff from all over the world, bringing together the people who have stuff made (note the passive voice) with the people who sell stuff to the end user.  (This dynamic has shifted in recent years, with the people who actually make things showing up more and more, herded into their own section called “Handmade”.)

Entering the show you discover a mountain of stuff, a mountain broken into bits and spread out over several giant convention halls.  You see stuff that you never realized someone actually bothered to make, like pink and purple princess slippers created from some sort of synthetic fabri-tek (one size fits all!), cranked out by the pallet and shipped to the U.S. of A. for our buying pleasure. Some areas of the show actually smell like a Dollar Store.  If you’ve never been in a Dollar Store – and I trust this is not the case if you are a patriot – the smell is remarkable.  Crisp plastic goods (encased in copious amounts of packaging) that haven’t seen daylight since…never really. But at least not since leaving the factory floor in China or India, or for the purposes of this conversation, Chindia.

It’s a lot to take in, even if you are only slightly aware of the tension of living in such a massive consumer-based economy that needs to continue consuming (or so we’re told) to stay approximately solvent, while contemplating the problem of what to do with all this stuff.  Especially the stuff we don’t want anymore.  Because we’ve just bought new stuff.  Right now most of us prefer to adhere to the Out of sight, Out of mind maxim when it come to what we don’t want anymore, especially the stuff that falls somewhere between recyclable and fixable.  And if someone  chooses to kindly arrive at the end of your driveway to take it away, nicely done up in opaque bags, who are you to argue?  It disappears onto the truck and out of your life.  But then you go to a Temple of Stuff, like a shopping mall, where the “out of sight” part is not an option, and it becomes harder to keep believing.  Or you go to a serious Temple like the New York Gift Fair, which makes a shopping mall look some sort of provincial altar, and you can lose your faith in stuff altogether as your awareness of the sheer volume of newly-manufactured crap reaches a full, screaming pitch.

For me this translates into a sort of existential crisis as I find myself delighting in the visual overload – like marveling at the excess of Versailles (if Versailles were outfitted by Wal-mart buyers)  – at one level while being appalled at another, more subconscious one, where questions run through my mind over and over again as though on a loop, with that same insistent hum that comes from the florescent lights at the doctor’s office. You try to ignore that humming sound but you know it’s there. Questions like  “Where did all this stuff come from? Who makes it? Why do they make it? Who buys all this stuff? Why do they buy it? Why am I here? Did stuff make man or did man make stuff?” No, I don’t really ask those last questions, at least not in the context of the Gift Show. And lest you think I’m being too angst-y, the time has come to introduce you to a few ads – straight from the official Show publication – for products attendees can find at the 2011 New York International Gift Fair:

 

I'll take a billion of everything.

Breaking it down:

1. Interchangeable Marble Jewelry. Yes, I do have all my marbles, thank you for asking. Or at least as many marbles as I need to know that if I ever buy a product like this, you may kill me. Consider this my Living Will.

2. Poo-poo Paper. The manufacturers of this product have the audacity to invoke the S-word when selling you on the idea of  paper made from animal excrement: Sustainability. As though this is Waterworld and we’ve resorted to drinking our own urine along with Kevin Costner.  So of course it only makes sense that we also use excrement as stationery. This is the letter I would write on my animal dung stationery should I be so lucky as to acquire a few pieces, so to speak:

Dear Poo-poo Paper Makers:

I”ve got an even more sustainable idea for you and it involves another S-word: Stop using the earth’s resources to make your shit product.

Sincerely,

me

3. Poo-Pourri. I have no idea what is going on with this one. None. Does it smell good? Does it smell bad? But there the Poo-Pourri manufacturers are, with an expensive booth at the New York International Gift Fair, apparently with money to burn on marketing. Maybe the Poo-Pourri family of products is just a money-laundering scheme for a crime syndicate.  Or the genius business idea of one of those eccentric old-money Yankees, supported by her lawyer who agreed to the enterprise as a tax write-off. (“Kipper! I’ve got a marvelous idea for a product! I simply must create a potpourri and name it after that darling paper made we had made from Mr. Ruff Ruff’s excrement! Poo-Pourri! And it will smell just like Daddy’s favorite yachting cap!)

These unfortunate products highlight the legitimacy of my Gift Show anxiety, my uneasiness about this whole industry and its glorification of making and buying stuff for its own sake. At times it seems that the event showcases, in big piles of animal dung, all that is wrong with our culture. But there are glimmers of goodness, and I’ve managed to find a few at every wholesale show I’ve attended. Especially during these last few years, as the retail industry experiences the enormous upheaval of a recession and changing technological landscape, remaking how people buy.  The Handmade section expands every year, with sophisticated small producers – almost a modern version of a pre-mass-manufacturing cottage industry.

This lighter, lovelier side to the wholesale show will be featured in The Roving Home’s post-Show wrap-up: Part 2 in the consideration of stuff – what it means to make it, to buy it, to possess it.

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