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7/14/10 Giant Stores

I'm getting better at giant stores.

[[Giant stores = Target, Walmart, Safeway, CostCo...even a CVS or Walgreens if it has enough aisles.]]

I haven't attempted a mall yet, though. I didn't like malls even before Peace Corps, and my experience with stores tells me that I'm not likely to enjoy them any better, now.

The first time I walked into a giant store, fresh out of Morocco, I got dizzy. Lightheaded. Kinda lost it, a little bit. I couldn't find the edges of the store. Or even of the ceiling, because the shelves rose so high. I felt myself entering a foreign realm, whose edges reached off my mental map. Here, there be dragons.

Commercial dragons.

Who breathe fiery lies about the need for near-infinite selection.

At these giant stores, I can buy anything. Anything that has ever been dreamed of, constructed, and had a pricetag slapped onto it, anyway. And if they don't have it in stock, they can order it for me. (Or I could go home and order it online, myself.)

The number of choices available in these places ... blows my mind.

In Morocco, I'd count myself lucky if I found an American soda that wasn't Coke. ('Cause yeah, Coca-Cola has encircled the globe. Many, many times.) Here, grocery stores devote entire, 50-yard-long aisles to their soda selection. Same with shampoo. Or deodorant. Or ... sponges. Laundry detergents. Frying pans.

How do people make so many meaningless distinctions?

How much mental energy is devoted to distinguishing between essentially identical products, none of which we actually need??

In Morocco, I discovered that products labeled "shower gel" cleaned my hair at least as well as those labeled "shampoo", and usually better. It's handy, only having to bring one small bottle and a towel, and knowing I'll get nice and clean.

So when I stare down the shampoo aisle - or worse, wander through the shampoo maze in a drug store - I'm stunned both by the extraordinary number and types of products, as well as the very idea that people feel the need to have this selection.

Same with cereal.

At one point, when describing my reactions to an RPCV friend, I heard myself use the phrase "temple to consumerism."

Maybe it's because I've spent some time wandering ruins in northern Morocco (once Mauritania, a province of the Roman Empire) and in Rome and Jordan. I've seen temples, built to long-forgotten gods.

And the giant edifices screeching BUY HERE BUY HERE are almost as imposing. They certainly try as hard as any ancient culture to bully me into accepting that their vision of the universe is the correct one. That I'm a deeply flawed mortal, in the hands of an awesomely powerful authority, who will condemn me to eternal torments if I don't have this month's shoes.

(Forget sacrificing a bull - they've taken care of that step, and the ones after it, the sacrificing and butchering and tanning and rendering into steaks and belts and burgers and motorcycle jackets and ... shoes.)

So, yeah, I'm avoiding the mall. And while giant stores no longer make me dizzy, it's because I've gotten better at tunnel-vision. If I make targeted runs for whatever items I planned to buy, I can resist the crushing waves of the oceans of options roaring in my ears.

But I miss my corner hanut, with the limited selection that never felt overly limiting. The entire shop was probably 10 feet across and 15 feet deep, and my friend Ali knew every inch of shelves, and could find anything for me with a smile - or explain that no, he didn't have it, with a somewhat more rueful smile.

I remember complaining about the pressure-to-buy from overeager merchants (which Ali never was, lhumdullah), but it pales in comparison to the pressures that the multi-trillion-dollar commercial enterprises bring to bear.

I never thought I'd say it, but ... I think I miss souq.

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