Shopping 24/7 needs its boundaries

The first time I did it, it seemed almost naughty. I pulled into the parking lot and walked into the store. I grabbed a shopping cart and loaded it up with pens, paper, file folders, and toner for the copy machine. I paid for everything and walked out into the cool night air. It was one o'clock in the morning, and I had just bought office supplies on my way home from a concert. Staples, the office-supplies giant, was now open 'round the clock, so how could I resist?

I was drawn to the novelty and convenience, the sheer strangeness of it: Why on earth was this place open all night? What product was so urgent, what market so essential, that it couldn't wait until morning?

Perhaps it was a case of imagined urgency - the store's hours were soon scaled back. Even so, the new closing time of midnight seemed an unlikely hour to buy floppy disks.

Yet ordering online pushes retail even further; it all but dissolves a sense of time. I've bought books, games, and gifts online - all at the hour of my choosing. Nor do I stop to wonder whether stores are open - they simply are. Even Sunday, that cowering shadow of a day, has the same clout as other, more muscular days.

I'm all in favor of convenience and efficiency. But the sense of stores having no boundaries, running clockless and untimed, is at odds with some elemental force. Not only does it unravel traditional schedules and turn the world of commerce on its head, it fosters a false sense of importance: Laser-printer paper and ink simply lack the urgency of, say, diapers and baby formula.

Yet there's another, more insidious element at work here. The barrier that separates each of us from our material self, the creature from its comforts, gets chipped away and naturalized. Each buying encounter that takes place after hours further assimilates us into the consumer world. And it blurs the already fuzzy line between want and need, between who we fundamentally are and what the culture would have us become.

So I arrive at certain stores on a Sunday, or late at night, more than a little wary.

The stores are open for business, I'm there to shop, and so we enter into a strange modern complicity. I suppose I could be home reading Heidegger or Nietszche; my taste, it seems, runs to the more mundane. I'm out buying stuff, or online buying stuff, and occasionally I feel thrilled by its availability at odd hours.

Getting and spending isn't the problem, exactly; it's the countless ways in which we can now get and spend - the unbroken access. Then comes the moment when all of this efficiency and convenience implodes, landing on one's doorstep.

On a recent Sunday, I received a call about carpeting I had bought the day before. Though the store itself was closed, the manager was calling to set up a time for installation. I bristled at his message: It was one thing for me to go shopping on a Sunday, if I chose - quite another for him to be calling me that day at home. To my way of thinking, Sunday was mine - unassailable and commerce-free. He had crossed over a line that was once highly visible and unthinkable, a line that's now barely noticed.

I'm not looking to turn back the clock, or set curfews, or alter the new timeless calendar that, in fact, accommodates more people's schedules. I just think that clocks offer clear, useful limits in these uncharted times.

*Joan Silverman's work has appeared in numerous publications including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Houston Chronicle, and The Dallas Morning News.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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