Over the past five years, the American mercantile landscape has been distinguished by the proliferation of so-called "dollar stores," where everything indeed costs a dollar - not a penny more, not a penny less. I'm chagrined to admit that I was one of the chief disparagers of these cluttered emporia, which I believed were more blight than bargain.
It took me two years before I entered our local Dollar Queen. And even then I pretty much stumbled in, wooed by some party favors I had spied in the street window a few days before my son's birthday. When I saw the jam-packed shelves, the overflowing displays, and the masses of people streaming up and down the aisles, their shopping baskets laden with kitsch, my first thought was to get my trinkets and get out as soon as possible. But then something caught my eye. A set of small screwdrivers. Hmm, I remember thinking as I handled the item, I've been looking for something like this....
Suddenly, I was part of the dollar-store crowd, moving languorously up and down each and every aisle, alongside housewife and millworker, teacher and bricklayer, my red plastic basket gradually filling with things that I wasn't sure I needed, but, for a dollar, were too good to pass up.
The shame of my behavior was that, even as I sank deeper into the mire of dollar bargains, I continued to inveigh against the stores as "junky," "grimy," and even, gulp, "inappropriate" for a community trying to lure "quality" businesses to its downtown. I felt a little like a politician advocating environmental protection while selling oil drilling contracts on the side.
A further irony was that I was rereading "Walden" at the time. The book became the little angel on my shoulder whispering, "Simplify! Simplify!" while the buzzing neon lights of the Dollar Queen beckoned luridly, "Indulge! Indulge!"
Forgive me! I only wanted to buy a little time, in case my romance with the dollar store was a passing fancy. But it wasn't. I have found dollar-store religion. Yes, I admit it, my 17-year-old son was right: I am a cheapskate. And I have found my support group in my fellow dollar-store denizens.
Can you blame me? Where but in a dollar store can a man with $10 in his pocket feel like a big spender? A Diamond Jim? Where but in a dollar store can a man with pocket change fill a basket to overflowing with doodads to delight the eye? And when I exit the store, with a heavy plastic bag hanging from each hand like counterweights, do people not look at me and think, "Now, there's a shopper!"
Don't you see? The party favors were only the lure. For a single buck, a smacker, a clam, one can also have silk flowers, dish towels, hairbrushes, shampoo, can openers, battery testers, socks, mittens, notebooks, plastic lobsters, bicycle streamers, imported Tunisian dates, herbal mouthwashes, hula hoops....
My teenager is not fooled by all my visits to the Dollar Queen. He still calls me parsimonious. Just the other night a light bulb blew in his room. Alyosha called to me as I was about to go to the supermarket: "Would you please pick up some bulbs?"
"Yeah, sure," I replied. But when I got to the store, the bulbs were $2.98 a pack. Almost $3! And the Dollar Queen was already closed. So I put off the purchase, and Alyosha seethed in his darkened room. The next day I high-tailed it to the Dollar Queen, where I was able to buy a double pack of bulbs for - you got it - a buck! No matter that they burn out every couple of weeks. When they do, it simply gives me another reason to return to the dollar store, where I will find who knows what treasure.
Although Alyosha is a lost cause, my 6-year-old son, Anton, is not. He takes me at face value, and he loves to accompany me to the Dollar Queen, where he sees me as a generous spender. Beyond this, he is absolutely entranced by the racks of plastic beads, crayons, toy cars, and picture books. When I told him that each and every item came from faraway China, he was awestruck.
The other day, Anton and I were in the Dollar Queen. The place was pandemonium because there was a two-for-one special going on. Two for one! I told Anton that he could spend $3. He wound up with 10 Matchbox-size cars, two boxes of crayons, four books of mazes, and two ball caps. As we exited the store, our arms laden with treasure, he looked up at me and exclaimed, "We're rich, aren't we?"
"No," I said. "We're not rich." And then, after a pause, "But we're very, very happy."
What on earth would Thoreau think?