Sir Thomas Phillipps, who could afford it, set out in the middle of the 19th century to acquire a copy of every single book in the world. He threw himself into this quest so fiercely, and with so little forethought, that a houseguest at Phillipps’ country estate described in his diary “every room filled with heaps … heaps under your feet; piled up on tables, beds, chairs, ladders, etc., etc., and in every room, piles of huge boxes, to the ceiling. … It was quite sickening! … How it is possible for any lady to sleep or dress herself in such a room, I am at a loss to imagine! … It is a complete literary charnel-house.”
Making about forty purchases a week, Phillipps owned some thirty thousand printed books and twenty thousand handwritten manuscripts, along with several hundred bound volumes of letters and dozens of folios. When his collection outgrew one house, he moved to another, with 230 horses hauling 103 wagonloads of books over eight months from the old house to the new — which was the “charnel-house.” Phillipps died five years after the move, his books in total disarray, still partly unpacked and totally uncatalogued.
The quest was maniacal, but “ended in complete and devastating failure,” writes Philipp Blom in To Have and to Hold, a history of collectors and collecting whose profiles of bone-hoarders and miniature-shoe fetishists and madly acquisitive kings will make you leery evermore of eBay.
Blom’s descriptions are lush and loving — an antique Bible has “arteries of string and membranes of leather and paper” — as well they should be in a book about people for whom inanimate objects resonate with meaning and often matter more than human relationships. As a collector of American toys puts it, Hula Hoops and yo-yos have intrinsic integrity, they stay beautiful and pure, and they’ll never desert you.
Ultimately, it’s all about shopping. Collections cost, unless you count assemblages of used Kleenexes, say, or sand, but even that can have its price. While Blom’s most lyrical profiles are of Renaissance princes and clergymen who packed lavish halls with automatons, coconuts, sundials, crystals, armor, waxworks, death masks, coins, eggs, alchemical utensils, and the gold-encrusted skulls of saints, he also covers familiar figures who helped shape the world’s (and half of America’s) idea of Americans as gullible, greedy slackjaws who will consume anything that isn’t nailed down. J.P. Morgan’s “ravenous appetite for all things great and exquisite meant that he himself often had little idea what precisely was in his collection,” such that while going through his account books one day he demanded that his staff locate a Michelangelo bust he had apparently bought for $10,000. An assistant patiently explained that the bust had been sitting on a shelf facing Morgan’s desk for more than a year. William Randolph Hearst, meanwhile, “once bought a $40,000 carpet simply because the window display marked it the most expensive in the world. It was shipped off to one of his warehouses never to be seen again.”
Living in a capitalist paradise, you find yourself pondering the borderlines between shopping because it’s necessary and shopping because it’s fun and shopping because you can’t control yourself. At what point do you start hiding the credit-card bills from your partner and pretend that you found a brand-new Hello Kitty beach towel, six Hello Kitty wristwatches, a Hello Kitty toaster, and a Hello Kitty bedside lamp (still in its box) in a Dumpster? At what point does “he has a lot of shirts” turn from “fun guy” and “can I borrow the pink silk one?” into a clinical diagnosis? At what point does “kitchenware freak” become just “freak”?
Behind such speculation lies the presumption that too much shopping is somehow harmful. But whom does it harm, compared with too much drinking or too much strangulation? (I mean, of course, regular shopping, not shopping for babies or WMDs.)
Sophie Kinsella makes a case in Shopaholic & Sister, the fourth in her series featuring Becky Brandon, retail’s fabbest friend. As the novel begins, Becky and new husband Luke return from a ten-month globetrotting honeymoon to their London flat. It’s “the trendiest place in the world: all minimalist,” but it’s too small for the four truckloads of souvenirs that Becky bought while abroad: seventeen rugs, a totem pole, trunks, a gamelan set, two dining-room tables, twenty chairs … and that’s not counting the $2,000 shoulderbag — “the coolest, most beautiful bag in the world. … Oh my GOD!” — that she bought at the last minute in Milan with the secret credit card she keeps hidden in her compact. A shocked Luke puts Becky on a budget. She bridles. This is a girl for whom a simple trip to the corner deli yields more than a hundred dollars’ worth of caviar, mousse, and brandied fruits she doesn’t even like, but which come in “a gorgeous handblown glass jar.”
It is right around then that Becky discovers she has a long-lost half-sister. Wanting to bond over a weekend together, she busts her budget on cookies, candy, videos, gifts, makeup, and all-new decor for the guest room — only to discover that somber geologist Jess is “obsessed with saving money.” Eyeing a cupboard, Jess suggests that Becky and Luke join a Costco-type club and use the space “to store flour and oats.
“Oats? What do I want oats for?” Becky peals in all innocence. Besides which, “that’s my handbag cupboard. … And it’s totally full.”
Sparks fly. Becky accuses Jess of having undergone a “fun bypass.” Jess shouts back that Becky is shallow and spoiled. “Your whole life makes me sick,” Jess says. “I thought we could go shopping,” Becky says.
Kinsella’s gift, and the reason her Shopaholic books are best-sellers and aren’t fluff, is that she is snide and smart but also nuanced, showing us that even while totally unreformed, buying whatever nonsense she can carry and lying her way out of it, Becky is no airheaded bitch. Even at her worst — and that’s pretty bad — this character radiates a warmth and kindness that do not counteract her acquisitiveness so much as imbue it with heart. She shops because she loves beauty, because she wants to please and surprise, because stuff brings her senses alive. Sometimes she shops to cheer up shopkeepers. Is that so bad? Eventually she learns from Jess about cutting up cereal boxes to use instead of expensive postcards, but Becky has priceless lessons of her own to teach as well.
Becky is duly mentioned in Pamela Klaffke’s Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping, whose oodles of historical trivia — wampum as acceptable Brooklyn Ferry fare in the early 20th century; mail-order submarines from Neiman-Marcus in 1982; e-tail debacles; Stanford University’s search for an anti-compulsive-shopping-pill — compensates for its gratingly ha-ha tone. That we take shopping for granted, that shopping fuels debates about globalization and worker exploitation and outsourcing, is all the more reason it deserves the scrutiny of cultural historians.
All the way to the mall.