Gotta shop


Until a few years ago, we worried that Islanders had got into the habit of shopping at the Hyannis Mall or BJs or the other mainland big box stores, especially for Christmas. Supporting this alarming analysis, Steamship Authority figures showed the growing use of excursion discounts for vehicle roundtrips originating on Martha’s Vineyard.

Beyond a doubt, Islanders revealed healthy appetites for shopping off-Island, looking for good deals and variety. The roundtrip ferry rate encouraged that natural inclination, as did the improved economic fortunes of many Islanders.

But there was a countervailing strategy at work among mainlanders. Summer residents and visitors looking for adventure traveled here, not for low prices and variety but for unique gifts and products with a distinct Vineyard essence. Having been excessively malled for years, they reveled in traveling here for weekend shopping expeditions. It is not possible to net out the result for Vineyard merchants, except that the discomfort on the part of Island business people seemed for many years not to be paralyzing.

Then Islanders, backward (and happily, insistently so) in many respects, discovered online shopping, along with the rest of the globe. Enthusiasm grew nationally at an astounding rate, and Vineyard folk who had been catalogue shoppers for years joined the craze. The brilliant 20-somethings who know almost everything about everything, and especially shopping, thought they had figured out how to eventually suck up every holiday gift buying dollar with a web site and a credit card cyber-siphon.

But, online shopping, as everything does, eventually lost some of its remarkable vigor, and in this low and worrisome economic environment, retailers, whether bricks and mortar or digital types, suffer together. Steamship Authority figures tell a sad story of insignificant growth in auto traffic, passenger traffic, and freight. During the fall and through the Christmas shopping season, to-ing and fro-ing among Islanders, as well as free-spending immigrant shoppers, has seriously underperformed the standard of years past.

My historical Christmas shopping patterns do not fit comfortably into any of the patterns I’ve just described. After a slow start and a sort of early 1980s upswing, I have long recognized the contracting nature of my shopping behavior. Reports on my earliest shopping habits, circa 1969, show that I did very little shopping at all, and the trends have been declining since. Years ago, I made Christmas presents in the woodshop: unique, rough hewn jewelry boxes out of two by threes; dining tables with mismatched legs; bed frames that needed cinderblock supports. A stop at Lillian’s on Main Street (in the 1970s, a sort of Vineyard Victoria’s Secret and now the Bramhall and Dunn department store) for some foundation garments. A trip to Ben Coggins’s Ben Franklin Store. Maybe a spin through Hancock’s Hardware (now the Boch Park (ing) lot), and my shopping was done. I would sometimes shop in Edgartown. Maybe Fligors, or Hall’s, once Lily Pulitzer.

In the 1980s, the booming economy had me in a tizzy. I did shop Edgartown, and I shopped Oak Bluffs; in the early 1990s, even Nantucket. Nowhere was off limits till I dropped.

All that has changed, and I find my parsimony and buyer’s resistance in vogue once more. It’s not a cyber-question for me. It’s not a mall question or a catalogue or an online buying question. It’s become a question of whether I will leave Vineyard Haven at all. This season, a trip to Leslie’s, a little bit of Shirley’s in my life, a stop at the Green Room, and my sack was full.

As a matter of fact, a little contrarian buyer’s regression feels right. And a la mode, too. But we’re facing a new issue now, and one which threatens to expand my consumer horizons.

Permit me a diversion. I was once invited to the wedding of a charming, pliant, convivial Scotsman. For special occasions – and his marriage would be one – he wears a kilt. For his wedding, we celebrants were asked to wear kilts, too.

There must be something you are fond of wearing, something you are comfortable in, something that is your signature apparel. For lots of people, male and female, it’s what used to be dungarees, now it’s anybody’s Guess. There are a million brands, and some of them, ordered online, will build the pants to fit your body like a glove. (For some of us, that would be a mitten.) Still, it’s all denim.

I’ve been wearing khaki pants now for nearly 50 years. (Recently, I got a pair of green pants, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to have done.) I have three or four pair of khakis, which I rotate till one wears out. Then I replace it. I don’t wear kilts, and I don’t know where to shop for a kilt. My shopping habits do not allow for trips to kilt stores.

A bit further afield, George Buchanan, in his 1581 “History of Scotland,” explained the Scottish interest in kilts this way: “They delight in variegated garments, especially stripes, and their favourite colours are purple and blue. Their ancestors wore plaids of many colours, and numbers still retain this custom … and sometimes lay themselves down to sleep even in the midst of snow.”

You see, this is definitely not me. Purple and blue are not my favorite colors, and I am not looking for snowdrifts to curl up in, especially in light of what they say about the devil may care Highlander’s scant regard for undergarments.

Later in the 16th century, Nicolay D’Arfeville wrote, “[The ‘wild’ (Scots)] wear like the Irish a large and full shirt, coloured with saffron, and over this a garment hanging to the knee, of coarse wool, after the fashion of a cassock, they go bareheaded, and let their hair grow very long, and wear neither hose nor shoes, except some who have boots made in an old-fashioned way, which come as high as their knees.”

Wild? That’s not me either. Long hair, high boots. Ditto.

My ancient and honorable patterns of shopping and dress lend themselves to extremely limited shopping. And, for someone who doesn’t shop much and is steadily shopping less, someone who has spent a lifetime in trousers, kilts are simply not on the agenda. Now, picking up the thread I began with, these times – as we are constantly told – demand some rethinking. If we (and I include myself in that number) are to do our part to support the Martha’s Vineyard economy, not to mention the national economy, where lots of people have it much worse, and even the global village, which is not only economically beset but frequently bloody-minded as well, we’re going to have to spend whatever we can. And we must spend it where it will do some good. So, whether it means a journey to Edgartown, or even a kilt, I say, I’ll do my part. See you at the kilt emporium.