The Simple Life
By Michele Meier Vosberg
The Gift Shop Life
It is Christmas time, and thus, an excuse for shopping. Oh, I don’t mean real Christmas shopping, the kid of madcap day spent fighting crowds in busy malls, frantically looking for all of the items on your Christmas gift list. Those days are harried and decidedly unenjoyable. The thought of fighting someone for the last parking space within a mile of a mall and then wadding through piles of merchandise in a controlled environment full of other frantic and frustrated shoppers fills me with dread. It is a necessary evil, though I’m considering replacing the whole experience with internet shopping. The kind of shopping I would rather do is in little gift shops.
Most women I know like gift shops. These are not the shops in malls, but the shops in quaint antique buildings in charming towns like Galena or if you are lucky, Charleston. These are shops full of beautiful items that nobody really needs. Certainly you could find gifts there, though my children want CD burners and Walkmans, items more likely found in malls or super stores. If shopping in gift shops doesn’t necessarily involve buying gifts, it also doesn’t even necessarily involve buying anything. I like to compare it to what my brother -in -law says about fishing. When you go fishing, you don’t always catch fish. If you did, we would call it catching instead of fishing. Gift shop haunting is like that, if we always bought things we would call it buying instead of shopping.
What is the allure of gift shops? This is not to be confused with a fishing lure. Gift shops create an illusion, a dream world where things can be beautiful and artful and whimsical and perfect. In gift shops, dishes come in perfectly matched sets, complete with serving pieces and matching salt and pepper shakers. The dishware is seasonal, lovely Christmas china for the holidays, crafty garden inspired pottery for spring. Each set comes with color -coordinated placements, multicolored linen napkins complete with napkin rings and flatware that echoes the mood and formality of the dinner plate. Each place setting includes two or three matching beverage glasses. In gift shops, I momentarily believe that I can achieve a table set like this for an ordinary dinner at my house. In gift shops, there are no plastic Pizza Hut glasses left over from the kid’s “happy” meals.
The tablescapes in gift shops are so beautiful you can almost smell the aroma of dinner cooking. Or maybe it is the candles, which smell like apple pie or cinnamon buns or freshly baked banana bread. Gift shops are very big on candles, candles in jars, candles in shapes, tapered candles, votive candles, tealights, three wick candles and just about every other kind of candle you could imagine. How many candles do we really need? There are enough candles in the gift shops of Galena to supply a light and heat source in case of power outage for a city roughly the size of Toledo. Candles, too, are all about the illusion. I may not have time to bake homemade banana bread but I can light a match. My house will smell so good that maybe I will forget that the dog threw up on the carpet and that for some strange reason my daughter’s sock has been placed over the stair rail.
In gift shops, the absurd exists happily with the elegant. Where else could you buy a dancing pickle, a flying pig Christmas ornament or “Trailer Trash Barbie?” Interior decorators like to use the term “whimsical” to describe odds and ends that amuse us and add the touch of unexpected to our décor. This would explain the tuxedoed penguin “waiter,” a life-sized stuffed penguin holding a drink tray and marble “busts” of classical composers including Beethoven, Mozart, and Elvis. When my friend Marcia and I need a good laugh we go to gift shops. Marcia is brilliant at finding these little oddities. When life gets too serious we read the greeting cards and laugh until the tears are rolling down our faces. We may be easily amused, but for a couple of hours the troubles of the world are gone. It’s like psychotherapy for $1.99.
And so, even though, as Anna Quidlen so eloquently wrote recently in her Newsweek column, ” Like many Americans I have everything I could want, and then some,” I’ll visit some gift shops this Christmas. I will listen to the beautiful music (CD for sale) instead of the football game blaring on the TV. I will admire the perfectly decorated trees, knowing that I don’t have to take them down. I’ll wander through displays of beautifully packaged food that my family wouldn’t eat in a million years.
And while others are dreaming of a white Christmas, I’ll be dreaming of living the gift shop life.