THE STORY OF SCHLOCK
SCHLOCK - "Etymology: perhaps from Yiddish shlak evil, nuisance, literally, blow, from Middle High German slag, slac, from Old High German slag, from slahan to strike, to slay. Of low quality or value." - Merriam Webster Dictionary
A famous author friend of mine said recently that fans would go up to her after a book reading and ask questions like, "What publications do you read?"
Because they perceive her as someone on the intellectual vanguard, they hope that her answer would set them on the right course towards enlightenment.
"Little do they know," confessed my friend, "that when I'm alone, in my spare time, I usually read schlock. I read supermarket tabloids. I read Cosmo, People, and Oprah."
I, too, have furtive activities that most people do not know of. Like my friend, when people aren't looking, I voluntarily bring myself in morbid proximity to schlock.
When I'm shopping alone, for example, I can finally go and check out that last hidden bastion of culture that is still new to me - the interior of a department store like Mervyn's.
"Don't even say that word aloud," my friends would say whenever we walked past Mervyn's. Any expression of interest in such a place would be greeted with shouts of alarm and paranoia.
Perhaps the people I know suffer from some residual suburban insecurity that they would become instantly uncool if they were caught dead inside a Mervyn's, a Marshall Field's, a Dress Barn.
I don't have such a problem. Having lived in big cities all my life, far from the reaches of the American suburb, Mervyn's is the last frontier of discovery for me.
So when nobody's around, I check out Filene's Basement, I poke around TJ Maxx.
I approach the shopping expedition with the curiosity of an Egyptologist. I never buy anything. True investigators will never dream of disturbing the artifacts in their natural situs.
The glory of the hieroglyphs! At Filene's Basement, I inscribed with excitement the inscrutable, portentous, hand-lettered signs, each bristling with arbitrarily-placed quotation marks in a language peculiar to that establishment:
"LEISURE LIFE" DUSTERS AND ROBES
MEN'S"FAMOUS MAKER" SHOES
"PLUS SIZE" PANTIES
Reading Filene's signs was hard work. They glimmered with their own, mysterious eloquence:
"ADOLPHO BART PULITZER"
MEN'S DRESS SHIRTS
ESLEEP FRENCH JENNY FLANNEL
And of course, who could forget that store-wide proclamation, broadcast in a tone of Old World enthusiasm that reminded you of the salesmen of 1920's New York:
WORLD FAMOUS "AUTOMATIC MARKDOWN" PLAN
Filene's Basement is the conclusive proof of that the retail of schlock has a continuous, uninterrupted history, like that of the cockroach.
We are only scratching the surface.
America is, after all, the lend of plenty. With plenty of good comes plenty of evil. Whatever people may say, schlocky consumer goods still have the power to impress me - if not by anything, by their sheer numbers and infinite variations.
Last night, I was upstairs in a deserted Ross outlet in Berkeley. I stared with fascination at the rows upon rows of shelves crammed with sad flotsam and jetsam, feeling like Harry Potter on his first visit to Diagon Alley.
Once, they were retailed. Once, somebody thought somebody was going to pay good money to buy them. Now these things just sat hopefully on shelves, like puppies at the pound.
Ordinary rules of retail presentation were absent. We were in a new universe. Products were grouped in odd bunches, forlorn, with price tags missing. Mismatch was the order of the day.
If you ever wondered what it was like if eBay started opening retail stores, this was it. But there is no need to go online to eBay if you can buy schlock in person.
For Mervyn's was where retail objects came to die.
A pair of Japanese exchange students from campus were fighting over a stack of gilt-framed mirrors, a bargain for $9.99. This was a tenth of the price they would have sold at Pottery Barn.
The girls chatted excitedly in Japanese, dreaming of the products' potential in their dorm room. They tore off the wrapping and inspected each mirror minutely (for you can never be too careful at a flea market). Then they hauled their loot to the cashier's, victorious as a Viking army.
To look at the schlock in a Ross or a Mervyn's was to appreciate fully the extent of human imagination.
Freed from the ordinary restraints of context or taste, the thoughts of product designers and interior decorators - to paraphrase Longfellow - were wild, wild thoughts.
For what kind of stuff would you design if you were told by your boss, "Don't worry if it doesn't sell, we'll just ship it to Ross?"
At Mervyn's today, under the thoughtful hum of fluorescent lights, I examined a curious object.
It was a heavy block of molded concrete, studded with decorative tiles, in the shape of a garden snail. It was larger than my head.
Since the concrete snail was jumbled with toaster ovens, coffee tables, napkins, bedsheets, and tool boxes, I could only guess as to its proper function.
Was it supposed to be a creative spin on the garden gnome?
I turned it curiously in my hands. It was $19.99, down from $49.99.
Was it a book end?
A centerpiece for Easter Sunday dinner?
Something from an abandoned set of Fraggle Rock?
There were sets of ceramic dinnerware, all brightly painted: Hawaiian themes, Mexican themes. You could buy a beer mug the shape of a pineapple, with a hulla girl perched on the handle wearing a leaf skirt.
There were endless stacks of wicker baskets of all shapes and sizes, a ton of wrought iron furniture, and "oriental" cushions with silk tassels. Everything seemed to be made in China.
Somebody paid to have this stuff shipped over the Pacific in a container? Now I know where you go if you wanted your house to look like a cross between an Italian rococo mansion and a senior citizen's home.
Everything you needed to achieve this unique, total look was available at Mervyn's. Plastic plants, dining chairs, silverware with fake filigree handles, wind chimes, badly scented candles, "Tahitian" napkin rings decorated with shells imported from China.
If it weren't gilt-edged, it was "crackle" painted. The designers evoked faraway places: Morocco, Tuscany, Hawaii, the Meditteranean.
It was a set designer's dream. If you were working on the set of The Golden Girls.
I got really excited at a 50% off rack which displayed big, elaborate even beautiful brooches that said "I LUV GRANDMA" and "SOCCER MOMS RULE" and "TEACHERS ARE #1" and "NURSES R COOL". They were die-cast, heavy, filled with enamel and semi-precious stones only $7.99!
I wondered if I, too, could someday aspire towards a role in society that required the wearing of such badges of honor.
Should I buy one for my grandma? I wavered between a brooch featuring African elephants, and another with a big ruby dolphin. Am I sending the right message if I bought her one?
Actually the dog one - a chunk of solid brass was kinda cute. I could wear it when I volunteer at the animal shelter. I could throw it at a dog if it tried to attack me.
There were bargain bins that say "Maximum Bang For Your Buck" and "All this for $3". You could get little Kelly dolls (Barbie's sister, if you don't know) wearing costumes from Swan Lake. You could bring home boxes of Hot Wheels.
What about plastic bubbles? Coin purses? A handbag in the shape of a bra (pink or black?) I became confused by my competing desires.
Why are Moroccan bazaars or Bangkok night markets exotic, sophisticated and well-respected by "those in the know", but not Mervyn's? It's all the same schlock. It probably was all made in the same factory in China.
Sadly, I bought nothing. All I bought that day was a carton of milk. At Trader Joe's.