Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

The Incalculable Loss

Nothing says “middle-aged, Sunday, married, no football on” like walking through the big-box hardware store with a toilet seat under each arm.

I needed only one seat but had neglected to note whether the commode at home was normal-sized or had that fancy elongated shape that gives you a classier evacuation experience. I was not about to call home and ask my wife to measure the toilet. Buy ’em both! This is America. Return the wrong one or keep it for Halloween, put it around my neck, and say, “I’m CNN’s ratings.”

Went to the self-checkout, because a clerk might have thought, “Two? Why? Houseguest who loves to do the Twist sitting down snapped them all off? Why?” Beeped them, bagged them, got out my wallet —

Except I’d left the wallet at home. Urgh. Well, no matter. I had my phone, which connects to the vast unseen financial network that flows through us all like the Force in Star Wars. Incorporeal bits flow ’twixt my device and the sensors; money changes invisible hands; the purchase of bathroom furniture will be complete.

Except the store didn’t take ethereal payments. Let’s spell out the full horror: You had to use a card, and put it in a slot, with your hand, and wait, and then the machine beeped, and you had to use your hand again to pull out the card, and then you had to scribble on a pad. This is like one step above bartering pigs for chickens, man.

It’s hard not to think: Could Amazon just buy this store already, so I can shout  “Alexa, pay the man” into the ether and be delivered from this toil?

“Can I help you?” said the young fellow supervising self-checkout. I explained I’d forgotten my wallet and said something that makes perfect sense these days: “I can’t use my phone to pay for the toilet seats.” I apologized for making him restock the seats, and he waved it off: “We are all human,” he said. “We all make mistakes.”

It was like a benediction. He was absolutely right. We are and we do. It reminded me why I like to go to the store instead of buying everything online: actual humans, and things I didn’t know I needed.

Oh, you may need just one light bulb, but you walk past the cleaning supplies and consider the sad state of your mop. You may have come for a hinge for the kitchen cabinet, but you find yourself in the aisle newly stocked with grass seed and weed killer, and you’re reminded spring is nigh. The big store is like a good newspaper of the old days — it has what you want, but everywhere you turn, there’s a serendipitous appearance of something you hadn’t thought about at all.

Online? Click. Click. Click. Click. Cart. Buy. After you’ve bought something, ads will follow you around the Internet for a week, each offering the same thing. Imagine buying a toilet seat in a store, then dealing with a guy who pops up at work, on the street, in your garage, offering another toilet seat.

I have to delete my cookies so I’m not offered more toilet seats, you’d think. Another phrase that makes perfect sense these days.

Toys “R” Us, as you may have heard, is one of the formerly glorious retailers that just announced more store closings. If the CEO falls on his sword, you wonder, will it be Nerf? The company was hammered by the Internet, by Walmart, by debt, and while it’s sad, that’s capitalism; it happens.

And it’ll keep happening. Someday, Walmart will go the way of Woolworth and Kresge’s and Grant’s and all the rest. Creative destruction; that’s how we roll.

Yes. But there’s something lost in each revision. The five-and-dime variety stores that brought the efficiencies of scale to small-town Main Streets drove out local merchants. You lost a few family businesses and got a wider selection of goods, a lunch counter, updated fixtures. Decades later, Walmart brought low prices and a huge selection — but it drained blood from the small towns and pumped it to the outskirts, where a windowless store stood at the edge of an asphalt sea. Gains. Losses.

It will be tremendously convenient to say what you want in the comfort of your home, have it delivered by drone, and accept it with a wave of your hand. You will never waste time woolgathering in the hand-tools aisles, considering a new set of screwdrivers, feeling the balance of a hammer in your hand. No need: The reviews are all five stars.

You will also never know the look on a kid’s face when you walk into a Toys “R” Us and see miles of aisles with toys piled high.

Some on the right want to break up the tech monopolies and have particular hate for Amazon. There would be less animus if its owner had bought the Washington Post and turned it into a conservative newspaper, but the critics have a point: This new model will eliminate retail as we know it.

Only if that’s what we want. Spoiler: That’s what we want. More goods, less overhead, lower costs — we’ll all be a little bit richer for it, and we’ll all be poorer in terms you can’t quantify or monetize. In 20 years, we might well regret the death of the emporium, but what did the fellow say?

We’re human. We all make mistakes.

P.S. That’s what I said to my wife when I came back from the store without toilet seats. She wasn’t impressed by the clerk’s wisdom. Guess you had to be there.

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