Helen B. Schwartzman

Helen B. Schwartzman

Through the Looking-Glass

Shopping Alone

What do we miss when we shop online?

Posted Dec 04, 2017

Recently I have been thinking a lot about Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster). Using data drawn from a number of different fields he illustrated the various ways that Americans have become disconnected from social connections, including family, friends, community organizations and even (or, maybe, especially) our democratic structures. The idea that more Americans are “bowling alone” rather than bowling in leagues is the central image for his argument. Putnam argues that this illustrates a growing “social capital deficit” which threatens our civic health but he believes that we can reinvigorate our social connections and has developed a companion website for suggestions about how to do this.

I’ve been thinking about bowling alone while sitting at my computer and doing something else that used to be a social activity—namely, shopping. Reading about the recent Black Friday sales and the experience of people shopping in soon to be closed stores (like the Sears store in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, as reported in the New York Times on November 25, 2017) that advertised their “Last Black Friday” sale made me sad and also nostalgic for the social experience of shopping with family and friends. Of course there are still stores (including some Sears stores) that are thriving where the hustle and bustle, craziness, excitement as well as frustration of shopping with friends and in crowds can still be experienced. However, this is coupled with the daily reports of department store closings. For example, Sears has closed more than 350 stores (including Kmarts) just this year and I was particularly upset to learn that the Sears store in Santa Monica, California that figures prominently in my early childhood memories of shopping with my family closed this year in April. The economic hardship that this reshaping of the American retail landscape is causing has been examined in multiple ways in articles in Fortune and Forbes and elsewhere but I am also struck with how these store closings lead to a further erosion of ways to make social connections and form social memories.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley (SFV) suburb of Los Angeles in the 1950s and sometimes I say that I am a very old Valley Girl because when I grew up (I was born in 1945) there were no shopping malls in the SFV. It was only later (in the 1980s) that shopping and shopping malls became the activity most emblematic of Valley Girls and the place for “Valspeak," as parodied so well by Moon Zappa and Frank Zappa in their 1982 song "Valley Girl." (“She’s a valley girl, in a clothing store, Okay, fine, Fer sure, fer sure.”) Since there were no shopping malls, or what we now call “big box stores,” located in the valley in the late 1940s, it became a family outing to drive through one of the canyons (like Coldwater Canyon or Laurel Canyon) that wind through the Santa Monica Mountains which separate the city from the valley to go on a shopping expedition. This drive might take us to Hollywood (where there was a large Broadway store located at the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, opened in 1931, closed in the 1970s) or to the Santa Monica Sears (built in 1947, closed this year) that I remember so well. For something special we might go to Bullocks-Wilshire (closed in 1993 and now the location for the Southwestern Law School) where my mother worked in the very fancy tea room before opening her own diner, the Wishing Well, on Ventura Boulevard in the SFV. Another special trip would be to the I. Magnin store in Pasadena (closed in 1994) where my aunt worked in the gift-wrapping department and where I enjoyed several visits with Santa Claus at Christmas time. Although my most memorable experience with a department store Santa was back at the Sears store in Santa Monica where I received not only a picture of me talking with him but also a recording of our conversation!

Now that I have started reminiscing about how family memories and even family traditions become associated with shopping together in places like Sears and J. C. Penny, Broadway and Robinson’s, Bullocks and I. Magnin, I am distressed to think about how all of these stores (except for Sears and Penny’s) are now closed and replaced by Amazon and all other forms of shopping online. In the New York Times article I mentioned earlier two sisters, Elaine and Faith Freeman, talk about how they remember always coming to the Phillipsburg Sears with their parents right after Thanksgiving and this year they returned in order to show their loyalty by shopping at the store’s last Black Friday sale. Obviously I am nostalgic in my reflections about the value of shopping together for creating and solidifying family and friendship connections and even building family traditions and memories. If Black Friday in some ways celebrated shopping as a social activity (in a group or a crowd), Cyber Monday, to me, now celebrates the value of shopping alone. Perhaps this change in how we shop illustrates our continuing disengagement from social connections in the same way that bowling alone signaled this for Robert Putnam in the 1990s. I'm fairly certain that I am not alone in thinking that this is the case.

Helen Schwartzman Collection
Helen and Santa at Sears, 1949
Source: Helen Schwartzman Collection


Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. NY: Simon and Schuster.