Shopping Is the New Television

The cultural value of your neighborhood strip mall

Greg Blake Miller

J. & B., who are married and have a daughter at UNLV, operate a mailbox and shipping store a mile down the road from where I live. I see J. & B. maybe once a week. They weigh outgoing manuscripts, put proper postage on overseas-bound envelopes, hand me the copy key and take it back when I am done. None of these are complicated transactions. Most of them can be achieved without words passing between J. & B. and me. In spite of this, words do pass between us, plenty of words, and not just about the weather. The words improve my days, they make me more satisfied with the place I live and the things I do. They give me, in fact—and this is pretty grandiose territory to get to from pleasantries at the shipping store—a little extra faith in our country, in our times, and in the peculiar rules by which we live. Marx said that capitalism, in the end, creates only alienation. Marx never met J. & B.

A good dozen years ago, Bruce Springsteen announced the death of the global village. There were, he told us, 57 channels—how quaint—and there was nothing on. Or there was something on and it just took too damn much work to find it. In any case, Emeril notwithstanding, it's been a while since we marinated in a common telecultural broth. Leno succeeded Carson and Williams succeeded Brokaw and, uh, Tannenbaum succeeded McIlvaine and Randall and Giuffre, but it wasn't the same, and it never will be. America won't get another Johnny and the greatest generation won't get another son like Tom and Las Vegans will never again smile in unison at the mention of the One O'Clock Movie With Gus. But J. & B., who are married and have a daughter at UNLV, operate a mailbox and shipping store a mile down the road from where I live. I talk to them each week. The global village is dead. Long live the village.

Which village, you ask? Your village. In allowing shopping centers to spring from its soil with fungal swiftness, Las Vegas won't win many urban planning awards, but the sheer volume of available retail space means that, in all likelihood, your very own J. & B. are keeping shop at an intersection near you. Franchises and independent small enterprises are our window to life beyond the garage door. On any given day, you can make stops at the dry cleaners, the pharmacy, the bagel joint and the card shop and see the same folks you saw the previous week, and the week before that. If you're the verbal type (and you really don't need to be a first-class gabber to get it done), you'll learn that the dry-cleaner's kid has formed a garage band, that the bagel girl is going back to college, that the pharmacist has had it up to here with managed care. The simple question, "How's business?" can tell you more about the world you live in than a whole week of the evening news. I understand that Suncrestpalmsvillagecenter, or whatever the hell your strip mall calls itself, is not exactly Sesame Street, that Mr. Walgreen does not run your Walgreens, but the fact remains that these are, indeed, the people in your neighborhood, and to know them is to know your world with an immediacy that television can never offer.

We are told, even now, that TV makes the world smaller—and the tube can certainly put us under the same tent in times of tragedy (though the respective viewers of Fox News and Al-Jazeera may beg to differ). But in its pre-cable prime, television wasn't just the bearer of big news; it was the place we met Columbo and the Fonz, and it provided an illusory national intimacy that, in its pure scale, had little in common with the tribal buzz produced by even today's most popular shows. The death of Johnny Carson last month can't help but remind us that we really did lose something with the breakup of his cozy broadcast kingdom. But each trip down the street to the shipping store reminds us of something more important: that there is a real world, your world. It's smaller than TV's world, and more genuine, and when J. & B. offer your 4-year-old a lollipop, then awkwardly apologize and remember to ask you if it's OK—by which time the kid's taken the thing anyway—you just may agree that small and real is better any day.

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