Consumer Constancy

Like Jack Neely, I, too, will miss Mr. Dukes. ["Doyle Dukes Was a Professional Watch Man," Secret History, March 12, 2009] It's difficult these days to find a shop that shows some of its history. Such places are getting as scarce as hens' teeth, replaced by brightly lit, sanitized, deodorized, seasonally updated shops chock full of undurables made mostly in China and mostly from toxic chemicals. Jack says a technological shift is the cause of the disappearance of durables, and I guess that's one short answer. Newspaper columns, after all, have limited space. So do letters to editors, and, although there are numerable other reasons, let me give just one more: a growth-is-better mindset. We find ourselves in a perverted culture in which the only constant is growth—make it bigger, better, faster, improved, anything to get the consumer to throw out and buy new. Every few years, when my mother got the urge to update the décor, she moved the furniture around. Now, ta-da, it's Rooms to Go. When she visited Knoxville, she always remarked on the proliferation of mattress stores. "Do people here really buy that many mattresses?" she asked. To her, a mattress was a durable good.

People used to, mostly out of necessity but also out of psychological attachment, keep things until they wore out.  It was called conservation, which now is solely environmental, and which even in that sense, we're doing a pretty shitty job of. Nowadays, things are dispatched to the trash, recycle, or Habitat bin with nary a fare-thee-well. Plenty more where that came from. We have a new generation of kids incapable of appreciating the Mr. Dukes of the world or even the idea that shoes and watches can be repaired because "durable" is not a concept they have seen in action. Maybe with the current economic depression (and we are in one, despite the inability of Wall Street or Washington to say the D word), people will again develop a little consumer constancy. Maybe companies will say, "Hey, you know what, I don't think we need to get bigger this year." Constant growth is instability; stable is stability. Maybe people will feel a little less rootless and restless once they begin to surround themselves with durables. Maybe those master craftsmen will start setting up shop again—durable merchants like Mr. Dukes, may he rest in time's peace.

Judy Loest, Knoxville