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Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping

by Pamela Klaffke

We’re s-h-o-p-p-i-n-g‚” sang the Pet Shop Boys in the greed-is-good 1980s, when the economy exploded and we gulped down its products faster than Pac Man gobblers. And as we shopped – in those first, delirious years when Reagan and Thatcher threw out musty old constraints and everything was for sale – we had totally amazing fun, the way this new book on shopping has totally amazing fun. We went up and down the aisles trying not to think about certain disturbing questions – Why does shopping feel like a drug? Is every square inch of the world going to turn into consumerland? – the way Pamela Klaffke’s Spree marches right past most of the more uncomfortable aspects of buying things. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as a famously stuff-loving comedian once said.

So what’s in store with Spree? The book offers 10 breezy chapters on all things merchandise-related, including mini reports on the evolution of shopping malls; shopping in movies and television; music to shop by; second-hand shopping; professional shoppers; shopping and gender; and shopping and kids. All the anecdotes and fun facts any high school student could wish for are here – the chapters feel like the data equivalent of pizza pockets – and Klaffke’s style is reminiscent of one of those middlebrow A&E documentaries: amiable and conscientious but not always value-checked. For example, Klaffke rounds up her discussion of teen consumerism with the anodyne conclusion: “While there is no magical formula for success in the crowded and competitive youth market, there is one sure thing: teens today are all too aware of their worth in the marketplace and they’re too smart to give anything up for free.” To which readers might ask: have teens ever behaved otherwise?

The best chapter looks at how marketers target children, while other highlights include Klaffke’s deftly handled summation of the arguments surrounding gender and consumption (women who shop: empowered or exploited?) and a must-have discussion of horror movies set in malls. But buyer beware: any alleged cultural history that features sections on what your astrological sign says about your shopping style and how to ask an item’s price in various languages (Dutch: Hoeveel is het?) is not going to raise discomfiting questions. Klaffke’s idea of tackling the dark side of shopping is to examine shoplifting and shopping addictions – there’s no No Logo here. Rest assured, Spree allows you to make your way to the cash desk unrammed by the shopping carts of consumer criticism and bewilderment.