Dilettante 32: Buy Nothing Day

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The weirdo portion of America’s Gen-Xers grew up shopping in thrift stores and we love that The Kids are doing the same. We loathed the national urge to voraciously acquire “new” things. We could hear the rumble — the oncoming avalanche of consumer waste.

We didn’t see hand-me-downs as status-lowering indicators of financial ruin and sloth. While our parents ridiculed us and our peers shopped at the mall, we stayed happy on an extended treasure hunt for records and cheap clothes. (New socks and underwear though.)

These were the glorious pre-Internet-shopping days: Old people died all the time in small Midwestern towns, and their children donated items not holding sentimental value to charitable secondhand shops, without even stopping to think about how a 1930s Bakelite choker fashioned to look like autumn leaves might actually be valuable to another oddball treasure hunter.

The sameness of suburban American architecture came to a taupe crescendo in the 1980s and 1990s: No style, no flair, no standouts. The people mostly matched that look.

Then maybe sometime before the turn of the last century you moved to your college town, where the Riot Grrrls eschewed all standard notions of beauty, dyed their hair to unnatural colors, obstructed their heavily-rimmed eyes with thick black Buddy Holly specs or cat-eye glasses, stomped around in ‘50s floral-print housewife dresses and W.A.C. shoes, and dared people to think them pretty in spite of it all.

Freedom and revelation. A new kind of femininity. So liberating.

The boys similarly raised their net worth — giving manhood the finger with striped T-shirts, carefully messy hair, unathletic tennis shoes, noisy corduroys, and button-down sweaters which made them look more like little boys on their first day of school than grown men rocking out onstage. Bonus points for dirty uncombed hair.

Take that, order.

Nothing yet in the mainstream culture represented us in the ‘90s, and our defiance and inscrutability in person made us attractive to each other.

When I came of age, the tastemakers before us in our small quirky college towns had already succeeded in creating a new, democratic aesthetic — one that toppled our culture’s notions of wealth, femininity, masculinity, professionalism, art, and community.

Ooo wee oo we looked just like Buddy Holly and Mary Tyler Moore because, just like the Beats and hippies and hobos and bikers but different, we were visibly participating in a rebellion against capitalism and waste, by wantonly parading around clean and orderly taupe spaces in somebody else’s grandmother’s clothing.

Controlled carelessness was the fashion. Everyone wore ugly outfits on purpose, played their instruments sloppily, and sang like they couldn’t. Apathy became the new punk rock — which by comparison seemed far too energetic in its caring-ness.

Unlike the hippies or punks before them, this slouching horde’s dispassionate rebellion was based not on direct confrontation with the powers that be, but on the … [notices ur eyes glazing over]

Oh well, whatever. Nevermind.

After denial and anger comes acceptance, right?

Not really. We just learned not to trumpet our achievements. Or go on too long about anything. At all. To a fault.

Anyways, Adbusters started in 1989, and its Buy Nothing Day has been this writer’s favorite holiday since 1993 when I first heard about it after picking up a copy of Carrie McLaren’s legendary Stay Free! zine at a coffee shop.

McLaren later co-wrote a book called Ad Nauseam and ironically I’d ask you to consider buying it not used but new, so she can make a little more change. But not on Buy Nothing Day of course.

You might’ve also heard the name Adbusters in 2011 when they created an event called Occupy Wall Street, if not then nbd it just started off a worldwide wave of people re-taking the commons in support of their own sovereignty and that of the body republic.

They say it takes 20 years for a revolution to turn into a movement. Let’s hope Buy Nothing Day eventually becomes a more well-known phrase, holiday, idea, and/or mindset than Black Friday.

But for god’s sakes, millennials, leave the neon flight suits and ’80s box-flower dresses in the thrift stores; polite society doesn’t need to see that mess again.


Scroll down or click through to read “Buy Nothing Day: Descent into the Maelstrom,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on November 28, 1998.

This is the 32nd piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; Dilettante’s first installment is here.


summer burkes dilettante logo sf bay guardian 1997-2001_resized

Descent into the Maelstrom: Celebrating the hell on earth that is the busiest shopping day of the year by braving a no-holds-barred consumer binge and buying nothing.

by Summer Burkes, 12.02.98


-Do I need it? * -How many do I already have? * -How much will I use it? * -How long will it last? * -Could I borrow it from a friend or family member? * -Can I do without it? * -Am I able to clean, lubricate, and/or maintain it myself? * -Am I willing to? * -Will I be able to repair it? * -Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price? * -How will I dispose of it when I’m done using it? * -Are the resources that went into it renewable or nonrenewable? * -Is it made of recycled materials, and is it recyclable? * -Is there anything that I already own that I could substitute for it?
-Buy Nothing Day checklist distributed in downtown Seattle, Nov. 27, 1997

As any Union Square employee will tell you, the day after Thanksgiving is hell on Earth, a day when Christmas shoppers swarm like flies on shit and even the strongest credit ratings falter. As www.adbusters.org will tell you, the day after Thanksgiving (traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year) is also “Buy Nothing Day,” a self-explanatory protest against the West’s gross consumer spending and an occasion on which participants participate by not participating.

Adbusters claims that the Western world makes up 20 percent of the planet’s population but uses 80 percent of the planet’s natural resources and that it buys a lot of stupid shit for no reason.

As a veteran waitron in a Union Square restaurant, I know that from Thanksgiving to Christmas, that particular 10-block area is a circus-worthy infestation of humanity and a laughable scramble for useless trinkets. Determined to celebrate the noble Buy Nothing holiday but always in search of a good spectacle, I resolved id and ego by settling in one camp and then venturing out to watch the other.

Dusk, pissing-down rain. The cable-car turnaround at the foot of Powell Street seems like a polite war zone. Traffic is beyond insane, Headwaters protesters shout and picket over the din, vans from Channel 7 pull up onto sidewalks, a Hershey’s Kissmobile (three monstrous kisses on wheels) circles the block, and helicopters hover.

The San Francisco Center mall is surrounded, uplit, decorated, battened down, ready for commerce, and jam-packed. Inside, from the vantage point of the third-floor railing of the multileveled, circular, brightly lit monstrosity, the humming escalators crammed full of shoppers make the almost monochromatic structure resemble the inside of a brass and taupe cyclone.

The San Francisco Center, if magically transported to somewhere behind the Iron Curtain 15 years ago, would make the gals in the bread line cry: there are stores devoted entirely to infinite arrays of pens, sunglasses, socks, shoes, coats, calendars, music boxes, and even a shop specializing in things that hold other things.

Larger-than-life posters of stick-figure models frolicking disinterestedly adorn all the skinny-girl stores; one knockoff fashion outlet’s banner sums up the Christmas message Jesus had in mind: “Peace. Sweaters. Love.”

I ask the salesperson at Williams-Sonoma if he’s seen any Buy Nothing Day action in the mall yet (the organization is known for staging “credit-card cut-ups” and other spontaneous performances).

“No. I’ve never heard of that, but it’s a good idea. Lord knows I’ve bought enough already.”

Today? “No, in my lifetime, honey.” (Cue string crescendo as she walks away. “He ain’t shopping; he’s my brother!” she hopefully whispers to herself, tears welling.)

The women’s shoe department at Nordstrom, littered with trendy footwear, looks like something the Buy Nothing Day extremists might have invaded, flinging shoes willy-nilly and chanting “Clowns on stilts — FUNNY! Women on stilts — HA!” except that they haven’t. The pub is nearly full of disinterested husbands and boyfriends.

I pass a few high-class, honey-did-you-sew-that-yourself lines of designer clothing and muster up the courage to ask to try on a $2,000 Calvin Klein gown “for my daddy’s big Christmas party.” The shockingly (shockingly) nice saleswoman leads me to a dressing room the size of my apartment, but the construction of the dress is so complicated that I can’t put it on by myself.

Hmmm, I can’t decide. Do I want the dress that requires a lady-in-waiting, or do I want to pay my rent for five months? I head toward Union Square in search of some Adbusters.

On the way up Powell Street, a group of rain-drenched right-wing Christians holds up some banners that, in the spirit of Christmas, doom all people unlike them to hell. “Got AIDS Yet?” the most offensive one reads. The pudding-faced bearer of the sign appears indifferent while two well-dressed gay men patiently but vehemently try to talk some sense into him.

I scan the streets for zany non-Headwaters protesters but come up empty. As I round the corner to ground zero, Union Square is blocked off; a thousand umbrellas form a canopy, and underneath them, a thousand upturned faces all stare agape at the same spot.

No, it’s not a massive anti-consumer rally or an X-Files episode — the town Christmas tree is about to be lit. (I really need to watch the news more.)

Some shoppers look down from the plate-glass windows of Macy’s (a store with a massive lighted wreath in every window — how expensively charming), taking a short break from their buying and receiving activities to oh-yeah the spirit of the season.

Anticipating the traffic- and Muni-congestion to come, I bolt. I dig out my bus transfer and decide I need a drink.

I wait until midnight.



This is the 32nd entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).

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