How to Renounce the World By Joining a Retail Cult
Some renounce the world through their art. Others through riots and revolts. And some simply cut all ties with the world and try to live in a retail store.
You read that right. Some people renounce the world by hiding in Walmart, Home Depot, or Ikea, with popular renouncers working in the guise of goofing Youtube videos that say a lot more than they intend. How do you get from horsing around for twenty-four hours to shunning society for eternity? It all starts with a poet, a girl, and a cult.
John Collier, author of the bizarre and macabre, wrote “Evening Primrose”, a short story included in his anthology Fancies and Goodnights. Charles Snell, a down on his luck poet, has snuck into a department store at closing time and plans to live there for the rest of his days. He’ll hide from the night watchman, decorate whatever nook he resides in with home decor, wear velvet slippers from the mens section, and have his fill of seasonal food and wine — blissfully alone! Until he discovers a whole clan of department store dwellers who long for peace as much as he.
What seems like an exclusive club is actually a cult made up of old fogies who have turned their backs on the world one by one. The stock market crashes? Off to Bracey’s Department Store! World War I? Off to Bracey’s Department Store! They duck the security guard by night and dummy up during the day, pretending to be mannequins until the store closes and another wonderful evening begins. They have everything they need and life is perfect! But if you threaten to reveal their secret by any means, if anyone finds out about their utopian existence, they’ll call ‘the Dark Men’…another secret society, these living in a morgue and feeding off of… Well, they’ll come and they’ll take the store’s surgical tools and you’ll become just another mannequin. A human dummy.
Not surprisingly, the threat of the Dark Men becomes very real for poet and new club member Charles Snell. Especially after he meets and falls in love with Ella, servant to the main old fogey and the only other young person living in the store. The story then adapts into a dark romance, best explored by the musical adaptation of “Evening Primrose” from 1966. Filmed for ABC’s Stage67, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (my idol and number one choice for famous best friend), book by James Goldman (famous writer and brother of William Goldman), and starring Anthony Perkins (adorable and Norman Bates) and Charmian Carr (Liesl). Sondheim and Goldman adapted the story specifically for this musical television series and it is a 50 minute wonder.
With heart-swelling, gut-busting songs like “Take Me to the World”, a doomed romance blooms between Snell and Ella (Snella?) that, paradoxically, renounces the cult’s renouncement. The world is beautiful and full of love and they’re going to escape to it. They’re going to live again!
Unfortunately, that plan doesn’t go too well.
Naturally, a story like this gets you thinking. “What if I lived in a department store?”
There are many who dabble in retail life, with intentions of idle fun for the sake of vlogging glory. Like the “two idiots”, as they call themselves, who created the famed “24-hour challenge” by having a sleepover at Ikea. Then there’s Justin and Andrew, two brothers who build forts in store shelves and stay overnight (with permission) at Walmarts and trampoline parks. The brothers in particular are really delightful to watch, so delightful that after a few videos you start to think, “Man, I want to hide in a store.” I’ll admit there’s a far cry between building pillow forts and living in the pillow department until someone puts your wax-embalmed corpse in a window display. The wish is what makes the common ground between the two. It’s the correlation between the rad and the raving lunatics — “I want to hide in a store.”
To hide implies hiding from something, that something being… Boredom? Debt? Grief? Life? We’ve all experienced these grievances to some extent and, perhaps, wished for the luxury, security, and cost-efficiency of our favorite Swedish furniture store. But most of us have not acted on that wish. Here are less commonplace, more desperate examples of miserable people in hiding:
A fourteen-year-old boy staying with relatives spent two and a half days living in Walmart. He built two compounds, one behind boxed strollers and the other behind paper products, changed his walking around clothes every few hours in order to avoid detection, even wore diapers for fear of being discovered using the restroom. He might have stayed longer had the store not found his trash. I might not be disturbed, had CPS bothered to look into a family less endurable than wearing diapers.
A thirty-year-old homeless man held a grand feast in a ValuMarket. He made certain to eat everything he’d been missing in bulk — lots of beer, six steaks, two pounds of shrimp, salad, a birthday cake, a case of soda, and over fifty cans of Reddi-Wip. He fell asleep in the attic and was found the next morning. A local board member for the homeless facility commented on their shelter’s lack of funding. People thought there were no homeless in their town. This incident revealed the sad truth.
Last but far from least, Michael Townsend and Adriana Yoto spent four years living off and on in their local mall. It was a protest/study of the dominant shopping structure that soon developed into a love affair. The two built an “apartment” in an abandoned construction area, decorated it with care, even brought in a TV and Playstation. “I felt this vacation-like euphoria that I’ve never felt till then or since then,” said Townsend. Yoto even wanted their child to have a birthday party there or, better yet, take its first steps in the mall. As much as they loved blissful, tax-free mall life, the couple didn’t make too great an effort to stay hidden. They shared all the perks of the lifestyle on their website and Townsend jovially shouted “Surprise!” when they were finally found by mall security. It was a meaningful experience for all, with architect Michael Sorkin observing, “We’re living on a planet that’s going to hell in a handbag. At the mall, you enter a condition of perfect climate control, where it’s clean and orderly and you are not forced in any way to confront reality.”
The “24-hour challenge” has been called reckless, the grand-scale capers hilarious or troubling. Regardless of how you describe these escapades, Michael Sorkin’s words continuously ring true: “you are not forced to confront reality.” The opiate effect of fluorescent lighting, an open plan on an even floor, and shelves piled high with essentials and luxuries alike is potent for the common shopper. Can you imagine the overwhelming euphoria of a day, a week, or a lifetime there? It’s erotic. And it’s concerning.
The store has become the place to go to satisfy needs. Not just needs for items to fill your home. Emotional and psychological needs. Struggling and need a place to hide? Want to keep the kids occupied and regain some of your sanity. Looking to become the proverbial kid in the candy store and, say, live in the mall for a day (or for forever)? Look to the neon sign. Hours after my first heartbreak, not knowing where to go or what to do with myself, I went to the mall. Why? Because my first instinct was to numb the pain with perfect dimensions and soft merchandise.
This is the wicked root, from which the growing threat of commercialism grows. We’re all looking to renounce our world and we do so happily every time we shop. But who’s to say we won’t cross the line between valued shopper and unwanted vagrant? Where lies the barrier between retail therapy and retail denial? If retailers and shopping centers continue to be idolized, a colony of bitter, unhappy people may spring up á la “Evening Primrose” and become, with pleasure, the next big cult.
But I must warn any readers tempted to join — If you give yourself up to the divine ease of your favorite store, you may lose your perfectly imperfect self.