Shop Till You Drop
No matter how much the world changes, buyers and sellers will always need each other. But what we have called “stores” were in a way like the dinosaurs – they got bigger and bigger until, so to speak, they ruled the earth, and then something happened, and now, in our own time, we see them slowly disappearing. The dinosaurs’ fate apparently resulted from the impact on Earth of an object from outer space. What is happening in the case of stores is something even more Earth-shaking. It is called the Internet, which is in the process of demolishing vast numbers of brick and mortar establishments. But we still need some means of getting tangible goods to the customer – which gives new importance to shipping services.
Ships are much less involved in “shipping” today, but for many centuries, some kind of floating craft or vessel was the only means to transport people, or anything else, across any unbridgeable stretch of open water. In fact, it was because of this that I am living in Santa Barbara today. Charles P. Low, a great grandfather of my wife, Dorothy, was a captain of one of the clipper ships which were the main vehicles of trade between the U.S. and China. That was, of course, before the Panama Canal existed, so sailing from our East coast to China meant a long, arduous, and sometimes very dangerous, journey, all the way down around the southern tip of South America. And those beautiful ships were propelled only by the winds.
But the China trade was also extremely lucrative. Captain Low was able to retire in his 40s, and of all the places he had seen, he chose to settle in Santa Barbara. He built a large house on the Mesa, founded a family, and became a pillar of what was then (in the 1870s) still a very small community.
Dorothy often came on visits to family, but until she met me, she had never actually lived in Santa Barbara. However, it was obvious to me that her great desire was to do so. And so, in 1973, we made the big move from San Francisco, where we had already established a thriving business, based on marketing my creative work.
So that was how the clipper ship phenomenon affected my own life.
Transportation by water is still the cheapest, if not the fastest, means of getting goods across oceans, but nowadays it has become a humdrum industry. There is little romance in the standardized “containers” – essentially huge boxes – in which everything from cars to canned goods is shipped today, on vessels which require only minimal crews.
Another form of trade once thought to be highly romantic was by camel caravan, particularly across the desert wastes of Saharan Africa or inner Asia. The latter formed part of the fabled “Silk Road,” which brought the exotic luxuries of the East to a Europe which was still emerging from the Dark Ages. I myself have been privileged to retrace part of that route, and to see what remains of the western end of the Great Wall of China. One thing that impressed me was a fort with a gate on its west side, through which exiles were forced to pass, although nothing was thought to lie beyond but the fearsome Gobi Desert.
Even today, trading customs are of course very different in different parts of the world. In some cultures, you would be considered extremely naïve if you generally paid the first price that was asked. In such places, back and forth bargaining is taken for granted, as part of the process of arriving at a mutually agreeable price. Elsewhere, however, such haggling is thought to be dishonorable, and the set price is what ought to be paid, without any fuss.
Customs do change, however, with circumstances. In our country, within living memory, it was assumed that, when you purchased gasoline, an attendant would do the pumping, and might even be expected to wipe your windshield. Today, in most states, such services, if provided at all, are available only at an extra charge.
But one’s daily bread, and other foods, will probably be among the last products forced out of stores. I personally, having no other religion, still think of my local Ralphs supermarket as the nearest thing I have to a cathedral. If the hand of Death must find me somewhere, I can think of no finer finish than to drop where I shop.