Selling Lost Time

I’m sitting here in the New York Public Library, looking up at the patch of painted blue sky at the center of the gilded rococo ceiling and inundating myself with New-York architectural pomposity before I head back to the wilderness of (flooded) Vermont. I just said goodbye to my friend Yvonne, whom I had come to meet in the city. In about an hour, I will take the bus back home.

 Of course, my visit to the city wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the artery of American materialism: Fifth Avenue. So this morning, we did some window shopping and Yvonne dragged me into her new favorite store: Anthropology, an upscale chain that sells women’s fashion, shoes, trinkets, jewelry, and furniture. But their real specialty is the marketing of nostalgia. The shop interior is designed to create the sensation that one has stepped into an early-20th century curiosity cabinet: the scented candles ($16) stand on weathered oak chests of “reclaimed” wood ($1598), the floors are covered with pre-faded Persian carpets ($2998), glass cases display leather pumps ($495) balancing on antique out-of-print novels, the sweater-knit dresses ($398) are displayed on vintage wooden mannequins who lean against giant origami paper flowers, and the background to the window display is a mosaic of kodachrome color slides from the 1950s and 1960s. I noticed that some of the jewelry items - wire necklaces ($58) and earrings ($68) handmade by a Rwandan women’s cooperative – were packaged with reproductions of old black-and-white family pictures. The earrings came with a picture of a depression-era farmer’s family posing in front of their house, and the wire bracelets came with a picture of two little girls in sundresses sitting on the hood of a 1950s pick-up truck. It wasn’t clear if these pictures were elaborately recreated faux vintage pictures, if these were real family pictures from thrift-store family albums, or if the designers had offered up their own family pictures for sale, but I couldn’t help stopping to take a closer look at the faces in the photographs and wonder why they had been attached to the jewelry.

Everything in the store was beautiful, but something about it was also extremely disturbing: Why were they selling other people’s family photographs? Do we live in an age where people have to buy someone else’s faded pictures to establish a connection to the past? Why is there such a demand for prepackaged nostalgia?

In my purse I was carrying the writings of the man who should have trademarked nostalgia: Marcel Proust. (I always carry one or two books with me, which is why I have such well-developed shoulder and neck muscles.) While Yvonne went on to shop for retro-sun glasses, I sat down on a pre-crackled green leather couch ($5995) and pondered the irony of carrying the work of Proust into a store that sells factory-made memories.

First, I thought Proust would have been horrified by a world where, instead of spending twenty years confined to a cork-lined room to capture the past in writing, people can surround themselves with store-bought nostalgia and blog about their shopping experiences. But then I remembered a scene in Swann in Love that ridicules Odette’s apartment, which, according to the fashion of the day, she has decorated to resemble an oriental palace, with silk screens, Japanese lanterns, extravagant orchids, and tacky Chinese knick-knacks, and I was sure that if Proust had been writing today, he would have Odette shop at Anthropology, where she would buy furniture in the style of a 19th-century Parisian courtesan apartment. Oh, and her bookcase would of course contain a leather-bound first edition of In Search of lost Time… unread, for display only.