Of all the weasel words that permeate our culture -– sugar-free; compassionate Conservatism; low-fat; friendly fire; buy-one-get-one-free – there is surely no more egregious expression than “retail therapy”.
When you are down and miserable, it proposes, you only need to flash the cash or pass the plastic to get cured, to find your balance and well-being, to regain your mental confidence.
The reality of this retail therapy, of course, is the hell envisioned by the great writer Mike Davis in his book on Los Angeles, “City of Quartz”, where he describes shopping centres as “a veritable commercial symphony of swarming, consuming nomads moving from one cashpoint to another”.
How on earth can a consuming nomad moving from one cashpoint to another in the midst of a carefully and cynically orchestrated commercial symphony expect to be cured of the blues?
You don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of emerging a happier, better person, and that’s long before the VISA bill swoops through your letterbox.
And yet, I want to propose that there is such a thing as retail therapy, and that it is not just a sure way to beat the blues and regain your mental strength. It is therapy that can also ensure your future health, and the health of the planet and the health of your local economy, all in one fell swoop.
In Waterford recently, I took a trip down the Dunmore road to the Ardkeen shopping centre, a small development of shops at one of the roundabouts on the road. It doesn’t look like much of anything, but it is home to Ardkeen Stores, run by the Jephson family since 1967, a mighty long time in modern retailing.
Ardkeen isn’t one of those mega-stores that have become the new standard for retailing. It’s modest in size, its modesty giving it a very human feeling – a calmness – as you walk in, when you are met by the smell of the fresh bread delivered from the great Barron’s Bakery in Cappoquin, where the bread is still baked in traditional stone ovens.
I picked up a box of Ballycross apple juice from Wexford, then a bag of lovely oakleaf lettuce from Thorpe’s organics. Within 5 minutes I had half a dozen squishy Waterford blaas in the basket, along with Noirin’s breakfast bread, fresh cheese and yogurts from Moonshine Dairy in Westmeath, black and white puddings and a loin of bacon from T.J. Crowe of Tipperary, a local Born Free organic chicken reared by Paul Crotty just a few miles away, and another loaf from Oldtown bakery.
On we went, picking up some new spuds from Wexford, shiitake mushrooms grown in Wexford, and a really fine spicy lamb pie made by Zanna foods, again in Wexford.
Then we hit the Sheridan’s cheese stall where the mature Cashel Blue from Tipperary was sublime, and here we came upon Sheridan’s duck confit for the first time, and I have to tell you that when I cooked it that night – cooked is too elaborate a word: you need only heat it for 20 minutes – it turned out to be one of the best things I have eaten in yonks.
The beauty of this shopping experience lies in the fact that the Jephson brothers had done all the hard work long before I walked in the door of Ardkeen.
Like the best Irish retailers, they know and support their suppliers. They source as much food locally as they can from skilled artisans. And then they present it in a dignified, delightful space, emphasizing the aesthetic of the experience just as they emphasise the aesthetic of the products they sell.
This Saturday morning jaunt was true retail therapy. I felt great, having found all this lovely stuff in one place, and was just dying to get it home and start cooking and eating it.
And the only thing that felt better than me were the local food economies. Wexford and Waterford got the lion’s share of my money, as you would expect, but there was some for Galway, Monaghan, Westmeath, Cork and Tipperary also.
And the longest food miles my foods were going to undertake was the journey from the Dunmore Road back home to West Cork.
This form of retail therapy – where the hard work of sourcing and choosing by the retailer allows you to be virtuous without much effort on your own part – is available to almost all of us.
We simply need to choose the independent supermarket, the farm shop, and the market. The week before my trip to Waterford, I had another delightful dose of retail therapy in Cork city, a city whose collection of idiosyncratic, idiomatic shops is unmatched.
And a month before that, a Saturday morning’s food shopping with my brother-in-law in Belfast’s exuberant St George’s market unveiled a market that has the energy, and the marketeers, to be a rival to Cork’s legendary English Market: the place was rockin’.
Anything theraputic is “of the healing art” says my old concise Oxford Dictionary: Just so: the healing art of true retail therapy.