Alternative Marketplaces

August 17, 2011

Spring/Summer Shopping Series Part 3

In July I accompanied my mom on a trip to the mall. That’s right, readers: I aided and abetted a shopper. Mom wanted new outfits for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party, though she had a dress and a skirt in her closet that she could “make work” if necessary. Of course I groaned when she first told me this and then proceeded to show me the two perfectly appropriate garments, but at the same time, I could completely relate to her situation. After all, Mom is the woman who taught me not only how to shop but also when it’s desirable to buy new stuff.

She also taught me to be picky. Five hours after our arrival at Tysons Corner, she had only a handful of new items to show for herself: a pair of shoes, a wrap (to go with the dress already in her closet), and a sundress. I walked away with nothing other than a belly full of the tuna salad I had for lunch. Not that I wasn’t tempted. The brightly lit, expertly styled window displays made the sundress I was wearing—one of my favorites—look a little worn (from three summers’ worth of wash cycles). But I stuck to my guns and even declined Mom’s offer to buy me a skort that would’ve been ideal for my bachelorette weekend at Lake Anna (and guess what—I didn’t have to go naked).

I know a lot of people who don’t like the mall and nearly as many who avoid Tysons Corner in particular. Malls can be big and crowded and overwhelming. Parking is a chore; traffic is even worse. Prices are high. And think of the resources used for all those plastic clothes hangers, not to mention building materials for the mall itself and the individual stores, plus water usage in the restaurants and restrooms, plus energy usage for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.

I could go on about the problems with malls, but instead I’ll just suggest two more eco-friendly brick-and-mortar alternatives.*

For those who like the convenience of having everything in one place, there are independent markets. It seems like every city I visit has a fun, open-air, independent arts and crafts market these days. In the DC metro area, the big one is Eastern Market, but many other communities around here have them, including Reston, which hosts an arts and crafts market every Saturday at Lake Anne in conjunction with the farmers market. At first glance the little Reston market seems like a Podunk affair with a tiny selection of niche items, none of which may actually serve your present need. But I’ve taken notice the last few times I’ve walked through (on my way to the farmers market), and you can actually get a pretty huge variety of stuff, from clothing and toys to furniture and throw pillows to soaps and detergents. There are even at least two alpaca yarn vendors for those who prefer DIY.

The best part of the independent craft market concept is direct access to artisans. Customers at markets have a huge say in vendor offerings. Requests for things like organic products or goods made from repurposed materials are much more likely to be heeded because we’re often making those requests of the person who actually handles buying and manufacturing and within a small, local customer base one voice carries a lot of weight. Plus, if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for at one stand, you are mere steps away from someone who can probably help you out, either by agreeing to take a custom order or by pointing you in the direction of a vendor who offers what you need. You can’t get service like that at the mall. And, sure, it may cost you a little extra, but in most cases the quality will be higher than what you might find in a retail store and thus the product will last longer, if not because it’s handmade, then because the seller or artisan is directly accountable to his or her customers.

For many of us, though, cost is an issue, and so secondhand shopping is probably a better eco-option than the independent market.** In her book Made from Scratch, Jenna Woginrich extols the fun and utility of shopping at flea markets and antique shops for furniture and other household goods. She writes that older products were made to last; in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s manufacturers weren’t yet planning obsolescence. In particular she tells the story of buying a heavy old metal cheese grater that had, as she put it, “been through a world war and was still going strong.” On her advice, I’ve decided to consider only secondhand citrus reamers when I finally get around to replacing the glass juicer I broke in January. I’m also trying to convince Channing to take a trip with me to the Old Lucketts Store to find the butcher’s block he wants for the kitchen (and maybe that “new” couch he’s been whining about for the last two years).

Secondhand stores are also excellent sources for clothing. I discovered this in June, when my friend Nan and I went to Alexandria to hunt for wedding dresses on consignment. Having had some less-than-satisfying experiences in thrift stores as a teenager, my expectations for this trip were extremely low. Little did I know, Old Town Alexandria has a good number of consignment boutiques within walking distance of one another. The two I visited, Diva Boutique and Mint Condition, stocked high-end merchandise and mimicked the experience of traditional retail stores—meaning they were well organized and easy to navigate. Clothes were displayed by color and style, everything was freshly laundered, and prices were one-half to one-third of the original retail cost. I looked only at their dress selections but noticed they had business attire and jeans as well. Labels ranged from Vera Wang to J. Crew.

No mall-based retail therapy can match the feeling of finding the perfect wedding dress—or anything else, really—in a store full of other people’s discards. I’d highly recommend it. To find secondhand stores and craft markets in your area, Yelp is a pretty great resource.

*Even more alternatives abound on the Internet, but sometimes it’s nice to touch stuff before you buy it, right?

**Secondhand shopping is also the only option for those of us doing the No Stuff Experiment.

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One Response to “Alternative Marketplaces”

  1. Mary Bellamy Says:

    I live within walking distance of Tysons Corner Mall and actually enjoy going there. I used to go once a week but now I rarely have a reason to go since I shop very little. I have gotten eyeglasses there this summer and a couple of items of clothing a month or two ago. Beyond that I’ve only been in for movies at the movie theater, an occasional meal and haircuts in a very long time and now I don’t even go there for haircuts.


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