Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Shopping as communion


'Shopping magic' by Chris JohnstonMy young daughter and I caught a bus into the city to do some shopping. A seemingly mundane errand was transformed into something magical. Meeting the world through her curious eyes made me stop and see things afresh: a top hat in a shop window, 'just like in that storybook'; a stained-glass parrot peering over a door frame; a creaking grille lift with pulleys and a handle.

Weaving in and out of stores and crossing streets, we passed back and forth under the sky, feeling the weather change, the day shift. Staying connected with the real world this way made it a very different experience to the kind that might be had in a sealed and modulated shopping mall.

We were there to take shoes to be re-soled, purchase a new watchband, and replace a cracked tea cup. A neat fairytale set of three tasks. Visiting the cobbler was a particular delight — a rare encounter in the modern city with real craftsmanship skills, and a father and son happy to answer the questions of a chatty three-year-old.

The trip, and Eva's excitement, reminded me of outings I had made as a child, coming from country Queensland to visit my grandmother in Brisbane. Always beautifully-groomed, Nana would put on an especially good 'town' dress, dust her skin with face powder, and spray a little eau de cologne behind her ears. Our ritual trip to Darrell Lea for a miniature bottle of rainbow-coloured sweets was one Eva and I repeated.

Our Saturday adventure got me thinking about the role of shopping in our lives, a role that grows, triffid-like, in the approach to Christmas. Was my enjoyment nothing more than middle-class nostalgia? How did this leisurely trip compare with December's jostling in the supermarket queue, besieged by piped carols? 

It seems right to be dismissive of the ridiculously elevated place shopping has in our culture, part indulgent leisure activity, part fantasia of a ready-made store-bought identity. The mass of credit card debt and our vast social inequity is evidence of consumerism gone mad.

But if my experience is any guide, then our caution about consumerism can easily slide into something else; a false division of experience into grubby materialism versus pure spirituality.

It is salutary to remember that trade is an old, old human activity. Buying and selling has shaped history. Alongside goods, new ideas and practices get exchanged, leading to the creation of remarkable civilisations from Baghdad, to Shanghai, to New York. 

On a more domestic note, much of our modern human interaction takes place while shopping. Like it or not, that is where many of us encounter the world beyond immediate family, friends and work colleagues. Shops are an important field of social interaction.

More than that, our experience of shopping exemplifies that the secret of real communion lies in approaching all of our life, 'secular' and 'spiritual' alike, with an open heart.

Recently my local supermarket introduced self-serve lanes. Instead of handing our items to cashiers, we scan them ourselves, and insert money into a flashing slot, before packing our things into bags. Cheerful 'transition staff' keep watch over the lanes, helping confused shoppers navigate the new technology.

Beyond the poignancy of witnessing people doing a job intended to make their original ones redundant, this 'innovation' depresses me. One less opportunity for the kind of civility than makes a society tick.

The conversations we have when buying groceries may seem insignificant — a 'hello', 'how are you?', a comment on the weather or the football result. But these brief, spontaneous interactions go a long way to keeping us human. They are how we maintain a connection with the world outside of ourselves, and can be a real life-line for those kept at home by old age or young children.

The assumption is that if we make things like shopping more efficient then we free up time to do the real things in life. But what are these real things? This is the deep question: where are we rushing to get to with all our efficiency? Because that is where our life is — exactly there, in the saying hello, exchanging a smile, remarking on the weather.

The community we all crave is at our doorstep — where we shop, when we catch the bus — if only we would see it.

There is real value to be found in shopping, as Eva and I discovered together. It comes not from purchases made but from the unexpected moments of communion. This is not a present that needs to be wrapped: the gift of connection and conviviality is available for free right there at the cash register.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a Sydney writer producer working with Geraldine Doogue on ABC Radio National's Saturday Extra.

Topic tags: sarah kanowski, christmas, shopping, parenting



submit a comment

Existing comments

Your words take me back to my own experience of the big city as of one who had seen only bush and small country towns. The trams captivated me allowing a whole Sunday riding around various routes. Not only on the Toowong run. but others: Clayfield etc.My visit to the Gran at Toowong was an excuse for leave from the Cadet Camp at Frasers paddock. A 13 year old loose in Brisbane with threepence to tour alone. How tines have changed! No worry then about safety; "stranger danger"; a term still to invented. I had as much woderment as your 3 tear old.

Kel Hutton | 15 November 2010  

I've just come back from Officeworks at Milton Bne, and a cashier asked me how I was and I said 'for a Monday, almost dancin'. She was showering good feelings and I asked her if she had had this attitude since childhood, or had come by it through experience. 'Bit of both', however currently her mother is dying of cancer and she is aware how precious every breath is. I told her that as a coffee snob, I was aware every time I had a whingette, how lucky I was that the content was so puny, I enjoy these connections with people in the service industry. She is a gem and should be interviewed. Yes, part of my community consists of those who are in this industry where we share some of the absurdities of being human. When I first moved to Bne 20yrs ago, I remember how much more at home I felt when the local shopkeeper recognised me and we could joke together.

Dawn Oz | 15 November 2010  

Sarah this is just beautiful. Not only does it remind me of trips to the city with Mum, but of those first forays "to town" without adult supervision. My girlfriend and I would hold hands as we windowshopped and took in a movie. Am just finishing editing a book on Eucharist with my colleagues and wish we had just such a story in it.

Kim Power | 15 November 2010  

Sarah, thanks for your comments.. imagine if you found this happening when shopping ... visit

Louis | 15 November 2010  

My experience with the 'transition staff' has been very positive. I meet the same person each time I shop and there is always a greeting and a comment -- 'Are you on the way back from the gym? -- and a remark on departure. There is bonding such as does not arise from meeting a different cashier each time. These people are noticeable more friendly than the regular cashiers.

John Hiller | 16 November 2010  

This story has made my day. Brings back so many memories of trips to "town" - both with my mum and sisters, and also with my own boys when they were very young. Thank you Sarah for a lyrical little trip down memory lane. You have a real gift for evoking the beautiful small things in life!

Carmel | 19 November 2010  

Similar Articles

Aung San Suu Kyi, refugees and bikies

  • Michael Mullins
  • 15 November 2010

The release on Saturday of Burma's democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi, and last week's Australian high court decisions regarding refugees and bikies, each contain salutary lessons for governments that attempt to rule by popular fear.


What Catholics expect from politicians

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 09 November 2010

Recently Victoria's Catholic Bishops distributed their advice to voters in the November 27 state election. Entitled Your Vote, Your Values, it was quickly portrayed as an attack on the Greens, given its focus on euthanasia. The statement, however, was more complex and interesting than that description suggested.