Just Ask

After a long bus ride to and from Gresham (more on that here) someone pointed out a fabric store just a few blocks from our typical morning meeting place.

“I’ve always wanted to go to a fabric store…” one of the young people said. We walked in to a large store, filled on all sides with different types of fabric, and mostly empty of people other than the ones working there.

Someone greeted us warmly, “do you have any questions?” I told her I didn’t have any questions and thanked her. The young person who had been particularly interested in the store walked up, “Actually, I do…” I heard them chatting away as I walked around the store, entranced by the many fabrics lining the walls, the upholstered couches, and many other things that are not in my personal realm of understanding or general interest.

We all wandered around the store looking at fabrics, talking, musing over the prices of some.

“This one is SO expensive!” Someone exclaimed loudly. The employee heard and laughed, “yeah, Some of the fabrics are really pricy.”

“What’s the most expensive one you have in the store?” A young person asked her. “Hmm…” she replied, and led us over to a fabric. It didn’t look particularly special. They asked her why different fabrics were priced differently, what made something expensive and what was the cheapest fabric in the store. She explained, in great detail, to a very interested audience, that some fabrics were expensive because of how rare the material was, some were expensive because of how difficult they were to make, and some she had absolutely no idea why they cost so much. She talked about Tariffs and how those affect price, current and future fashion trends, and all other aspects of the fabric store, including history, style, and purpose of fabrics, as the young people asked question after question.

I listened thoughtfully. I wondered how many people asked her this many questions, and then I smiled at the genuine curiosity of the young people and their straightforward confidence in asking it all. I thought back on other situations in stores, in museums, parks, on the bus, and elsewhere, where they had engaged adults in the world in conversation, asking them questions about topics that you could tell made the adults’ eyes light up. How often do these people get to talk in length about what interests them to people who really care? How often does a customer just want to come in, get to the point, buy what they want, and move on? How wonderful it was to witness this totally natural, genuine exchange of questions and ideas, thoughts and passions.

While I sometimes struggle with the capitalist and consumerist nature of touring around different stores in Portland, something that this group of young people is drawn to, I have noticed a very different pattern emerging in how they interact with stores compared to how I am used to thinking about customers in stores. They look around curiously, they inquire, they ask questions to the people there, they marvel at art, they relate what they’re seeing to their interests. It’s almost never about buying anything, or even wishing they could buy something. It’s always about interest in the items themselves, their connection to their interests, who created them and how they did so, and, since we often look at art and handmade creations, the skill and beauty behind the creating.

I am also almost always pleasantly surprised at how the people in stores react to them. I feel consistently on alert, waiting for an adult to be frustrated at our habit of just looking, just enjoying ourselves, chatting and making some amounts of noise in stores.

That same day we were in a hardware store looking at paint chips and discussing colors, and a man walked up to us. “Young lady,” I heard in a somewhat harsh tone behind me, and I felt immediately frustrated and concerned, assuming they would chastise us for looking at paint samples without the intention of buying anything, “We don’t allow hippies in our store.” I turned, and he was pointing to the pants of one of the young people, which were tie-dyed. He smiled, joking with us, wanting to make a connection and show his ease with our interest and presence in the store. While I have thoughts about the use of the term “young lady,” and the way he approached us, I understand that his intentions were good ones — to welcome us to the store. While I was expecting to be chastised, asked to leave, or angrily confronted, I was relieved to find out that the opposite was true.

I wonder how the world of stores, things, selling, and consumerism is being confronted through the curious eyes of this group. How the ideas of people we meet are being changed, shifted, reinforced, or confused by our presence. I wonder how my own perception of this all has been challenged and changed. I wonder how often the person in the fabric store gets to talk endlessly about all the aspects of fabrics that interest her, with a group of people that are truly interested, listening intently.

I wonder so much more.