Searching for a good trade on the coast of Carolina

I wonder if my barter provided a more human exchange than if I had simply handed over cash. No, it’s not necessarily the money per se that dehumanizes. I could have still mentioned the weather, or made some silly comment as I handed her a dollar bill. What I like about our exchange, though, is that nothing beeped.

I’m lost in mops. Lost in a forest of cotton mop heads and synthetic heads and fancy disposable heads made to pop off into a trashcan with the push of a button. I’m eyeballing one mop – my favourite – because it has the typical Medusa-like tendrils of a normal mop plus a retrofitted scrubber jutting out like a heel, like a granny gear ready and waiting for the toughest jobs.

But everything has its price in this big-box wonderland. The top-of-the-line mop with a granny gear, for example, is $39.99 plus tax. Seems a little steep. So I leave the household cleaning aisle to find my wife and ask her how much she’d be willing to pay for spotless, sparkling tiles.

“$10.99,” she says, resolute. “And you don’t need a granny gear on a mop. That’s just stupid.” She’s obviously never driven up a steep incline towing a heavy load.

And yet I’m stuck on this idea of value, on the fact that most things in our lives can be quantified monetarily, distilled down numerically. Price tags – real and metaphorical – dangle from almost everything in our world: tree limbs, chandeliers, body parts both attached and detached. Tags connect to bar codes which connect to beeps which pull currency out of my pocket.

Beep! I smile at the woman who has just swiped our bottom- of-the-line mop over the scanner and snatched up my credit card.

And suddenly it strikes me that both she, the cashier, and me, the customer, have just turned into numbers too. In the corporate retail environment where we have interacted, she is ultimately an employee code and an hourly wage, and I am simply $10.99. Plus tax.

Ok, ok, admittedly it’s a tidy, streamlined system. Universal value is imbued on a currency and we spare ourselves the endless haggling and arguing of third-world markets and bartering societies of old. But in a corporate apparatus, with its circuitry electrified by currency, I wonder if things can get so efficient, orderly and numerical that they become dehumanizing. So streamlined that we drift through these transactions like automatons. And I wonder what might happen if I were to throw a cog in the gears of the retail corporate machine by trying to barter instead of simply buy?

“You’ll probably go to jail,” says my wife.

Fair enough. But when we arrive home, I pick through a house full of great barters and settle on three things: an almost new paperback copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a lightly used compact fluorescent light bulb and a copy of the compilation CD I painstakingly put together for my wedding. There’s some Johnny Cash on there. A little Ben Harper. And if my memory serves there might even be some Charlie Brown Christmas jazz.

My book, bulb and CD have undeniable value. But the woman behind the counter of the big-chain coffee shop down the street is looking at all three as if I have just kerplunked a bag of dirty turnips next to her cash register.

I tell her all about my experiment: “I’m trying to barter personal things of value for corporate products and was wondering if we could make a deal.” I fan out my items as if they are playing cards and cringe at the fact that I just said “make a deal.”

“The bulb will last 15 years,” I say hopefully.

She listens politely and when I’m done she slowly, silently reaches for the bulb, as if her hand were a mechanical crane in an arcade, and grips it by the fluorescent spiral.

“Really?” I say.

“Sure, why not.”

“But are you actually allowed to take anything other than money for coffee?”

“No,” she says. “In fact I could lose my job. There was a guy who came in last week trying to trade a pair of glasses for a cup of coffee, but the manager was here and asked him to leave. Let’s just say it’s our little secret.”

I ask her why she chose the bulb instead of the book or CD.

“Because the light’s out in the men’s bathroom,” she says.

A good trade, then. I ask her for a cup of coffee and shuffle over to my table feeling as if I just got something for nothing, despite the fact that the retail price of the bulb was much higher than the cup of fair-trade coffee (even with free refills).

I wonder if my barter provided a more human exchange than if I had simply handed over cash. No, it’s not necessarily the money per se that dehumanizes. I could have still mentioned the weather, or made some silly comment as I handed her a dollar bill. What I like about our exchange, though, is that nothing beeped. Nothing registered, literally. I am not $1.59 and she, just for a moment, stepped out of her rigid employee role and used her human faculties to calculate value and meet a need. And no part of our exchange was digitally whisked away to a giant spreadsheet in a supercomputer which, having seen some movies, I assume is how corporations operate. Even though I’m making up this experiment as I go along, my little exchange feels like a success. I had half expected to be escorted to the door by a manager.

So with a sense of victory and only two more items to trade, I set off for the internationally-franchised sub shop down the street. I queue up behind a person asking for pickles and extra cheese and decide that a six-inch vegetarian sub would be an appropriate trade for my CD or book. But the woman behind the counter disagrees. In fact, I’m barely able to explain my experiment before she is shaking her head and looking around nervously.

“So you could never take anything for a sandwich other than cash or credit?” I ask.

“Nothing,” she says firmly. “It’s policy.”

“Have people tried before?” She rolls her eyes and nods as if a regular mob of would be barterers descend on her store.

“What kind of stuff?” I ask.

“All kinds,” she says. “Food. Stuff. All kinds.”

“You mean people try to trade food for food? Like canned goods for a sub?” She nods again but I can tell that I have overstayed my welcome, that the conversation needs to end quickly. Her fellow employees have backed away from us as if she were becoming toxic just by talking to me.

So I thank her for her time and decide to go home and surrender my experiment to the gods of the Internet. And they have lots to say. Turns out bartering is big. Huge, in fact. Trading items and services between people and businesses has become a billion “dollarless” industry, peppering cyberspace with pages like uswapit.com, barterbart.com and, my favourite, swaporamarama.org.

Of course there’s Craigslist, too, which has been successfully connecting everyone with everything since 1995. The Craigslist “barter” link is one of the most outrageous, whimsical destinations in an already eccentric cyber community. In Phoenix, for example, someone wants to trade his imaginary friend, “Buddy,” for some electrical work. “Buddy’s not too smart, but that can be good,” admits ID no. 49576059. “Buddy goes along with everything you want to do – even if it’s really stupid.”

And then there’s Kyle McDonald who unleashed his own barter experiment on Canada a few years ago, ultimately trading up and up and up from a red paper clip to a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Saskatchewan. Word on the street is that he’s currently looking to barter the place for a couple of 1990, low mileage Plymouth minivans. But he’s not locked in. “Really, I’m looking for nothing in particular,” writes McDonald, “just to make a trade and see where this goes.”

The Internet gods have made one thing very clear: bartering is mushrooming into a thriving alternaconomy, perhaps because people have felt ground up in the gears of our cash-driven one. Some folks undoubtedly want to give the collective finger to corporate North America while others just want to find cheaper ways to get stuff.

Either way, bartering is a system in which human beings determine with human faculties and intuition and nuance the value of their respective stuff. In other words, bartering necessitates reflection on value and conversation between people. In the corporate retail machine, however, by the time one gets to a cashier, the conversation about value has been put to rest; all that really matters are the numbers and the beeps and how they add up in that supercomputer.

While I’m at my computer, I decide to email Bill McKibben, whose most recent book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, sits dog-eared on my shelf. I ask him if he could imagine out loud what a modern bartering society might look like, considering he lives in a state already experimenting with alternatives to federal currency (one of many such systems worldwide).

His response comes back almost instantly: “This sounds like a great project,” he writes. And then he tells me to read some books and to make sure I reckon in the things in our society that, when you really think about them, are a bit radical. “The library, for instance,” he writes. “Maybe even more radical because it causes us to share things!”

Buoyed by the note from this revered cultural commentator, I decide to use his advice as I take my experiment to the neighbourhood big-box bookstore to remind the young, spikey-haired manager that selling words for cash is not the only way. He is sympathetic. Even to the point that he admits how wonderful it would be if he were able to barter for books. “I’m a voracious reader,” he says. “I could get rid of a bunch of junk and save a lot of money.” But his answer for me, due to the constraints of his employee contract, is still an unshakable no.

Same response from the office products store, where Beverly refuses my trades with warmth and good humour. “But Beverly,” I say, “I’m pretty sure I have doubled the value of a blank CD by putting my wedding compilation on it.” She agrees, but again describes the policies and, nudging her head upward toward the security camera, says that the people “up there” would never go for it.

“You mean corporate management?” I ask. She nods and I look at the shiny black bubble above us feeling, just for a second, like Frodo under the burning Eye of Sauron.

“But, if you could,” I press, “would you personally like the freedom to trade, say, printer paper for the stuff people bring in, or do you think it would slow down your day?” Her face brightens and she paws at the air between us dismissively and says, “Aw, honey, I wouldn’t mind that at all. It’d be a lot more interesting than swiping cards all day.”

I like Beverly. And as I leave her store I imagine a line of people snaking out into the parking lot, plopping their barters incrementally along as if they were waiting to check in at the US Airways counter in Philadelphia – kicking along their lawn mowers, bird cages and old toaster ovens. Inside the store, I imagine Beverly and a small army of red-smocked workers, wide eyed, full of caffeine, fiddling with the knobs on old TV sets and radios, fanning the pages of Russian novels to make sure all the chapters are still intact.

“We can give you two cartridges of printer ink and some file folders for this Tolstoy novel,” says Beverly, the store’s chief “Value Assessor.”

“But I was hoping for three cartridges,” you say, timidly.

A manager, looking remarkably like Bill McKibben, swoops in and scrutinizes your copy of Anna Karenina and says, “Let’s give it to him, Bev. It’s still in the jacket cover.”

In real life my valuable stuff has been flat out rejected. The sub shop people looked as if they wanted me arrested. The bearded men at the franchised outdoor store wouldn’t even trade me the used socks in the shoe department for Achebe’s masterpiece. The kid at the corporate grocery store on the corner said he’d like to let me trade for some food but that, once again, the policies prohibited it.

“But you know what?” he said as I swiped my card for eggs and spring mix salad. “If you really needed the food I’d make sure you got it.”

“Really? Could I sweep the floors for an hour or something?”

“I’d just buy you the food,” said Sean, the philanthropic grocery clerk. “I can make my own policies if it’s my own money.”

I left with a strong sense of amen warming my heart. So in the end, I successfully traded a light bulb for a cup of coffee – although, to be honest, the woman behind the counter said that she was thinking about giving me the coffee for free anyway. I guess I have that look.

Only two emails to corporate headquarters were answered. The first an auto-reply from the sub sandwich folks who encouraged me to consider opening a franchise. The second from a real human being, the director of operations for a coffee chain, who admitted that while his company does a lot of bartering on a corporate level (for example, magazine placement in cafés for advertising space), it breaks down at a retail level due to the ambiguous value of personal items, and the problems with collecting or levying sales tax. “It could not be left up to every employee as to what a specific beverage or food item was worth, and what we as a company would accept for it,” he wrote.

I can’t help but think that he would change his mind if he could actually hear my wedding compilation. But he’s right. At the corporate cash register it seems to me that we people can’t be fully people.

Which brings me back to Bill McKibben, who offered me valuable insight and encouragement. I want to pay him back – not that he asked for anything, but I find myself with a surplus of bartering material and, who knows, maybe he’s a fan of Ben Harper and Chinua Achebe.

I fire off one last email. “Bill, I found employees who would have loved to make a trade, but who looked up timidly at the security cameras and talked about policies and headquarters.” I tell him I’d like to send him the book and CD for his help. A response comes back within minutes.

“Absolutely,” he writes. “My daughter just read Achebe for her English class, and loved it – but it was a school copy so she’ll be thrilled. And I’ll feel as if I was at your wedding.”

Fair enough. In the end, no beeping, no swiping, and a good trade indeed.

Josh MacIvor-Andersen is a Gillings Fellow in creative nonfiction writing at UNC-Wilmington in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Issue 13

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 13, Spring 2009, Experiments with Truth.

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