I make frequent visits to Nashville. I love it there. It’s a city with culture and great food and amazing music, and you can make a life for yourself there without spending a fortune. Country music isn’t quite as omnipresent there as popular belief would have you think, thanks to Jack White and the rising popularity of indie folk. Money matters, of course, but you can get by with spending very little of it.
There’s a store there I visit called McKay’s. It’s a gigantic used media warehouse, and with spare change you can walk out with an armload of books and music and vintage video games. You can find rare collectibles for absurdly low figures, and half my Stephen King collection came from the “Free Bins” by the door, where they dump excess product they don’t have the room to stock and sell.
This business model works because of the unbelievable volume of transactions there. The building is a hive of genre enthusiasts, scavenging for out-of-print paperbacks and classic games for discontinued consoles. The registers are manned by disaffected teenagers, attracted by the store’s off-beat inventory, and disillusioned with its obvious function as a place of business.
I almost feel bad for them, these kids who want to work with old books but not with customers or POS systems. I imagine they feel that they are being ground away by the constant flow of bawdy bargain hunters, and when you consider the fact that money is an imaginary concept, it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for them.
Money is so strange. Its value is completely arbitrary. People are uncomfortable with admitting it, but its value, its amount, its existence hinges entirely on what we choose. Money is solely an idea. Economists know this, but your average person depends on a line of thought in which money exists in definite and finite amounts. Your average person can drown in too much thought.
I wander the aisles of McKay’s, packed so tight you imagine the nails holding the shelves together will start to creak at any moment. I see these hundreds of thousands of printed ideas and I think: how much value is there here?
For a completely imaginary concept, money binds us in exceptionally heavy chains. Why then do we focus so heavily on it, when so many other ideas would set us free?
The teenagers behind the counter think they are better than pushing buttons on registers. The folks piling used hard covers on the counters believe themselves better than those allowing them access to the words printed on the pages. Too often we fall into the trap of basing value on a system of antagonism, of how much we can debase or deprive the other. We fail to see the devaluing effects of that behavior. We are too greedy to notice we’re losing money, losing value, by overlooking the richness of holding one another up.