Everyone has a store where they buy gifts for people they don’t know. A store that sells items generic and inexpensive, but presentable enough to give an acquaintance whose hobbies you don’t know, whose needs you are unaware of, and with whom you don’t share interests or memories.
For me, that store is Paper Source.
Everything in Paper Source is beautiful and completely useless. The merchandise is always impeccably curated. When you’re in Paper Source, you don’t come in with a purpose, you float through, docking at little islands crowded with colorful knick knacks organized by theme—holiday, birthday, politics, child, self-care, alcohol, man, office, teacher, arts and crafts.
“Paper Source” is not so much an accurate descriptor of the store as it is a relic of its humble beginnings, before it was acquired by a private equity firm and expanded into a “lifestyle” brand. According to the company’s origin story, a woman named Susan Lindstrom opened the first store in Chicago in 1983, inspired by the beauty and variety of stationary she encountered on a trip to Japan. The imperative of the original mission, “Do Something Creative Everyday,” is an invitation—not only to admire paper, but to utilize it, to transform it from a commodity into a craft that you imbue with meaning through your own effort.
I don’t know what exactly the inventory of Paper Source looked like in 1983, but I am willing to bet that it didn’t include a candle that says “I FEEL PERSONALLY VICTIMIZED BY MY OWN CHILD,” a cheese-shaped stress ball (categorized as a gift for Guys), or a mini stone-stacking kit (for mindfulness)—all of which populate the store today. Today’s Paper Source actually offers a rather narrow selection of craft materials, especially when compared to other art stores like Michaels. The paper, scissors, stamps, and stickers are usually relegated to the back of the store, behind rows of toys, facemasks, self-care “kits,” champagne-flavored gummies, and miniature decorative books that are not meant to be read.
What unites all of these offerings, presumably, is their shared purpose of serving as gifts or facilitators of festivity. On the About page of Paper Source’s website, the mission I mentioned earlier is preceded by a simpler, more open-ended motto: “Give, Live, Create, Celebrate.” In the context of these magic words, the seeming absurdity of the store’s products melts away. They exist for pleasure and frivolity, for fun, and should be judged accordingly.
In the realm of gifts, as in Paper Source, the value calculus is different from other commodities. A gift doesn’t necessarily need to be useful, or expensive, or even beautiful, to be good. Intention, effort, and specificity are all essential to varying degrees, depending on the relationship between the giver and receiver. But one thing that unites all gifts, and that has surely skyrocketed in importance recently, is novelty.
We live on the precipice of purchase, beholden to the various messages on our screens that reveal a void we didn’t know we had, and eventually get us to fill it. This year, which many people spent in front of a computer, was marked by an explosion of online shopping. The concept of a “gift” has also conveniently been expanded to include the things you buy...for yourself. “57 Things To Buy Yourself Because No One Loves You Like You,” writes BuzzFeed; “12 Gifts To Give Yourself Because Why Not” writes Mashable.
In such a world, gifts (from one person to another) must offer something different than what your friend or lover already bought themselves based on the easy availability of the things they need and the omnipresent spectre of all the things they could possibly desire.
Tchotchkes and trinkets, then, offer a potential solution, because their only job coincides with a gift’s main purpose—to be new.
Companies selling air fryers tell you your cooking methods are outdated, pube-softening oils convince you your pubes are abnormally coarse, and silk pillowcases alert you to the violence imposed on your hair and skin by plebeian cotton. Tiny hand-shaped finger puppets and green juice gummies and fart putties, on the other hand, refuse this need-creating logic of consumer capitalism. They are refreshingly honest about their superfluousness. “I am cheap, mass-produced, completely unnecessary, and whoever ends up owning me will have no use for me, but you are going to buy me anyway,” they cheerfully say.
In being defined by their newness, novelty items escape the inevitable transition from gift to ordinary object that awaits other presents. A new sweater will eventually become another piece of clothing, but a stretchy astronaut toy? Or an inflatable tube guy? They will live as gifts forever, because they cannot exist as anything else. They are useless and meaningless, and they never promised to be otherwise.
The other way to ensure a gift is both new and special is to make it yourself, endowing it with the value of your labor. But as Paper Source’s pivot to knick knacks reminds us, who has time for that anymore? Crafts, cards, and whatever else you produce in your leisure time is expected to be monetized through Etsy, Instagram, YouTube, or Twitch, rather than given away for free.
This week, following a flurry of gift guides from various media outlets, the New York Times Style section published a memeable one of their own: a “Gift Guide From Cyberspace.” The items listed are pretty similar to the merchandise at the front of a Paper Source—a chicken tender keychain, portable thumb-sized tissues, a glowing bread lamp. The guide’s comedic effect comes mostly from the contrast with other New York Times shopping advice, which takes its job of peddling myths of fulfillment through consumption very seriously.
But is there really a difference between the $58 box of beans or the $28 “quirky reusable straws” suggested in the “real” New York Times gift guide, and the $500 giant acrylic frog figurine in the joke version?
The new investment experts at the helm of Paper Source had the right idea. Tchotchkes are good for nothing and therefore everything—celebrating, giving, and living, as the store’s motto goes. So don’t be shy: sit down, relax, and let the soothing tide of the giant Paper Source that is the internet marketplace carry you into the open sea, from one island of stretchy astronauts and stress balls to another.
In 1951, a LIFE magazine article warned of a perilous and bloody new trend: do-it-yourself. Titled “How Do-It-Yourself Amateurs Are Clobbering Themselves,” the piece mocks the hordes of people “sliding millions of dollars across hardware counters for complicated and expensive tools to carve themselves up.” A doctor interviewed describes men dying of ladder falls as they try to change lightbulbs; of electrocution as they try to fix microwaves. “A grisly national tragedy,” the writer concludes.
It’s unclear whether the do-it-yourself craze of the 1950s actually caused any rise in death or injury—the LIFE piece is anecdotal at best—but as a trend, it was significant. New industries sprung up to serve the growing number determined to fix their own sinks and doorknobs, selling power tools and floor tiles directly to consumers. Like other “productive hobbies” in the U.S., “do-it-yourself” quickly became inextricable from the nuclear family, neatly serving capitalist norms around work ethic. In 1962, Andy Warhol satirized DIY’s commodification of art in a series of paintings. (Hallmark, obliviously, has now subverted this by producing how-to-make-Andy-Warhol-art DIY videos.)
In the 1960s, counterculture movements adopted DIY for more radical aims. The result was a sort of technological optimism mixed with an anti-establishment ethos; this sort of DIY was to be wielded for individual liberation. Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog” is perhaps the best example of this: the magazine, whose cult following persists today, offered listings and reviews of different tools and gadgets — and painted DIY as a source of self-sufficiency, of power against institutions. Andrew Kirk writes of the catalog: “For Brand and his colleagues, Stop the 5-Gallon Flush, a guide to stopping water waste with simple household technological fixes, was just as revolutionary a book as Das Kapital.”
Despite those revolutionary ambitions, the Whole Earth Catalog and its irreverent, individualist philosophy has a long shadow in today’s Silicon Valley: Steve Jobs professed his love for the publication in a 2005 talk, describing it as an early version of Google search; early leaders at Airbnb and Facebook have also cited Whole Earth as an inspiration. The catalog’s philosophy is akin to that of the open-source movement in its radical grandeur, which over time, was also co-opted by corporate tech. At the heart of these ideas was a vision for an informational commons, which has shriveled under an increasingly privatized internet and the intellectual property regime.
Yet whatever it has evolved into, there’s an undeniable appeal to DIY, a lingering urge to fix one’s own faucet. It is perhaps heightened as our daily technology becomes more and more alien to us, and the dream of informational freedom recedes further. I can’t shake the feeling that, maybe, if we had the right tools, we might be able to hijack our phones, and make things right.