Published on Wednesday, January 1, 2003 by the New York Times
Preaching Against the 'Evil' of Consumerism
by Constance L. Hays
Some people may be upset that retail sales failed to meet expectations during the holiday season. Not Bill Talen.
With the zeal of a street-corner preacher and the schmaltz of a street-corner Santa, Reverend Billy, 52, will tell anyone willing to listen that people are walking willingly into the hellfires of consumption.
Shoppers have little regard for how or where or by whom the products they buy are made, he believes. They have almost no resistance to the media messages that encourage them, around the clock, to want things and buy them. He sees a population lost in consumption, the meaning of individual existence vanished in a fog of wanting, buying and owning too many things.
"Consumerism is a dull way of life," he says. "We're all sinners. We're all shoppers. Let's do what we can."
It's an act, a kind of performance art, almost a form of religion. He named it the Church of Stop Shopping. As Reverend Billy, he wears a televangelist's pompadour and a priest's collar, and is often accompanied by his gospel choir when he strides into stores he considers objectionable or shows up at protests like the annual post-Thanksgiving Buy Nothing Day event on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
The choir, which is made up of volunteers, includes people like David Glover and his daughter, Zena, from Brooklyn. There is also Beka Economopoulos, who once sang at the White House, and Meredith Manna, who came in courtesy of one of the keyboard players. When they erupt in song, it is hard to ignore: "Stop shopping! Stop shopping! We will never shop again!"
Other performers preach the same gospel, with their own twists. Ange Taggart, who lives in Nottingham, England, turns up in places like Troy, N.Y., to go into a store, buy a lot of things, and then return them. She recently filled a cart with Martha Stewart products at Kmart, then put them on the conveyor in a certain order, so that when she got her receipt, she said, the first letters on the itemized list spelled "Martha Stewart's hell."
There is also Andrew Lynn, who created Whirl-Mart last year. He gets a group of people together, everyone with a shopping cart, and they stroll the aisles of Wal-Mart or Kmart, putting nothing in the carts. When store managers tell him to take his protest elsewhere, he tells them: "This isn't a protest. We're performing a consumption-awareness ritual."
There may be something to it, too. Psychologists at the University of Rochester and at Knox College in Illinois have published studies concluding that people focused on "extrinsic" goals like money are more depressed than others and report more behavioral problems and physical discomfort.
Some economists have also addressed the phenomenon of rich people who feel poor. Juliet B. Schor of Harvard University, the author of "The Overspent American" (Basic Books, 1998), says people are frustrated because they compare their lives with what they see on television. Robert H. Frank of Cornell reached a similar conclusion in "Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess" (The Free Press, 1999).
It's not that Reverend Billy thinks no one should ever buy anything; on a recent afternoon, he himself was seen purchasing a ream of printer paper and a bottle of wine. It is the futility of shopping he is trying to address — the futility of leaning too heavily on the material at the expense of the spiritual and emotional.
That mission has given focus to his art, his politics and even his religion. Raised by what he calls "strict Dutch Calvinists" in Rochester, Minn., he made his way to New York in the early 1990's. He had his epiphany in 1999, when protesters disrupted the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle; he discovered the potential of drama to send a political message.
He discussed the revelation with a friend, Sidney Lanier, an Episcopal minister and cousin of Tennessee Williams who had used theater to evoke social reform themes in the 1960's. Mr. Talen soon realized that after years of producing Spalding Gray and others, he suddenly had an act of his own.
Mr. Lanier said he suggested a man of the cloth as a vehicle for Mr. Talen's message. "I encouraged him," he said. "I said, you have a kind of Calvinist preacher in you that wants to come out."
Mr. Talen, even before he developed the character, said he admired the cadence and the poetry of good fire and brimstone. Child labor, environmental damage and evidence of union busting by big retail chains, all to deliver low prices to consumers, provided plenty of material for any pulpit. "I sense right now that our lives are getting absurd," he said.
On a recent evangelical side trip, Mr. Talen ventured into the Kmart on Astor Place, where speakers blared Elvis and Tom Petty Christmas carols. His own face blank, he began to look for smiley-faces, which he considers one of the most nefarious of marketing tools. He found them on signs, on children's pajamas, on stickers. Few of the shoppers, however, were smiling, he noticed. And that is part of the problem.
"The smile has been so thoroughly appropriated by transnational capital," he said. "They discovered that smiling makes money."
When he left Kmart, he walked down Lafayette Street, bellowing now and then in character about how creeping consumerism threatens the fabric of society, in the form of chain stores, sweatshops and more.
But to the public, it mostly just means more stuff to buy at a good price. Indeed, it is no surprise that Reverend Billy has not had much of an impact. Even this year, considered to be a particularly disappointing Christmas shopping season, Americans are still expected to spend almost $1 trillion at stores, restaurants and auto dealers in the last three months of 2002, up perhaps 3 to 4 percent from the year before.
"They don't care!" Reverend Billy shouted to no one in particular on a dark stretch of Lafayette Street, as people carrying shopping bags from J. Crew, Macy's and the Gap poured into a nearby subway entrance.
"They do care," a bearded man beside a scaffolding replied. "They just have a bad attitude."
"Hallelujah!" Reverend Billy said. He says that a lot.
The Reverend Billy made his first formal appearance at the Disney store in Times Square, circa 1998. He was driven away in a police car, his wrists still cuffed to a large statue of Mickey Mouse. The store has since closed.
He has found other targets; in general, he selects large global companies that he feels are inappropriately seizing control. In 1999, he zeroed in on Starbucks. He was pleased to discover later that he had become the subject of a company memo.
"Reverend Billy sits quietly at a table with devotees and then begins to chat up the customers," the memo, dated April 24, 2000, reads. "He works the crowd with an affirming theme but gradually turns on Starbucks. Toward the end, he's shouting." And it adds: "According to a store manager, he may stand on your tables."
Audrey Lincuff, a Starbucks spokeswoman, confirmed the authenticity of the memo — and disputed the accuracy of Reverend Billy's message, at least as it pertains to Starbucks. "We consider ourselves to be locally relevant where we do business," she said, "and work very hard to weave ourselves into the fabric of the community by associating and working with nonprofit groups and other community groups." The company's goal, she added, is to "connect with our customers not only on a business level but on things that are important to them in their lives."
Reverend Billy says he tries to remain relatively low key. "I'm against a lot of political people who have become fundamentalists themselves," he said. He doesn't like the anti-fur people who ridicule pedestrians in fur coats or hats, for example. He is a latte drinker, though he doesn't order it at Starbucks.
He wants to help awaken desensitized shoppers, he says, because "they are underestimating the complexity and beauty of life." And besides, "they are definitely underestimating the impact of shopping."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company