Wednesday, July 20, 2011


The radio today reported that “Urban Outfitters,” an international chain, was ready to pounce on box stores recently vacated by Borders Books, which is going out of business.

I’ve never been to an Urban Outfitters. There’s one downtown, even though downtown Asheville resists chain stores. The place has never tempted me; its market is clearly kids.

But the name has an oxymoronic ring that interests me from afar.

I looked them up: the same company owns Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, Leifsdottir, and BHLDN. Urban Outfitters began life as The Free People’s Store in Philadelphia. The rest apparently followed. They’re all over America and Europe.

There’s a theme running through the names of these stores, an association with freedom, exploration, frontier.

“Leifsdottir,” I suppose means “Leif’s daughter.” Most of us on this side of the Atlantic associate “Leif” with Leif Erikson. I suppose “Anthropologie” is a back formation of “L’Anthropologie.” Anthropology conjures images of primitive others, or at least the dissonant French idea of “differance.” According to the web page, BHLDN is an elision of “beholden,” which they translate as Dutch for “to keep.” It’s a wedding store. So it’s interesting the copy writers didn’t nod to the moral obligation implied in the words “til death do us part.”

This is of course marketing, the appropriation of association to lure customers.

People of a certain age, like me, are likely to think that an outfitter equips adventurers to go into wilderness. I imagine a log barn on the banks of a remote river in Canada: tack for horses, rope, tin pots and plates, knives, boots and boot grease, canned goods, tents. Or maybe an outpost selling gear to climbers on their way to Everest or Katahdin.

In that sense, REI is an outfitter. But Urban Outfitters? They sell t-shirts, sweaters, end tables, beds, and flower vases.

The word is associated with people getting their outsides fitted, prepared, clothed for a journey into some rugged elsewhere, the not-here, the wilderness that is there. As such it carries a whiff of difficulty, danger, lack of civilization as we know it.

Its use in an urban context is a sort of backlash, akin to sister terms “urban tribe” and “urban pioneer.”

The turn of phrase reminds me of the names of vehicles designed with four-wheel drive and off-road aspirations, cars nevertheless driven mainly on asphalt and concrete: Ranger, Mountaineer, Scout, Touareg.

Still, these names retain the idea that the ruggedness is out there, even if the driver seldom strays from here.

But in this context, the terms outfitter, tribe, and pioneers suggest the reverse, that the ruggedness, the wilderness, the unknown and dangerous, the summits to climb, the journeys to endure, are right here in the city, amid the brick and mortar, among the locals.

The venerable Outward Bound program offers wilderness experiences in Harlem. An outfit (there I said it) in San Diego advertises “urban safaris.” I’ve seen the leader of a Chamber of Commerce neighborhood tour riding a Segway and wearing a topee.

I’m curious how young people – or at least people marketing to young people – are thinking of the city as a wild place to be explored, settled, domesticated.

Part of me is suspicious. It suggests that the inner city is a place to be colonized. That's at least one of the connotations. Around here, young people, artists, college students are moving into poor neighborhoods because the rent is cheap and it’s exciting, different. “You live where?!”

Part of me is also excited by this turn of terms. For some time now I’ve thought that the real human frontier is interpersonal. We’ve been everywhere, or most everywhere, on the planet. Space exploration is rare. What’s left to explore is perhaps the most interesting and uncharted – different people living together in concentrated urban spaces. Now that more than half the world's population lives in cities, learning how to do that has never been more important.

But you don’t need an outfitter for that kind of journey. You just need to pay attention, to keep your eyes, ears, and heart wide open.

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