They arrived in droves from all points of the county and beyond, rising with the birds and freeing up all available cargo space in their vehicles in order to maximize the Costco experience, which is to pay for the privilege of buying massive amounts of…stuff.
That’s really the only way to describe their inventory, because there’s not a lot of things you won’t be able to find in there. You just won’t be able to pick up one of anything, because that is not the Costco way. The Costco way is extreme mercantilism for those with an itch that Wal-Mart just can’t reach, a need for not just every goddamn thing ever made but so much of it that you’ll never have to shop again, only you will— you’ll just add on more storage space to your home to accommodate the stuff you continue acquiring, because who knows when the whole system is going to break down and leave you without access to the necessities of life? When chaos reigns and the American way of life is spiraling down the drain like so much murky bathwater, you’ll be the only one on the block with 5000 rolls of toilet paper and a 55-gallon drum of olive oil, and commensurately the last laugh.
Back in 1976, an enterprising merchant named Sol Price— really, with a name like that, could he have been anything else?— asked himself the question that nobody needed answered— what if I buy an old airplane hangar, fill it with enormous amounts of consumer goods, and charge people two bucks a head for the privilege of bypassing the middleman and buying wholesale? Turns out it was a real banger of an idea, and Price Club warehouses sprang up all over the country, generating billions in revenue and birthing an entirely new shopping experience.
In 1983, longtime Price associate and company officer Jim Sinegal decided to split from Price Club and go it alone, opening a competing warehouse in Seattle, and Costco was born. The progeny proved equally prosperous and by 1993 attracted the attention of Sam Walton who, fearing for the primacy of his Sam’s Club warehouses, made a tender offer for the company. Senegal refused and instead merged with Price Club in order to forestall any notion of a hostile takeover by Walton, and Price/Costco was born. Eventually all Price Clubs became Costcos, of which there are now 750 worldwide. 750 massive, gleaming, brightly lit, prodigiously staffed monuments to Brobdignagian consumerism, which have finally found their way to the hinterlands of Northern California.
The question many are asking— indeed, have been asking since the idea was first floated about bringing Costco to town— is, do we really need it? The answer is, of course, no. Nobody needs a Costco, not in our ever-shrinking world of specialized commerce, rapid transportation, and internet shopping.
We don’t need cars that go two hundred miles an hour or guns that can take down a dinosaur from a mile away, either, but there you have it. It’s the American way, to meet a need and then continue piling on with additions and improvements and extensions and turbos and chrome and decks and power boosts and extra this and bonus that, each manufacturer striving madly to make his product shinier, sexier, newer, and more powerful than his competitor’s.
The “store” was a great idea. It evolved naturally from the marketplace, a designated place and time where people would gather to swap whatever it is that they grew or raised or made for other things that they needed. Eventually some forward-thinker came up with the idea of a dedicated enclosure to house his wares, and the store was born. For hundreds of years we got by on this basic model, a single store selling a specific product, meat or candles or tools or whatever, all centrally located within a population center, much like the marketplaces of yore. Then some greedy bastard conceived of the “department store,” essentially many stores under one roof, offering convenience, lower prices, and forcing the smaller individual retailers out of business. Then came malls, a sort of return to the marketplace idea, except that they were all located way to hell and gone outside of town. And finally Costco, the great lumbering beast-king of commerce, squashing malls and convenience stores and even Wal-Marts under the crushing weight of its mighty inventory.
I set out early in the morning for the big opening, bringing my buddy Jake for moral support, he being a glib, glad-handing salesman and exactly the type to be able to deflect the aggressive hucksterism prevalent at these events. I, being more an antisocial scorpion than social butterfly, am confused and frightened by bright lights and flashing grins, and Jake’s large physical presence and ready patter was just the ticket to shelter me from these desperate, grasping hawkers.
We arrived about twenty minutes before the ribbon-cutting (an actual giant-scissors photo-op of the type I’ve only seen on television and wasn’t sure really happened) with about a hundred other ardent, eager consumers, fairly vibrating with anticipation and gripping their showroom-new shopping carts tightly.
Like racehorses at the gate or dragsters at idle they strained to contain their energy and the moment they could burst forth and turn their hard-earned cash into bags and boxes of enormous amounts of…stuff. The mayor of Ukiah was on hand, along with several Costco mucky-mucks assembled at the entrance bay.
At 7:30 the festivities began with a few short speeches congratulating the locals for their wisdom in bringing Costco to town, the ribbon was cut, and the race was on. Cheers and whistles erupted as the bay doors rolled up, the shoppers brandishing their membership cards proudly as they wheeled in, jockeying for position and the right to be first to take down the virgin wares.
Into the belly of the beast we went, and my naturally computational nature immediately began pondering the sheer numbers involved in such a production— how many BTUs to cool it? How many watts to light it? How many gallons of wax to cover the floors in what appeared to be a full inch of gloss? — because the place is big. Really big. You could fly a plane in there if so inclined. The mind, as they say, boggles.
How many inches of aggregate television screen were there on display? Enough, I estimated, to stretch to the moon and back. I gaped like a slack-jawed yokel at the towering displays, ignoring the salespeople who assailed me every five steps or so as Jake joked and chatted with them. The second your eye lands on any particular product its designated representative leaps on you like a grinning, fawning predator, spouting litanies of performance and specifications and savings. I ducked and dodged like a broken-field runner, determined to maximize my productivity with the other thing Costco is known for— free samples.
I have occasionally felt guilty about my lapsed vegetarianism and harbored nascent ideas about returning to the meatless fold, but not that day. Costco is either sourcing their beef from Kobe or, more likely, has leased the state of Nebraska, purchased its livestock, and hired the locals to individually and tenderly raise each cow as if it were their own child, because that’s the only way I could possibly justify paying $150 for an 8-pound tenderloin.
It was disturbingly good, though, and I went back for seconds, thirds, and possibly fourths. I was bouncing between there and the babybacks, lingering in the back of the crowd and waiting for an opening to slither an arm through so as not to appear gluttonous. There was also a groan-inducing pork tenderloin, chicken marsala, polenta, madelines with hazelnut spread, probiotic applesauce, steak jerky, and a host of other delectables. No cheese, though, which I find suspect.
When I think “free samples,” the first thing that comes to mind is a tray of cheese cubes sprouting toothpicks. Odd. I was able to quite sate myself, though, and after an hour or so of grazing I ambled back toward the front of the store and the crowning, transcendent apex of my Costco experience, the one thing that made it all not only worthwhile but significant enough to look back on wistfully in my quieter moments.
I have been in massage chairs before, though not since I was part of the sort of coupling that necessitated regular trips to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, back around the turn of the century. Those earlier models relied mainly on vibration and heat to replicate the massage experience, sort of like riding in a pickup with sprung suspension down a corduroy road. Not without its charms, but not really what I would term a massage.
Let me tell you, the technology has advanced oh-so-very-significantly. I nestled myself into its welcoming, womblike softness, pressed a button on its control panel, and from then on it’s a little fuzzy, because I was transported to a world of intense pleasure I just assumed was impossible to reach without drugs. I closed my eyes as the machinery kneaded, rubbed, and palpated me in all the right places, squeezing my extremities with just the right amount of pressure and massaging me literally from head to toe. Ten more minutes in there and I’d’ve had to register as a sex offender. After the salesman asked me for the third time how I was doing, I reluctantly extricated myself and wobbled unsteadily away, calculating how long it would take me to save up the $1200 necessary to complete my life. “Jake,” I said to my friend later, after we’d left the store. “The chair.”
“I know, buddy,” he said, rubbing my shoulder commiseratingly. “I know."
On the whole, the Costco experience was both as expected and a little disappointing. The store is magnificent, in a gaudy, excessive, commerce-gone-mad sort of way, the sheer magnitude of its stocks breathtaking to behold. It is the Grand Canyon of mercantilism and worth a visit if only to gape in wonder at its epic dimensions.
I did expect after all the years of brouhaha a lot more excitement and madness, but the crowd was modest and their behavior restrained. There was no bloodshed, bottlenecks, or rending of garments. I’d hoped for a nightmarish perversion of the American dream but it was all pretty pedestrian.
Ultimately, both sides of the issue are going to be saying “meh” and wondering what all the fuss was about. Costco is here, and here to stay, for better or worse. You now have the opportunity to join, for a fee, a very large club with the right to purchase very large amounts of pretty much anything anyone might ever need, including automobiles. It’s remote enough that you can ignore it if you choose, which I would do, except I’ll be making weekly visits to commune with my chair.