An Old Friend Passes

04/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Stanley Bing Fortune columnist and best-selling author of business books

Several years ago, at a mall in Westchester County, New York, I went to my first Sharper Image store. My memory is kind of hazy on it now. I remember, I think, a gigantic rubber and metal mannequin of The Predator you could purchase for thousands of dollars. There were many chairs that could essentially perform the same functions for you that a visit to the Emperor Club did for Eliot Spitzer. There were many, many mechanical massage units of varying sizes whose purpose was shrouded in mystery but also seemed vaguely suggestive and alluring in a pleasantly undefined way. There were personal grooming products - mirrors that enhanced your looks, shavers that went places no shavers had gone before. There were dispensers that served up bottled beverages, and free-standing hammocks, and sound systems of assorted shapes and sizes, and scooters that could transport a toddler-sized James Dean to school on his or her own, and a thousand toys and gizmos that promised entry to the Sharper Image lifestyle.

That's what every weird objet d'art in the establishment presented: not just a toy, not just an heretofore undreamed-of appliance, but a portal to a shiny universe in which all fortunate consumers one day would live. In the 20th Century, the Sharper Image granted those who could afford the ride a visit to an imaginary future where life was easy and stylish and sharp.

Well, we're in the future now. And it looks like this, with retail establishments of great long standing closing all over the place. These closures represent more than a bunch of mercantile establishments going the way of all flesh. They are part of who we are, and as they go those little pieces of our selves flake away and are washed away in the tide. It's no big deal, right? We have other places to go to, and the comfortable world of online retail, which is fast replacing the grocery, department, book, video rental, and music stores where we used to wave to each other on the way to the cash registers. Hey, pretty soon there won't even be any cash registers, because there won't be any cash. Just plastic. And one day no plastic, either, just little debit chips implanted in our index fingers. Wait. You'll see.

So anyhow, last Saturday I went to a Sharper Image in downtown San Francisco. Everything in the store was on sale, but that was no big deal, really, because there was very little in the store. There was still a chair that probed your sensuous desires, a few high-tech vacuum cleaners, a sad light-saber or two, and some IPod-friendly home entertainment systems that, even at 50% off, were still way overpriced. The entire place seemed lacking in... spunk. Even the Predator was gone. It was just plain goddamned sad, and that's the truth.

What was perhaps the most melancholy aspect of the situation, I think, was not the paucity of shine, not the tumbleweeds in the aisles, but the realization that all that stuff? The chairs, the grooming products, the robot vacuum cleaners? I didn't want them anymore. I didn't want any of this stuff anymore. Why had I ever wanted it?

On the way out of the place I spotted one of those cybernetic dinosaurs that are designed to be a cute, heartwarming pet. It was soft on the outside, and green, and looked like a little friend, for sure. The box said it was designed to respond to a number of verbal commands. I gave it one. It did nothing. I turned it over and saw that its battery compartment was empty. I gently placed the little fellow back down on its display shelf and left, leaving the possibility of a Sharper Image behind forever.

On the corner was a shoe store. I was pleased to see it wasn't on the verge of closing. I went inside to see what they could offer, but the cheapest pair of shoes in the place was $400 so I went to get a hot dog in Union Square. That was only five bucks. Pretty good deal, I'd say.