On the day after Thanksgiving, which is known for being the busiest shopping day of the year, Chapel Hill's Internationalist Books and Community Center was full of people all day, and yet the store didn't sell a thing.
On this particular Friday, when most store managers are harried and stressed out, Darren Hunicutt, the co-coordinator of the Internationalist, sits outside on a bench facing Franklin Street and recommends a book by the Russian author Peter Kropotkin.
"You can't buy it today," he adds.
It wasn't exactly the conventional message being sent to holiday consumers.
But then, the nonprofit volunteer-run bookstore is far from conventional. While the Internationalist sits on an expensive strip of Chapel Hill real estate two blocks down from a Gap store, its shelves today are lined with second-hand goods. A pair of Stanley work boots. A coffeemaker. An old Sony Discman. A teapot.
"Take what you can use--but use what you take," reads a sign on the shelves.
"Part of the reason so much of the world is pissed off at America is our consumerism," announces Chapel Hill native Holly Tuten from the doorway. Tuten has joined a number of people at the store for the 2001 celebration of Buy Nothing Day, a one-day "consumer fast" during which no store merchandise can be purchased. Instead, customers are encouraged to exchange "gift exemption vouchers," which exempt the recipient from having to give a gift to the giver. It's all a part of the alternative bookstore's effort to protest rampant consumerism.
It might seem ironic, maybe even comical, that a store in the middle of the town with the Triangle's highest property values would discourage sales, but the folks at the Internationalist are not really trying to convince people to buy nothing ("I've already failed miserably," confesses one participant). Rather, they're more concerned with encouraging smart consumerism and a sense of community.
"Buy Nothing Day is about thinking about whether you need what you're buying," Hunicutt clarifies. "We want people to be smart about where they shop and smart about where they spend their money. We want people to support local businesses." In turn, several Chapel Hill and Carrboro businesses supported the day by donating food, drinks and supplies.
This was the third year the Internationalist celebrated Buy Nothing Day, the brainchild of Estonian-born author Kalle Lasn. Lasn is the editor of the not-for-profit magazine Adbusters, first published by the Adbusters Media Foundation (AMF) in 1989. On its Web site, the foundation describes itself as a "global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age." Their goal, organizers say, is "to topple existing power structures and forge a major shift in the way we will live in the 21st century."
"What we do at Adbusters is propagate the theme or the idea, the model, the capsule of the campaign and people take it and autonomously organize it," says Tom Liacas, campaigns manager for AMF, in a phone interview from the organization's Canadian headquarters. "They use our graphics, but we are not a people organizer. ...We, through the Web site and through the magazine, send a template of the campaign and people take it. It's kind of a do-it-yourself."
Indeed, what Liacas calls the group's "propaganda"--its literature and "Gift Exemption Vouchers"--was noticeable at the Internationalist.
While Adbusters recognizes the importance of grassroots organizing, the organization sees itself as playing on a larger field. "The strategies that we use are somewhat different from the conventional activist strategies because we play with the media," says Liacas. "We try to refine communications strategies so they'll get to a jaded mainstream and they'll get through the filters of corporate media."
Adbusters' strategy is rooted in using traditional advertising techniques to further its messages. The organization produces "subvertisements" and "uncommercials," including the famous Absolut vodka parody, "Absolut Impotence," showing a wilted vodka bottle.
"We're using the traditional forms of advertising because they work," says Liacas. "They do persuade people. We believe that this is something that people must be persuaded on or else we're in trouble."
A few years ago, Adbusters produced a 30-second television commercial for Buy Nothing Day, featuring a burping pig in the middle of a map of the United States. But, according to Liacas, the "filters of corporate media" have proven too thick: Since the group first tried to buy time on CBS, NBC and ABC in 1997, the Big Three networks have refused to provide airtime. CBS's rejection letter said the campaign was "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States."
This year, the phone calls to the Big Three were merely perfunctory. Only CNN Headline News agreed to run the ad.
"The Buy Nothing Day itself is not significant in the fact that a bunch of people will be renunciating [shopping] that day," says Liacas. "It's significant in the fact that the edginess of the idea, the sound of the idea, is just quirky enough to get into the mainstream media and start a discussion on consumption where no discussion would be started before."
Holly Tuten still wants to exchange gifts with her family this year, but she takes a different approach: "All of my Christmas gifts last year came out of dumpsters. My family knew it, too. I wasn't just trying to pass it off."
Meanwhile, the Buy Nothing Day participants stuffing fliers explaining the day into the hands of pedestrians outside the Internationalist are finding Tuten's approach a tough sell.
"We've been passing out leaflets to people and saying 'Come inside and get some free stuff,'" Hunicutt says. "You'd be amazed at how many people really instinctively turn up their noses to that."
"It shouldn't be mandatory that you spend a lot of money on somebody just to show you care," Hunicutt says while sitting outside the Internationalist, knoshing on a piece of pizza. "It's meant as a celebration of what we can do with one another. We have free entertainment and free food. We can really have a good time and for a day not have to spend any money."