I have always had terrible self-control with shopping.
This at first seems out of character, because I am also incredibly stingy (prone to taking home the mini shampoos at hotels, attending any event that offers free food — even if I am allergic — and begging my underclassmen friends for their extra dining dollars).
However, when I see a bargain item, especially one of the boutique variety, I cannot resist. All money-consciousness goes out the window.
Strangely enough, though, I gain little satisfaction from buying things for myself. Perhaps it is the guilt of overindulging, or perhaps it is genuine selflessness. In the past few years I’ve come to realize: I much prefer buying and giving gifts.
It feels like a rush of pure dopamine. I will be meandering through a Baltimore neighborhood, after a brunch or coffee catch-up, when suddenly I spot a tchotchke in a store window: a cat-patterned coffee mug that reminds me of my best friend from home; a spice organizer that reminds me of my dad; or a new record that I’m sure my roommate will love.
I hurry inside, irrationally worried that someone else will snatch up the item before me, and I buy it without a second thought.
“Wow. Congratulations, Lily,” some voice inside my head murmurs. “You’ve done it again! You’ve found the perfect gift! What a feat. What a talent.”
This scenario happened most recently on Saturday at the Waverly Farmer’s Market (a consistent source of locally-produced joy in my life). I was going home that Sunday to spend Easter with my family, and thus the gift-giving impulse was strong in my subconscious.
At the stand for Zeke’s Coffee, I bought chocolate-covered espresso beans for my father, who runs on four or more caffeinated beverages per day.
Then, later, I stumbled upon the stand for Cuples Tea House, which was adorned with over 30 varieties of tea, plus — my kryptonite — free samples. I sipped a sample of coconut chai, telling myself that I could simply “grab it and go.”
This is a ridiculous notion, not only because I have terrible self-control, but also because I’m so easily influenced by shopkeepers.
If any small business owner is reading this, please take note: As soon as you strike up a conversation, you have probably earned yourself a new customer, plus a generous tip. I am a sucker for the sap story of a struggling entrepreneur.
Lo and behold. Within 30 seconds of my first sip of the chai, the couple who co-founded Cuples Tea was casually telling me how their oldest daughter, freshly graduated from college, was moving to Baltimore that afternoon. I could feel the holes burning in my wallet.
Endeared by their openness and their overwhelmingly large selection of tea, I asked for three more samples (I already knew I was buying — so I might as well get a nice morning pick-me-up out of it, right?) Blueberry hibiscus, almond oolong and lavender peach rose.
Honestly, they were delectable. I am not picky with my tea, but I have a particular fondness for homemade varieties like these — the fruity, loose-leaf blends where you can literally see dried raspberries and rose petals floating in your glass. I feel like a classy, literary woman hosting a luncheon at my Welsh estate.
After a few more minutes of friendly conversation, I settled on the lavender peach rose as a gift for my mother. My heart swelled up with pride. Sure, I had spent more than I anticipated, but my mom’s reaction was well worth it.
Ever since I started college, my mom has become increasingly attuned to gift exchanges. Her preferred love language has always been words of affirmation. She writes long birthday cards; she exchanges emails to keep up-to-date with my life; and she appreciates heartfelt compliments far more than sarcasm.
I always thought the way to my mom’s heart was through love letters. To her, gifts were superficial. But, when I left the proverbial nest, my mom’s opinion changed.
In freshman year, I bought her a print by Michael Owen, creator of the Baltimore Love Project, who was selling his pieces at Artscape. I gave her the picture and explained the story behind it. (In 2014, Michael Owen designed an image of four hands spelling out the word “Love,” which was then painted as a mural on 20 walls, spread evenly across the communities of Baltimore.) She nearly cried.
“I thought you didn’t care about gifts?” I asked.
“It’s different when you’re far away,” she said. “It’s like — through giving me a piece of your experience, I feel a little more connected to your life. And I love that.”