THE SEX THAT DOESN'T SHOP

The opening of a large new centre for West End shopping,

particularly feminine shopping, suggests the reflection, Do

women ever really shop? Of course, it is a well-attested

fact that they go forth shopping as assiduously as a bee

goes flower-visiting, but do they shop in the practical

sense of the word? Granted the money, time, and energy, a

resolute course of shopping transactions would naturally

result in having one’s ordinary domestic needs unfailingly

supplied, whereas it is notorious that women servants (and

housewives of all classes) make it almost a point of honour

not to be supplied with everyday necessities. “We shall be

out of starch by Thursday,” they say with fatalistic

foreboding, and by Thursday they are out of starch. They

have predicted almost to a minute the moment when their

supply would give out, and if Thursday happens to be early

closing day their triumph is complete. A shop where starch

is stored for retail purposes possibly stands at their very

door, but the feminine mind has rejected such an obvious

source for replenishing a dwindling stock. “We don’t deal

there” places it at once beyond the pale of human resort.

And it is noteworthy that just as a sheep-worrying dog

seldom molests the flocks in his near neighbourhood, so a

woman rarely deals with shops in her immediate vicinity.

The more remote the source of supply the more fixed seems to

be the resolve to run short of the commodity. The Ark had

probably not quitted its last moorings five minutes before

some feminine voice gloatingly recorded a shortage of

bird-seed. A few days ago two lady acquaintances of mine

were confessing to some mental uneasiness because a friend

had called just before lunch-time, and they had been unable

to ask her to stop and share their meat as (with a touch of

legitimate pride) “there was nothing in the house.” I

pointed out that they lived in a street that bristled with

provision shops and that it would have been easy to mobilize

a very passable luncheon in less than five minutes.

“That,” they said, with quiet dignity, “would not have

occurred to us,” and I felt that I had suggested something

bordering on the indecent.

But it is in catering for her literary wants that a

woman’s shopping capacity breaks down most completely. If

you have perchance produced a book which has met with some

little measure of success, you are certain to get a letter

from some lady whom you scarcely know to bow to, asking you

“how it can be got.” She knows the name of the book, its

author, and who published it, but how to get into actual

contact with it is still an unsolved problem to her. You

write back pointing out that to have recourse to an

ironmonger or a corn-dealer will only entail delay and

disappointment, and suggest an application to a bookseller

as the most hopeful thing you can think of. In a day or two

she writes again: “It is all right; I have borrowed it from

your aunt.” Here, of course, we have an example of the

Beyond-Shopper, one who has learned the Better Way, but the

helplessness exists even when such bypaths of relief are

closed. A lady who lives in the West End was expressing to

me the other day her interest in West Highland terriers, and

her desire to know more about the breed, so when, a few days

later, I came across an exhaustive article on that subject

in the current number of one of our best known

outdoor-weeklies, I mentioned the circumstance in a letter,

giving the date of that number. “I cannot get the paper,”

was her telephoned response. And she couldn’t. She lived

in a city where news-agents are numbered, I suppose, by the

thousand, and she must have passed dozens of such shops in

her daily shopping excursions, but as far as she was

concerned that article on West Highland terriers might as

well have been written in a missal stored away in some

Buddhist monastery in Eastern Thibet.

The brutal directness of the masculine shopper arouses a

certain combative derision in the feminine onlooker. A cat

that spreads one shrew-mouse over the greater part of a long

summer afternoon, and then possibly loses him, doubtless

feels the same contempt for the terrier who compresses his

rat into ten seconds of the strenuous life. I was finishing

off a short list of purchases a few afternoons ago when I

was discovered by a lady of my acquaintance whom, swerving

aside from the lead given us by her god-parents thirty years

ago, we will call Agatha.

“You’re surely not buying blotting-paper here?” she

exclaimed in an agitated whisper, and she seemed so

genuinely concerned that I stayed my hand.

“Let me take you to Winks and Pinks,” she said as soon

as we were out of the building: “they’ve got such lovely

shades of blotting-paper—pearl and heliotrope and momie

and crushed—!”

“But I want ordinary white blotting-paper,” I said.

“Never mind. They know me at Winks and Pinks,” she

replied inconsequently. Agatha apparently has an idea that

blotting-paper is only sold in small quantities to persons

of known reputation, who may be trusted not to put it to

dangerous or improper uses. After walking some two hundred

yards she began to feel that her tea was of more immediate

importance than my blotting-paper.

“What do you want blotting-paper for?” she asked

suddenly. I explained patiently.

“I use it to dry up the ink of wet manuscript without

smudging the writing. Probably a Chinese invention of the

second century before Christ, but I’m not sure. The only

other use for it that I can think of is to roll it into a

ball for a kitten to play with.”

“But you haven’t got a kitten,” said Agatha, with a

feminine desire for stating the entire truth on most

occasions.

“A stray one might come in at any moment,” I replied.

Anyway I didn’t get the blotting-paper.