For many Americans, shopping is the point of first contact with The Other. Ikea introduces us to Swedish values by asking us to clear our own tables in their cafeterias, and providing child care for shoppers and egalitarian Scandinavian design (even if some of its merchandise is made in China). China itself vaunts its culture in outlets like Pearl River, whose emporium on Broadway in Manhattan is jammed with silks and housewares not merely made in China but also asserting that country’s ancient aesthetic. Nearby in Chelsea, Eataly puts pasta and pizza at the center of the universe, in a culinary hangar no less chaotic than Fiumicino Airport.
But selling cheap furniture, chopsticks, and spaghetti to Americans is a breeze; familiarity eases the transactions. What about the obscure delights of cultures less familiar to us—pink clams, Pisco, and lounge chairs made of salmon skin, for example? What of merkén, a spice ground from smoked cacho de cabra (goat’s horn) pepper? Mauricio Banchieri, CEO of Puro Chile and Puro Wine in New York, wants Americans to taste that popular Chilean seasoning, along with the sublime honey, Patagonian salmon, and myrtle berry and rosehip jams of his birthplace. He sells them all, along with handmade clothing, jewelry, and just about every other luxury item produced in Chile.
If Ikea’s cultural evangelism is incidental, and secondary to profits, Banchieri deliberately ties diplomacy to the bottom line. Puro Chile partners with development programs back home to bring to the American market products that cannot be efficiently manufactured and exported in bulk. He opened his side-by-side shops—one for wine, one for gifts and food—in 2009, with the aim of promoting “the best products and services Chile has to offer to the city of New York” and, through the firm’s website, puro-chile.com, to the whole U.S.
Call it retail diplomacy. Banchieri asks: how better to engender sympathy with foreigners than to taste, sip, wear, and otherwise experience their cultures up close, preferably (for he is a businessman) in his chic little establishments in SoHo? He offers the most comprehensive selection of Chilean wines available here, but his place is also an event center, one that serves as a “private commercial liaison between Chile and the U.S.” Diplomacy lives or dies by human contact, of course, and Puro Chile has hosted more than 80 events in the past two years. On a given evening there, one might encounter Chilean diplomats sipping sparkling rosé with American journalists; a Chilean entrepreneur selling her fruit-based cosmeceuticals; or a scale replica of the rescue cylinder that lifted the Chilean miners to sunlight in 2010. (Guests were allowed to climb inside and empathize with the South American heroes.)
Banchieri is not alone, he says; he sees evidence of a single-country shopping trend in his corner of downtown Manhattan. Just a block away is Despaña, a Spanish food boutique and tapas bar, which grew out of a 40-year-old wholesale business. Today, Spaniards longing for pintxos (Basque for “snack”) are regulars, but locals and tourists who stumble into the shop as virgins walk out addicted to tortillas and pimentos. Like Puro Chile, Despaña hosts wine tastings—its sister wine boutique is just next door—and other events that promote a singular culture, one that many would argue is best summed up in two Spanish words: jamón and rioja.
Just around the corner, Fjällräven is also a cultural purist. The Swedish company distributes its rugged mountaineer garments and gear to stores across America. Its flagship on Mott Street is festooned with Swedish flags and sells Swedish-made products that honor its founder Åke Nordin’s admiration for the arctic fox, a.k.a. Alopex lagopus, or fjällräven, an animal in danger of extinction. This purveyor to the crown of the world’s third-most-competitive economy sells the accoutrements of highest-end outdoorsiness, including down outerwear priced as steeply as $1,000, and a handsome, heavy-duty ax whose uses in lower Manhattan may be clearer to Swedes than to New Yorkers.
At Myers of Keswick in Greenwich Village, the main ideas are retail exposure for Americans and a nostalgia fix for homesick Brits. Myers’s website notes that their shop and online store are “a bastion of Albion in Manhattan—where we have been serving porcine perfection to the expatriate community for over 25 years.” To put it diplomatically, pork pies and sausage rolls, Fairy liquid dish soap, and the candy that ruined generations of English teeth may not quite reflect Cool Britannia’s current, vibrant eating scene. But Myers could be said to be preserving not just culinary tradition but also America’s Special Relationship with a stalwart old ally.
Political alliances aside, cultural niche shopping can be a matter of urgency in some cases. In 2010, Macy’s introduced its Heart of Haiti initiative to encourage Americans to appreciate—and buy—handicrafts from that stricken country. If you take New York’s Union Square outdoor holiday market as a global microcosm, deciding where to lay down your greenbacks gets ever more complex. Should we shop our politics? Infuse fragile economies with dollars? Buy products associated with the countries that have our sympathy, regardless of where the products are made? Free-trade gifts made from Ecuadorean tagua nuts rouse the Christmastime impulse to help a beleaguered economy (ranked 86th to Sweden’s third). Would buying from the Celtic Revival gift stall or the Wafels & Dinges Belgian food seller at Union Square strengthen the euro? In the immigrant outer precincts of Manhattan, there are even more opportunities to buy products from regions that have it hard. Could buying holiday sweets from the popular Damascus Bakery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn raise our cultural awareness and thus indirectly benefit Syrians fighting for democracy there? Online, the call for retail diplomacy resounds. One Greek website, helpsavegreece.com, implores American shoppers to “buy Greek products.”
Its message is disarmingly direct: “It is sad to see that Greece, our motherland, is suffering in this current economic crisis,” it states, while asking us to buy more Greek olive oil, cheese, beer, and other Hellenic goods.
Less pleading but perhaps more controversial is the Made in North Korea website, a shopper’s dream if all you want for Christmas is a shipment of tungsten oxide powder or a tactical transceiver. Some countries are better than others at selling themselves abroad. New Zealand, for instance, is adept at promoting its lamb in the U.S., particularly now that green concerns have made its pristine environment an attractive source of gourmet items, despite the “food miles” its exports may have to travel.
But a deliberate focus on national identity is what distinguishes places like Despaña and Puro Chile, where shopkeepers are unofficial ambassadors and border-crossing requires no passport, just a credit card.