What Is It About Costco?

Every single Sunday for six years, my family went to Costco. And I learned that Costco is not for what you need; it’s for what you want.

To walk around Costco as a childless, unattached person is to experience the fragility of your existence. To perk up at the reasonably priced Angus steaks only to realize they are not sold in quantities fewer than eight and think, Well, I guess if I ate one steak a day for a week plus an extra on Sunday, is to realize the promise of decay. Costco is a place for families, or else individuals of family-sized needs: restaurateurs, corporate picnic planners, fraternity brothers, older couples who eat the same five foods with pious regularity, the clinically depressed who subsist on bulk bags of pretzels and Craisins and little else. It is for ambitious appetites and pathological fears. It is for a scarcity that is anticipated but never realized. The Costco I know, my Costco, is for families.

I am 26, and have known Costco longer than I have known most of my friends. I have spent more hours roaming its aisles than I have spent with several of my first cousins. My family took our first Costco trip in November 1998. The company had brought a store to the suburbs of Chicago, and we went on the very first Sunday of its opening. I was 8, and every single week for the next six years, my mother, my father, my grandma, my three brothers, and later, when she was born, my sister, would pile into our red minivan and later, a brown SUV, and we would return to that Costco, always that Costco, always together, and always on Sunday. We were nominally Catholic, but nobody ever went to church. Costco was our mass.

When I say Costco is for families, I should clarify that I don’t mean all families can feasibly shop there. The average Costco shopper has an income of $100,000, and Costco tends to open stores in states where wealthier people live. The lower-income shoppers who could most benefit from the savings of buying in bulk are, by and large, priced out of the game, because the ability to shop at Costco and its ilk carries many hidden requirements: membership fees, a car, proximity to a limited set of stores, and of course, more cash upfront to buy a pack of eight sirloins in one go, instead of just two. Paying less in this way is, ironically, the privilege of the relatively well-off.

But Costco doesn’t seem upscale. In the hierarchy of retail aesthetics, Costco (which, in fact, calls itself Costco Wholesale) sits toward the unsexy bottom. It lacks the earthy bourgeois glamour of Whole Foods, or Target’s warm graphic buoyancy, or the hot American urgency of 7/11. Even the average supermarket shelf stimulates, an eye-pleasing array organized carefully by color, flavor, and brand. By contrast, a Costco store gives you all the visual allure of a warehouse. Everything within its walls is large, limited, and random. Where your average grocery store carries about 40,000 different products, Costco carries a tenth of that amount. There are two types of mayonnaise and they both come in tubs. You can buy an 18-piece artisan spice rack, but not a jar of oregano. Even the 14-year aged cheddar comes in huge blocks whose size-to-price ratio seems to throw the cheese’s rarity into doubt. Where a supermarket greets you with bursting crates of produce, inclined at an angle toward the shopper as if to say, welcome, Costco’s produce, though equally as fresh, sits at the back of the store in a frigid locker, prepackaged in plastic sleeves and cardboard boxes, unsqueezable.

In other words, Costco is quality without the usual trimmings of quality. Even the luxury goods seem utilitarian, leached of their sheen. Spanish saffron is the costliest spice in the world, and the finest variety comes from the Castilla-La Mancha region, where the flower blooms and dies in a single November day, its delicate red spindles harvested by hand. Costco is the world’s largest importer of genuine La Mancha saffron, and in the warehouse, you’ll find it under pallets of tube socks, in blister packaging, the words Kirkland Signature emblazoned across the front. Their affordable vodka is rumored to be made at the same French distillery as Grey Goose, but by now you can guess whose bottle features a magnificent glacial landscape dotted by white wings, and whose simply says, in block text, VODKA.

It’s not the money part that inspires cult-like devotion. It’s the more.

Costco is attractive to the rich, then, but its thrill does not lie in its beauty or prestige, or even its savings. Spending 50 cents less per roll of toilet paper is not something that will impact most Costcans’ quality of life. It’s also just a clunky way to get groceries; there are many things that the store does not sell, or does not sell in feasible quantities. Though my family went to Costco every week, my mom still bought most of our food at the supermarket.

What joy, then, does Costco offer? What dream is born of balsamic vinegar in liters, staples by the pound, and pillows of maxipads? Costco is not for what you need. It’s for what you want.

My father loves to shop. Compulsively, in fact, and across all consumer categories. Where some spending addicts pour money into a few special interests, say shoes, or books, my dad throws it everywhere, all the time. On our trips, dad would walk the aisles not with a list of things he needed, but with the wide eyes of a child in a toy store. He’d fill the cart with cereal and bagels, yes, but also with wrench sets, hole punchers, colorful plastic drinking tumblers, Kirkland brand khaki pants, over and over and despite my mother’s protests. And while my father might not spend like the average Costco shopper, his neuroses are its collective, beating heart. It’s true that Costco gets you more for your money, but it seems like the discount is only a secondary pleasure. It’s not the money part that inspires cult-like devotion. It’s the more. Spend some time in any Costco, and you’ll feel it too. The joy of Costco does not lie in thrift. It lies in bulk.

My dad loves to say "fuck 'em." I wonder if he said it at his fancy East Coast university, where he had friends but was still solidly middle class and Midwestern. I imagine him humming it as he served his rich classmates meatloaf in the dining hall, turning it over with his tongue like a worry bead: fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em all.

His family would not help him pay for college, and when he lost his loans and was kicked out for a semester, he swept the GE factory floor. But even when he had so little money, he still racked up credit card debt buying the kinds of things only a college student would think essential — cotton candy makers, pizza ovens, tieless shoelaces. As a rich man now, he buys on a larger scale, but the spirit is the same: useless. He has not developed a taste for the finer things. It’s just the things he likes.

To be clear, his shopping addiction is not merely a lovable, harmless quirk. It’s a compulsion that has come to define our lives. Every house he has owned he has filled to the brim. The dining rooms are unusable, stacked with new things never opened: bluetooth headsets, bungee cords, books about weightlifting and the life of Ronald Reagan, bikes, car chargers, suitcases, modular shelves, caffeinated mints, caffeinated soap, digital cameras, microfiber cloths, and DVDs of popular films, even though he only ever watches about the same five movies, none of which are Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche. Offices and family rooms have become haphazard storage spaces. The floor of his “shop” is blanketed with tools and nails. The garage is non-navigable, and certainly has never held an actual car. Once every few months, when we were kids, he’d make us clear the rooms out and relocate all the stuff, but everything would fill up again. Always. If anyone urged him to curb his habit, he would wave them off. It’s my money.

To want a boundless supply means also to acknowledge a boundless need. 

To people like my dad, Costco offers far more than a good deal. It offers the lulling comfort of permanent volume, the same bulwark against scarcity that draws us to the all you can eat, the BOGO, the unlimited refill, the family size. The endless, the bottomless, the lifetime guarantee — these promises are not to be underestimated, because their flipside is terrifying. To want a boundless supply means also to acknowledge a boundless need. We tend to hunger.

Costco keeps its promise of abundance as well as any store can, and for that, most of its customers are loyal for life. I remember, walking through the aisles one Sunday, we saw a long row of displays showing the services one could take advantage of through Costco. Costco could retile your kitchen, change your tires, refinance your home, arrange your Disney vacation, fill your prescriptions, check your eyes, provide your health insurance, build your backyard gazebo, and — my family paused here, stunned for a moment, before an awning labeled Universal Casket.

Costco had begun to sell coffins, and this was the closest I had ever been to one. I touched the gleaming veneers. Each one had a name. The Mother. The Kentucky Rose. The Dayton. The Edward. The Lady of Guadalupe. Years later, I found the reviews online. All were glowing. “DON'T GET RIPPED OFF IN A TIME OF NEED” warned one; some seemed to speak to the store directly, saying things like “You were there at a time we really needed you, and you didn't let us down”; “I felt my frugal mom would have been very PROUD OF ME,” said another reviewer; one wrote ominously, “I will purchase again.”

In addition to the hungry and the ill, Costco also appeals to those who fear scarcity in a more literal sense. Their emergency food department is stocked with the dizzying quantities that could only appeal to the truly doom-hearted. $279.99 gets you 600 servings of canned eggs; $449 gets you 12 cans of freeze-dried ground beef that will last you 90 days. Unlike fresh meat, the product copy reads, THRIVE Ground Beef has a shelf life of 25 years in the can. For $4,499.99, a single person can gorge for a whole year on a kit of chicken stew, breakfast skillets, and chili mac with beef, all nonperishable. I eventually read those reviews, too, some of them from customers who are saving for disaster, others from those for whom the kits comprise part of their everyday diet.

if you don't eat them regularly now do not depend on them in an emergency. It takes your body some time to adjust to eating beans, do you really want an upset digestive track during an emergency?

If mad-money is no problem, or you fear a fruit famine, this product is a real treat
+ Pros:
easy and tasty
- Cons:
none except i sometimes crave a fresh steak.

Costco, then, nurses the anxiety of wanting. For those whose greatest fear is empty shelves, it quite literally fills a void. While the rest of us were angry and overwhelmed at my dad’s buying and the mess it caused, I don’t think he ever minded the chaos. Even the most dogged addicts often come to reckon with their habit, to see the damage their high has left in its wake. Not him. He weaves among his piles like a drunk. Serene, moony. When he said It’s my money, I’d assumed he was asserting his right to spend it. But now, I wonder if he didn’t mean it literally. His piles of stuff were the form his money took, the shaky concept of prosperity made flesh. It wasn’t enough, for him, to have enough. To be assured of his good fortune, he needed to see it. To pick it up and hold it, as you might a hand.

Costco felt like a fortress in which one could safely hide. 

But for all the absurdity of Costco, all the reasons why our trips there were an unnecessary exercise in privileged accumulation, there is also this: I loved them. Psychologists like to emphasize the importance of play, the activities we do for pleasure and for pleasure’s sake alone, the means by which we create and shape identity. Play is what bonds us. There are several defining features of play that separate it from work: It is imaginative, marked off in some way from reality. It values process over any specific end goal. It is structured, but that structure comes from the shared values of the group. I couldn’t imagine my whole family going to the park or the movies together, having game nights, going to school fundraisers. It’s not that we never went on other outings, but we were not the kind of group who could comfortably sustain such blatant, undisguised togetherness. We needed a pretext. Costco was our play.

I felt freer there than I did at home. My family was nicer to each other in public, for one. I could also roam throughout the store in ways that most 10-year-olds, in most spaces, cannot. My dad’s shopping high made him generous, and he let us buy things my mother never would have, like giant stuffed bears and massive boxes of fruit gushers. And I liked the scale of the place, how it was huge but not empty. The windows were few and the ceilings were so high that birds who flew in through the entrance did not flap around furiously, but instead simply perched there, serene. Costco felt like a fortress in which one could safely hide.

As long as I can remember, I have relished that feeling, in school tornado drills and car trips, in snowstorms and sleepovers. For some, the idea of getting locked in a store after closing is a nightmare, but that was my dream, because Costco had everything we’d need. To be warm and full and surrounded was not my idea of being trapped. It was the safest place in the world.

Now that I am older and live far away, my father’s mess no longer feels like mine. When I return to my parents’ house, it’s calmer, but I’m always startled by how easily I slip back into the person I was when I left, a sullen teenager. Still, my mother and I have grown closer, begun to confide in one another. After concerted and awkward effort, we have even started saying I love you on the phone. I can’t say the same of my father. To talk with him easily, lightly, to chat like friends, feels so unnatural that it makes me physically uncomfortable. I find my voice lowering to a grumble, my words shrinking to monosyllables, my eyes gluing to the wall. There is too much standing in between us. I don’t think we’ll ever be close.

If we want to communicate, we need something to pin it on. As a parting gift, my parents gave me a small black car to take to graduate school, and he’ll email me every so often, asking, How is the Honda, when he means How are you? Occasionally, out of the blue, he’ll ask me if I need a new blender or some speaker wire, saying he saw a deal, offering to order it online, and when I say no, I feel real guilt, as if I have rejected a hug.

When I first moved into my own apartment, he bought me an Eggtastic, one of those As Seen on TV products that sounds far more useful in theory than it is in practice. It is a glorified ceramic mug that lets you make an omelette in the microwave. I pointed out to my father that cooking an egg is not really a task that requires innovation. But he raved about his Eggtastic, and wanted to share with me the gift of convenience. When the package arrived and I stared at the little white and yellow cup, the chirpy cartoon lettering, I was struck by something. Maybe not sadness, but the bite of pity that comes when you realize that yes, your parents have always been trying to love you, but that trying may not have been enough.

Now that all but one of us has left home, my father rarely goes to Costco anymore, except for the odd item, or when everyone returns for the holidays and he takes us on what he gleefully calls the Costco Expedition. This isn’t to say he’s stopped buying. Far from it. If anything his addiction has ramped up and shifted mostly to online retail. Packages from Amazon arrive daily. The rise of smartphones and one-click ordering has all but guaranteed that he will never tire of his hobby, especially given the double high of e-commerce: first when you buy, and again when the package arrives at your door, summoned from great distances by your whims.

My parents are moving to a new house, their dream home, and this time my mom has threatened to leave my dad if he ruins it with stuff. Any purchase he brings into the house will have to be approved by my mother, and she will not approve much. We thought that maybe this would end his buying for good, but my dad has found a solution. A few weeks ago, he sent me a link to a company that builds custom warehouses for farmers and manufactures. He plans to build one a few miles away from the new house, and it is this, I suspect — the warehouse, and not the beautiful beachfront home — that is my father’s dream.

My parents live in the South now, but they flew up to Iowa to help me move in for graduate school. The process involved a trip to Costco; how could it not? The day had been sweaty and tense. But as we walked into this store, I could sense the tension of the move softening, the screaming over lopsided IKEA shelves more distant, my father lighting up. It had been a while since any of us had been to Costco, and even longer since we’d been there together.

The next day, when my parents left and I found myself sitting on my apartment floor, trying to stain a cheap dresser, I would tear up, half with frustration and half with another thing that I couldn’t name but felt in my stomach. To say you miss home might indicate you want to return there, and that wasn’t quite it. I did not want to go back, and I didn’t miss my family’s presence so much as I felt their absence. I was pained and made low by the distance of them. Together, we formed an abundance, even if it was a turbulent one. But now, that abundance had been reduced to just me, alone and left to figure out my new life amid a mess of boxes I’d only half unpacked.

But that feeling would come later. In Costco, there were orchids on shelves. Foam pillows. A hot dog that had not changed in price nor appearance in over a decade. I know you can’t stay anywhere forever. But you can live completely for moments at a time. ●

Emily Mester is finishing up an MFA in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. She’s currently writing a collection of essays called American Bulk.

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