⬜ Niche tote bag club
You are what you carry.
Kyle Chayka: After I graduated college in 2010, I went to work at an art magazine in Beijing whose offices were memorably located above China’s first outpost of Hooters. The bilingual magazine was called LEAP, or in Chinese, 艺术界, “art world.” The editor, my boss, was Phil Tinari, an American who is now the director of a contemporary art museum in Beijing. Phil had relaunched the glossy print magazine and aspired to turn it into not just the Artforum of China, but an intellectual and aesthetic guidepost for the country’s then-hopeful international scene. Alongside the magazine, Phil produced canvas tote bags with the logo of the magazine on one side and the editorial layout on the other.
I’ve thought about how Phil described those tote bags ever since. They were not just accessories or giveaway swag for art fairs. They were symbols of a particular social community, one that emanated from Phil’s outpost in Beijing and spread across the world. Because you couldn’t buy them anywhere and they had little significance for anyone who didn’t know the magazine, they signaled belonging in a very tight-knit group. If someone else had one, you could be sure that you had friends in common — one degree of separation at most — and you had traveled to or lived in the same places. Maybe you had both stopped by the Hooters.
This was before canvas totes were quite so universal; they were the province of art-world people and Brooklyn hipsters. The tote bag was similar to a band t-shirt in that it gave you a social ice-breaker, an assurance that you and the carrier had the same taste. Phil achieved his goal: Over the years I’ve spotted LEAP totes, now decade-old artifacts, in a crowd and instantly chased the person down to hear the story of how they got theirs. I hold on to mine as an artifact of that moment in my life, a time before the relationship between the US and China was so Cold War-ish. LEAP was a conduit for artists, writers, curators moving back and forth between the two spaces.
Every tote symbolizes something. The standard New Yorker tote gifted with a new subscription to the magazine has become a cliche. In DC lately, I’ve noticed a lot of people carrying totes from Daunt Books, the small chain of boutique London bookstores. But in London, LRB totes were more popular, perhaps because there, Daunt feels less niche. (I regret not buying a tote from the ur-hipster London cafe Jolene.) These are all perfectly fine evocations of literary taste. The worst thing you can do is stick with something generic, like those Brooklinen totes that come free with sets of sheets. That tells me nothing about you — or communicates that you have nothing to tell.
Recently in Los Angeles, I had a conversation with Raihan Anwar, a Friend of One Thing (FOOT) and co-founder of the crypto club FWB (over dinner at Iki Ramen, a sweet, neighborhoody spot with good sushi). We talked about how there are few ways to signal your fandom or belonging online. There’s no equivalent of the tote bag that you carry, except maybe your avatar on one of the few remaining, decaying massive social networks. I think that’s a real flaw, because belonging is what ties communities together. I want to be able to quickly recognize when someone likes the same things that I do or has had similar experiences. Substack lets you show off which newsletters you follow, like a vintage blog roll, but otherwise your feeds are a private experience. I don’t know what’s in your For You. Maybe we’d have a healthier internet, or at least healthier conversations, if we could represent our loyalties a little more.
Let us know what you use to signal your tastes or belonging in a community, online or off, by leaving a comment or replying to this newsletter.
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