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When I’m not feeling weighed down from the mental load of multiple jobs, unpaid bills and loud neighbours, I like to indulge in frenzied, maniacal spring-cleaning. I’ll empty the contents of shoeboxes and IKEA bags previously elbowed under bed frames, retrieving socks, catalogs, dust bunnies, half-finished notebooks and sentimental ephemera which are redirected into endless piles littered around my tiny bedroom. A select number of errant objects find their way (back) to my favoured charity shop, whilst the majority of clutter either returns to its original locations or jumps from box to box in some crude dance of faux organisation, mimicking the sensible tabulations of an organised, sane millennial female.

Whilst indulging in a recent session, I unearthed a large denim bag, wherein, I discovered a hornet’s nest of teenage tote bags. The bags in question began their lives on merch-tables and record shops between Brighton and Devon. There were neon slogan bags, the University of Vienna Communist Society’s ‘Eat The Rich’ bags, art supply bags, bags with art on, bags illuminated with the names of Indie bands, Books Are My Bag bags and New Statesman bags with satirical caricatures of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn engaged in Hunter S. Thompson-esque skirmish. Each bag signified a particular stage of maturation, an idealised cultural self and a conscious attempt to signify cultural capital. 

If, dear reader, you spent your youth accumulating an alarming number of canvas repositories, in part, as a means of winning the affections of cultural individuals, then you might be surprised to hear that The New Yorker tote bags (of which over 500,000 are in existence and which sell for upwards of £40 on eBay) signal an accompanying literary publication which reportedly, is read by swathes of intellectuals. As Shand Thomas describes in a Medium which recounts the anxiety-inducing interim between subscribing to the publication and receiving the bag, “It means style and sophistication- it’s a physical representation of disposable income with the added bonus of being seemingly philanthropic about print journalism.”Elizabeth Currid-Halkett describes the widespread appeal of the publications’ tote bag, writing that its popularity implicitly signals the possession of “Rarefied knowledge, cultural awareness and refinement of taste that goes beyond simply reading about world happenings.” 

From a business perspective, tote bags are an unmistakably canny investment with their promise of widespread advertising. Hell, I’ve even made and sold my own tote bags to promote my own creative projects in the hopes that we’ll catch the attention of literary shoulders and teenage kleptomaniacs. As a central London Bookseller, you see a varied selection of tote bags paraded in store – The New Yorker is indeed a strong contender, soon followed by Daunt Books, The LRB, Shakespeare and Company, Waterstones, The Strand Bookshop, Rough Trade and a variety of galleries and arts venues (Tate, NPG, Southbank, MoMA).

Owners walk in canvas-first, adjusting its placement and once they think they’re out of view, filling-in the lettering with permanent marker to ensure it’s visible from long distances. In all fairness to the die-hard toters, when you’re given a free bag it’d be silly not to put it into use, particularly when it can be used as an opportunity to gloat to a Bookseller about how you’re halting the world’s plastic crisis in your systematic rejection of 5p carriers. God bless.

I’ll hold off calling for the abolition of tote bags, for now. They’re handy, they’re pretty, sometimes they’re even sustainably fashioned. Indeed, I hardly think it’s feasible or sensible to consider a world wherein all culture democratically exists without needing to be advertised and all tote bags are blank and purely practical. We haul our tastes over our shoulders and the relation of tote bags to/with culture and cultural products is complicated and sometimes crass. They stand as a metonym for the learned, worldly, intellectual with a predilection for minimalist design, acrylic spectacles, tapered trousers and frequent trips to the salon. 

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