• Backwater Review

In Praise of Fine Things: Souvenir Shopping

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron

My father-in-law has said a number of wise things in his life. But my favourite is this, “We are not wealthy enough to buy cheap things.”


At first blush, this might appear contradictory, but it’s an aphorism—you have to think deeply. It has taken me many years to fully grasp the breadth of this statement. But now I embrace it.


Cheap things don’t last. They are destined for the trash heap of a fast food world, where possessing (and consuming) is more important than owning. Fine things, although costly, stand the test of time.


I apply this philosophy to souvenir shopping when I travel. There are only so many shot glasses, T-shirts, and key chains that one can possess. So, when I travel, I consider what I buy carefully. I mean, what does a T-shirt made in Bangladesh really have to say about Paris anyway?


My point is this: Certain places are known for their craft. These are the only things worth buying. Even if it costs you.


Aran Islands' Sweaters

Iceland is a perfect example. Everything is expensive in Iceland. A bagel and locks once cost me 50CAD. But a wool sweater, handcrafted on the island, will easily run in excess of $200CAD. You might bock at the price tag while you are circumnavigating the Ring Road, but I guarantee that 20 years from now as you dawn the pullover in question, you will appreciate the craftsmanship and even the sticker price.


I have purchased flat caps from Bates in London, England. Leather bags from Masaya, Nicaragua. Cable-knit sweaters from the Aran Islands. Hand-rolled cigars from Cuba. And tweed from the Outer Hebrides. None of which have come cheaply.



But there is a story which was purchased alongside each of these things. And a modicum of pride. If this were a credit card commercial, I might call these things “priceless.”


But it’s more than that. Paying the price—seeking out the valuable—preserves the artistry which is slowly disappearing around the world. Eighteenth century economist David Ricardo, and his Theory of Comparative Advantage, could not have envisioned how a race for the bottom of the barrel would drive our modern economies.


In that vein, we must re-learn how to appreciate quality. And be willing to pay for it. In the long run, we will be the richer for it.


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