No matter who you are or where you live, we all want our own Cheers — a place where you’re comfortable and everyone greets you by name. In the era of anonymous shopping malls and big-box Goliaths, we forget how crucial such neighborhood fixtures are in our daily lives, be it a café, library, or bar. So when Jody Gnant heard that her favorite local corner store was about to lose its lease and close after 40 years of business, she knew she had to do something. “The worst thing in the world for a business owner, I would think, is watching your inventory go at 75%, or 50%, and having the close out sale and having to say goodbye that way,” Gnant said.
Located in New York City’s West Village, the store in question was Hercules Fancy Grocery, owned by a man of the same mythical name. Earlier this year, Hercules faced eviction as he lacked the cash to pay creditors. While he prepared to shutter his business, a young group of artists and friends, including Jody Gnant, met to discuss how they could help Hercules. At first, when someone in the group suggested they buy everything in Hercules’s store, it sounded crazy. But soon enough, Kyle MacDonald, better known as the guy who traded one red paper clip for a house, went to the bank and took out $20,000 in credit card cash advances. Thus, Store Buyout was born.
Armed with several cameras and one briefcase full of cash, the group descended upon the store and informed Hercules that they wanted to buy everything. At first, Hercules laughed, as if he was the subject of a practical joke. But when he realized they were serious, tears sprang to his eyes in what is the most heart-wrenching moment in the video. The group proceeded to haul armloads of items from shelves while Hercules tabulated what would become a 57-foot long receipt by the end of the evening. All the items were loaded into an empty U-Haul waiting around the corner. Six hours after they had arrived, the group left a smiling Hercules in his empty store, left only with his cat Sneaky in his arms.
Yet for all the fuzzy feelings and good intentions evidenced through their video, there is a second part to the story that has been met with criticism. Every item the group bought in Hercules Fancy Grocery is now for sale as art. What was once a $10 pack of Marlboro cigarettes is now a $409 art object, sealed in a plexiglass cube adorned with a plaque. Other objects — a pack of Orbitz gum ($75), a BIC lighter ($50), a package of plain M&M’s ($100) — are for sale in a similar fashion. Such intense markups are what MacDonald refers to as an “adventure in how value can be created or perceived.” In other words, MacDonald wants to know what sort of cultural shift must happen for a person to pay a high price for an object they could get in their local grocery store for $1.
Though all the profits will go toward helping Hercules get the store of his dreams, for some, the project has taken on an attention-seeking nature. In response to a can of Coke that McDonald is selling for $400, Alex Goldmark of GOOD wrote, “Stick a label on it that says ‘Upside Down Can of Coke’… call it art, and give it a narrative. Will it work? For art’s sake, I hope not.” Goldmark continues, “He’s also really shoving the hollowness of this kind of concept art in people’s faces.” For others like Aimee Davison, a Montreal-based social media marketer, this sort of thing is a hybridization of art and social networking that will positively impact our definitions of value and cultural importance. “The new media zeitgeist has enabled ambitious and outrageous (or epic) independent projects to encourage artistic discussion and collaboration, capture national media attention and achieve both cultural and economic success. Invention, attention and imagination drive the new social media economy.”
“This is probably one of the stupidest things any of us have ever done,” MacDonald has since said of the project. Now, two months since carrying that briefcase full of money into Hercules’s store, MacDonald is just hoping to break even. “When we found out that Hercules was probably going to lose his store back in May, our intention was to help him out entirely,” MacDonald said in his most recent YouTube update. “We figured a little bit of cash would help.” As for Hercules, he recently lost a court battle with his landlord and must vacate his store by the end of August. While encouraging everyone to show some support if they can by visiting Hercules, MacDonald and his friends continue to do everything they can to get Hercules a new store. In a recent, emotional interview, Hercules stays positive: “I hope something changes my landlord’s life and his mind, you know, to give me some kind of help to stay longer in business.” When asked why he loves his job so much, Hercules simply replied, “To start this business was very hard. I love what I’m doing… I cannot change this.”
There is no doubt that Store Buyout has its heart in the right place. The $20,000 in cash that Hercules received on that fateful day helped him live a bit easier and cover the legal costs of his inevitable court case with his landlord. But mixing a kind-hearted gesture with a high-priced, Warhol-esque experiment is volatile. When someone else’s livelihood is on the line, should you take a gamble with an artistic statement?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.