“Right. And what about the heron book? Is that the lowest you’re willing to go?”

This was a haggle I overheard while browsing the bookseller’s stall in Cambridge’s Market Square. I don’t know what the heron book was originally going for, but this shrewd customer managed to talk his way into a fifty pence reduction. He walked off contently with an upright head and his book underarm. Even the bird on the front-cover looked proud.

I’m in no position to scoff at another man’s entrepreneurial endeavours — my haggling experiences are limited to buying contraband confectionery from the ‘dealer’ on my school bus; he once granted me a reduced rate for a dented can of Pepsi – I too got a fifty pence discount. At the time, with my lunch money jingling in my pocket, fifty pence off was a win. Since then, the years haven’t inflated the economy so radically as to kill my appreciation for that silver coin, but I was amused to see the heron-booked man (whose apparel suggested not a scarcity, but a superfluity of pennies) walking away so satisfied to have kept his fifty.

Scrupulous readers, I now haggle for your generosity: will you stoop to give me some credit, trust my offhand estimation of this man’s pension, and allow me to be so bold as to suggest that he had motives other than necessity to prompt his wheeling and dealing?

You’ll buy it? Lovely jubbly!

The deeper tribulations of the man who bought the herons

Of course, he disputed the original price because it was too expensive. Not too expensive in a practical sense (we are assuming that the pivotal 50p didn’t breach his budget’s limits) but rather it was too expensive in principle.

What factors decided this principle? Well, a leniency towards the rates of independent booksellers doesn’t seem to have come into the equation. But perhaps he thought about the prices of the Penguin, Puffin and Pelican books on his shelf at home and came up with a nominal value for birdy books, a standard which the heron book seemed to fly in the face of.

Perhaps the price of the heron book felt disproportionate to his enthusiasm for the bird, if he had to quantify it. Perhaps he was influenced by our age’s quiet suspicion that any book priced higher than three quid is pushing its luck. On top of these factors, and most likely of all: perhaps he prodded for a better price because, for once, he could.

“The comforting thing about daylight robbery is that it’s easy to see”

An understandable response to the consumerist quagmire we jollily wallow in is a vague, chronic sensation of being extorted. Buyer’s remorse isn’t just the regret felt after overspending on a book about egrets, we feel it constantly: as we rehearse our shopping lists, as we trudge the aisles, as we wait for assistance at the self-service checkout. We feel it as we make our sheepish return to Amazon.co.uk; as we read a five-star and then a one-star review for the same product; as we pay more for postage than the item itself; as we wilt in the dressing room mirror; as we’re met with a Facebook ad for the thing we googled this morning; as we steadily seep out of ourselves in the middle of Boots; as we bitterly accept that we will, in the end, pay for that middling, morose Caffè Nero sandwich because we’re hurried by hunger and exhaustion and, despite all the shops on the high street, somehow we have no better options. We feel it as we pay contactlessly once again with a tap of that sacred, snappable rectangle. Yet another invisible transaction.

The scape-goat of the independent shopkeeper

Perhaps the heron man is slightly aware that he, with the rest of us, is trammelled within an unknowable tangle of marketing strategies, globe-meshing trade networks, and his own bridled pursuit to buy more and more. Perhaps he too finds the whole predicament pretty difficult to reckon with.

The comforting thing about daylight robbery is that it’s easy to see. It feels grounding to single out a pricey book and huff “That’s extortionate!” and then, better still, to talk the seller into taking us fifty pence closer to comradery and fair play.

For the most part, the costs of the products that sustain us are non-negotiable. Not by speaking to the manager, or the manager’s manager, may we ever hope to buy anything from Tesco for less than the offered price. We may seek out cheaper alternatives, but reaching them through conversation with the seller is a luxury of the markets.

The age of interpersonal trading is behind us. Most of the time, we scarcely exchange pleasantries with till operators, and even if we were to get to know them entirely, we’d not feel as if we were buying our goods from them. Rather, cashiers stand to act as a human ambassador to the monolithic, faceless supermarket that employs them.


Mountain View

How constellations help us to look inwards

The heron man haggled out of a nostalgia for a time when trading was a personal relationship — when an individual could be held accountable for a rip-off, and could be brought back into line simply by a haggler’s charm and strength of character. This vague remembrance is of an age when selling was carried out with a spirit of giving, when buying felt like a sacrifice rather than a compulsive surrender. Maybe there was such a day, when the whole operation was determined by mutual reasoning rather than ‘market forces’, and maybe there wasn’t.

Unfortunately, independent sellers, our last providers of a personal trading experience, are so often imagined by shoppers as embodying the whole consumerist system’s injustices. Haggling is a form of protest, but fifty pence is a paltry retribution, and shopkeepers aren’t the enemy — they’re trammelled too.

But the thrill of haggling is that there is the chance to walk away, not quietly, after putting the item back on the shelf, but boldly, away from another person, from a particular ‘con man’ who personifies the entire capitalist contraption.

Sorry, heron man, this is more than you bargained for. Fly on!