Sunday, July 21Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Are Tote Bags Still Cool?

By Daniel Pepin

A cloth sack with straps and a print. That’s all a tote bag is. And yet, it is so much more. Getting across campus without seeing at least one tote bag is impossible. A bold Brick Lane Bookshop tote here and a sleek London Review of Books one there; a rare sighting of the coveted Shakespeare and Co. bag straight from Kilometre Zero Paris – they tend to permeate our surroundings. Each tote comes equipped with its own prestige stamped on the front or hiding in the small pocket stitched into pricier models. At once, it is a fashion and intellectual statement. But are they still cool? You would be hard-pressed to find an established independent bookshop without a tote bag of their very own, which is their genius. Picture a trip to your favourite bookstore – a hidden gem maybe, or a place with a café where you can play cool and mysterious – an hour has passed, and suddenly your arms are full of books. How did that happen? No matter, can’t you see? By the till, there! A shiny new tote bag just for you and, even better, it proudly announces the bookstore you love so much. As you walk out of the store and merrily trot down the street, another bookish type sees your bag, now comfortably filled out with your purchases, and takes a mental note of the name of that shop with the cool tote bags. Inadvertently, you have become a walking advertisement. 

This idea behind tote bags is a brilliant way to circulate interest and increase footfall for independent bookshops, which constantly have to fight for their place against the crushing tide of chain bookshops. However, they have taken on a new life as fashion in their own right. Tote bags, as a rule, look good. That’s their point – to be eye-catching. It makes sense that bookish communities would adopt these accessories to identify and express themselves, from people collecting a miscellanea of colours to match their outfits to our very own Literature Society hosting a BYOT (bring your own totes) social for Come in Your Kits. Tote bags are more than just a means to carry books; they are cool—the literary equivalent of Doc’s. Like Doc’s, however, they have lost their original meaning in a capitalistic survival struggle to be unique. The more fashionable they become, the further removed they are from their purpose. These bags have become something of a collectable – the more you have, the more cultured you must be. Where they were once hard-working bags, dutifully buckling under the weight of books, they are now something to purchase, photograph, use once, and sling into the dark corner of a wardrobe. From a store, you’ll never visit again. But it’s not your fault. Like so many things, tote bags have fallen victim to commercialisation bolstered by the blisteringly quick consumerist trends found on social media platforms. 

Equally as responsible are those very corporations that indie bookshops use tote bags as a tool against. Book Industry giants have latched onto tote bags and constantly churn out a multitude of designs and styles to woo customers away from the staples of indie tote bags. These tote bags are often of a lower quality – thinner canvas held up with weaker straps – because low quality goods are cheaper to mass produce, leading to a more considerable profit margin for chain bookshops. These poor imitations seem soulless and barely thought-out compared to the timeless, memorable, and sturdy designs found in independent places. Taking advantage of their assets is an attempt to divert business away from those beloved indie bookshops and funnel that business into their grasp, modifying tote bags into a tool to further squash the indie bookshop scene. 

The tote bag’s purpose has shifted from a symbol of the independent bookshop to a hollow shout of individualism – ruined by and repurposed by capitalism. An irrefutable way to prove that you are a smart shopping intellectual. But is there anything less cool than consumer desperation? So, is it time to abandon our tote bags as hallmarks of corporate greed and consumerism indulgence? Perhaps it’s enough to dust off those old totes from your favourite bookshops and fill them with books as if to say, “Sorry I forgot about you and got swept up by the unstoppable wave of capitalist excess; it happens to the best of us. We’re still cool, right?” 

Photo by Luciano Paris via Unsplash