Michael Silverstein is a writer in Philadelphia

One day, while walking the aisles of a local discount outlet, I was vouchsafed a vision. It was a vision that seems especially poignant as we begin a holiday shopping season in which so many people are strapped for cash.

The vision was triggered by the sight of a five-gallon jar of maraschino cherries.

The jar's contents swam in a liquid that looked like something you might see in a dentist's office after an unusually difficult extraction. The cherries themselves appeared to be growing eyes, or perhaps they were simply budding. Whatever the cause of the transformation these doctored pieces of fruit were undergoing, its outward signs were pockets of darkness and strangely shaped protuberances that, I could swear, moved to follow me as I passed.

Such apprehensions notwithstanding, it occurred to me - as I stood stone stock still there in that discount-store aisle, contemplating a five-gallon jar of dyed cherries that no sane person on the planet would, under any circumstances, purchase - that there was a message in this merchandise. And it was incumbent upon me - nay, imperative - to fathom and disseminate it.

Message in a jar

In the fullness of time, I have come to understand this Message of the Maraschinos. And I have come to view it as a guiding principle for countless people like me who have become part of America's great post-asset generation. The lesson here is the joy to be derived from "unshopping."

Unshopping is shopping with no intention of buying, and with a keen awareness of the money saved in the process of not making an actual purchase. It is done for the sheer pleasure of transcending unnecessary consumption - a pleasure compounded by the realization that these transactions do not oblige you to work a given number of hours at a job you detest, or tap an unemployment-benefit stream that is about to run out, to acquire goods you do not really want.

Unshopping is never having to say you're sorry - to yourself, to others, or to the bank that issues your credit cards. Through the act of wresting control over your own small share of the marketplace from the product-makers and pitchmen who dominate this realm, unshopping also gives new meaning to Shelley's poetic insight about society's underlings getting back a little of their own: "the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed."

nolead begins

Shopping vs. unshopping

Compare the happiness attainable from traditional shopping to the satisfactions of unshopping. The number of items traditional shoppers can purchase is limited by cash in pocket, personal credit rating, space in the car to cart goods home, and space at home once you get the goods there. The number of items you can afford not to buy on an unshopping junket, however, is limitless, and the encumbrances that come with carting and siting this merchandise are nonexistent.

Whether one unshops in nothing-under-a-buck schlock parlors or upscale Fifth Avenue emporia, in specialty shops or top-of-the-line department stores, opportunities to revel in a smug sense of non-acquisitive superiority, and to gloat about putting one's own financial well-being above that of local retailers, are immense. These feelings become especially acute around the holiday shopping season.

The contemporary marketplace is awash with the equivalents of five-gallon jars of maraschino cherries. Gather them up in your mind. Tally the savings realized by not buying them. Apply the extra time generated by this negative-acquisition capital to a good book from the public library, a walk in the park, some sweet-nothing leisure with a friend or loved one.

And don't worry about returns. Unshoppers don't make them; they get them.

Michael Silverstein's latest book is "The 14th Colony." E-mail him at mike@wallstreetpoet.com.