Imagine no possessions ... but is the ‘borrowing’ trend really what we want?

It’s salutary to consider how many things one could live without, or hardly ever needs


In north-east Berlin, on the Fehrbelliner Strasse, there’s a shop that doesn’t sell anything. It will just lend you things, which you bring back when you’ve finished with them.

Punters go to Leila, as the shop is called, to borrow stuff for which they have only a temporary need – seasonal items, such as skiing equipment, Christmas decorations, inflatable lilos and hiking boots. You could, of course, buy all these in a normal shop and keep them for ever – but would that make sense when you’re going to use them just once a year, on the beach or in the Tyrol?

The owner of Leila, Nikolai Wolfert, offers a brilliant example of why his “borrowing shop” works. It’s the electric power drill. Lots of people borrow drills from Leila. Why? “The average electric drill is used for 13 minutes in its entire lifetime,” says Nikolai. “How does it make sense to buy something like that? It’s much more efficient to share it.”

Absolutely, Nikolai. It’s all about efficiency. But once you consider the ramifications of his initiative, your mind starts to boggle. Did it make sense to buy that pricey Vitamix 500 super-blender so that it sits, accusingly underemployed, in your kitchen for months? Would it make more sense if you could nip out and borrow one for the only night of the year when you fancy vichyssoise? Or that wood furniture that sits in your garden unused for 10 months of the year, like the set of a failed production of The Cherry Orchard.

Why did you buy it, when you could (had the place existed, and been in west London) have popped round to Leila’s at the first sign of sunlight, borrowed the table and chairs, rung your friends and broken out the Pimms? Like having a pop-up garden.

It’s salutary to consider how many things you could live without, or need once in a blue moon. The piano, which is played only by your nephew Gordon at Christmas? The freezer, which you’ve taken nothing out of in a year, and which you open only to get some ice? And thus you start to unclutter your life. If we can borrow the glasses, the blender, the furniture, the skis, the surfboard, the piano, the power drill, the ice machine and the other things that aren’t worth actually buying, what else can we economise on? That bicycle? No, we’re already signed up to a borrowing scheme called Boris bikes.

The car that sits, glum and undriven, outside your house for days on end? (What are you even doing driving a car in London?) Sensible drivers will tell you they borrow one from Zipcar when they need one for a few hours. You like Renaissance art? Why buy an expensive framed print of Veronese’s Perseus and Andromeda to hang on your wall until you get sick of the sight of it, when you could simply borrow it, now and again, from a specialist art-borrower shop when you have friends coming round?

You’re probably worrying about the cost of joining a scheme like this. Don’t – it costs nothing to join. You just have to contribute something to the stock, something people would want to share. (You might want to reconsider the thermal underwear.)

Since Nikolai began his shop in 2012, 400 locals have joined him. A rash of copycat Sharing Shops has broken out elsewhere, as far afield as Würzberg and Vienna. I expect they’ll start appearing here soon. Not, I suspect, on the German model, where everyone’s very Green and community-minded and gemütlich about sharing each other’s stuff.

The British version would, I suspect, involve an outlay of money, a joining fee, to give would-be borrowers access to more glamorous stuff than they’d find in the sharing shop next door. Why clutter your home with wine glasses when you can borrow some for the evening – but do you want Poundland glasses or Dartington crystal goblets?

The borrowing economy might create a revolution in our lives but actually I hate the whole idea. When I first heard John Lennon singing “Imagine no possessions”, I was shocked to find I couldn’t imagine any such thing. Not because I’m a grasping materialist (as if), nor a psychotic hoarder, but because I like to have around me the physical manifestations of things I enjoy, or might enjoy one day.

I can’t understand my son’s generation who’ve spent years acquiring music by downloads rather than building up a collection of favourite CDs, which you can look at like a group of old pals. Ditto that collection of DVDs on the shelf, which reflects your peculiar, sorry interestingly eclectic, taste back at you.

I can’t understand people who look at my crammed bookshelves and say, “Why do you want your house to look like a second-hand bookshop?” And I’d much rather have my rooms filled, rather accusingly, with unfulfilled potential (the blender, the unplayed piano, the furniture) and future utility (the drill, those skis) than have them filled with nothing but a commitment to efficiency. Or, to put it another way, filled with nothing.

Twitter: @JohnHenryWalsh

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