The first time I saw one was also the very first time I visited London in 2007. We were visiting for a week after I had lived in Sweden for half a year. Refreshing as it was to hear and see everything in English again, so much still felt lost in translation. As our friends were attempting to purchase a pack of cigarettes with handfuls of small coins at a late night deli on Brick Lane, my eyes waded through the sea of colorful snack packaging to finally land on something bright blue and canary yellow. On a slim rack attached to a mirrored support column in the middle of the store was a small selection of everyday items. The one that caught my eye was a tall yellow comb. The blue was a little piece of cardboard attached to the top with white capital letters that spelled out "BASIC NEEDS".
At first I didn't know if it was a joke, an art project, or just an oddly named but ultimately banal product line. Whatever it was, I immediately wanted it. Unfortunately, I did not need it more than a beer and at that time I was a very broke student. However, as the years passed and my visits to the UK became more frequent, I started amassing a small but steady collection of Basic Needs. My favorites were always the slightly absurd items: colorful balloons, birthday candle holders in the shape of small flowers, hair elastics with tiny bells. Who thinks up these things, anyway?
Then one day in 2012 I decided I wanted them all. Walking slowly down Kingsland Road from Dalston to Shoreditch on a Saturday night, I stopped at each small store to check for them. To my surprise, they were not as easy to find as I thought—ubiquitous only in memory. Finally, just as I reached Hoxton there was a small but very well lit convenience store. Near the back was an entire wall: rolls of tape, bandages, plastic utensils, office supplies, power converters, and small beauty items galore. In a wire basket, I started plucking the items one by one off the white display pegs. Many of the items, especially the ones from the bottom of the rack, were covered in dust. Everyone, the cashier especially, seemed amused and mildly intrigued by my sense of purpose. "What are you going to do with all these things?", he finally asked me while punching the prices into the register. I replied honestly. "I don't know yet."
"You know, the people around here don't really buy these things anymore."
"You know. Everyone wants the nice, pretty, organic things now."
"Higher quality, maybe?"
"Sure, something like that."