By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
"Let's face our contradictions right up front! We all sin and we all forgive each other," Reverend Billy, founder of the Church of Stop Shopping, preaches to me outside the Voice building, where we are meeting because the reverend has agreed to join me for, believe it or not, an afternoon of shopping.
Since I am a member of my own personal Church of Never Stop Shopping and Billy is famous for his bombastic anti-consumerist proselytizing, I suspect he will view me with a combination of contempt and disgust, but how wrong am I. He may believe fervently that, in his words, "the shopocalypse is upon us. . . . Who will be $aved?" and he may spend every minute of his waking life organizing anti-spending crusades at places like Macy's and Victoria's Secret, but today Billy himself is exactly like the weakest, most craven among ushe really, really wants to buy something.
Maybe this is because it's freezing and he's just not bundled up enough. "I'm missing a layer," he says. "When you buy things in thrift stores, it's hard to control the kinds of items you'll find." He's wearing a shirt and sweater covered by a very nice gray wool jacket that he admits he appropriated last summer when he found it draped over a motorcycle in the West Village. You stole it, Billy? "In our church, everyone is a sinner and we forgive each other!" he thunders cheerfully.
It's been a big year for the reverendhe's got a book out (Kurt Vonnegut gave him a blurb, he tells me proudly when we stop by St. Marks Books, where Billy begs the clerk, without much success, to display the book more prominently), and he's the subject of a documentary entitled What Would Jesus Buy?, which chronicles Billy and his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a national bus tour. It's a long way from Bill Talen, East Village performance artist and poet, to tongue-in-cheek anti-capitalist faux-clergyman. Or maybe not.
Where are we headed? Not to the Astor Place Kmart, surely, though when I admit that I have made friends with that behemoth and now venture in frequently for Martha Stewart towels and three-packs of Hanes panties, Billy says sadly, "I go there, too. They've got better pricesbut you know it's that old conundrum: It's cheaper because the stuff is made in sweatshops."
Though not everyone loves BillyStarbucks has banned him from its stores following his frequent raucous visits, during which he has placed his hand on the cash register and tried to exorcise "the beast of the evil within it"he's quite the star in the East Village. "Hey, Billy, saw you last year at the Continental! I have you as a MySpace friend," one guy says. Another fellow introduces his little daughter, who is carrying Anya Hindmarch's "I'm Not a Plastic Bag" tote. Inside Loves Saves the Day, a vintage store that has somehow resisted waves of gentrification and survived on the corner of 7th and Second, another side of Billy fully emerges.
"This place excites my memories," he says, gleefully pawing though the racks of old clothes. I tell him I feel the same way about Saks Fifth Avenue, and he is stunned: "You've got something on your body from Saks?" (Gee, guess it doesn't look it.) Ignoring the pirate hats and Howdy Doody night lights, the reverend makes a beeline for a double-breasted '70s-era jacket. "What do you call this color, Lynn?" Ocher? Mustard? I venture, adding that the back vents are still stitched, an indication that no lounge lizard has ever worn this garment. "Wow, I'm lucky to be shopping with a fashion editor. Hallelujah, amen!" Billy booms. (He's been studying with an opera singer so he can really crank up the volume, since the cops keep confiscating his bullhorns.) Spying a looming Mickey Mouse doll, Billy explodes. "Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist! Mickey Mouse is Satan!"
Why does he hate the rodent with such virulence? Is it because this whole Reverend Billy business has its roots in the Disneyfication of Times Square, where Billy first set up his pulpit in the late '90s? "A therapist once told me Mickey Mouse is really my father, and my dad does have a big grin and prominent ears," he says. "Actually, I like my dad, but we're very different. He's a Dutch Calvinist from the Midwest." Like many parents with truly wacky children, the reverend's dad appears to have come around: "When my picture was in The New Yorker, he sent a copy to me, laminated."
In the end, we have no luck at Love Saves the Day. We head east, past the Chase bank where the Second Avenue Deli used to be. "I blame myself for this!" he says. "We should have been all over it, protesting, but it went up so fast. We have to enact anti-chain-store legislation."
But not everything is so bleak. In fact, suddenly Billy's message seems to be captivating all kinds of people, a turn of events that has left him frankly astonished. "I started out talking to entrenched ironists about forgiveness and gratitude." But then his wordscampy and over-the-top as they may bebegan reaching a different audience. In one burst of interviews, he recalls, a questioner from a right-wing apocalyptic magazine was followed by a writer from Hustler and then a reporter from CNN. He shrugs. "If committed evangelical Christians are buying less," he says, "then that's a good thing."