“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 us—he 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 reverend—he’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 prices—but you know it’s that old conundrum: It’s cheaper because the stuff is made in sweatshops.”
Though not everyone loves Billy—Starbucks 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 words—campy and over-the-top as they may be—began 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.”
Well, I’m certainly not buying less, I think to myself. Since Billy is getting colder by the minute (plus, though he doesn’t say so, I sense he is dying to buy something), we go over to 10th between First and A, where a brand-new consignment shop called Matiell opened 11 days ago.
“This is the spot!” Billy says as soon as we enter. Two seconds later, he is on his knees, not praying but rifling thoughtfully through a low rack of sweaters. When he finds a knitted polo with a Barneys label, he pops it on and loves what he sees. “Wow, jeesh, wow! This is from one of those yuppies I’m always badmouthing from the pulpit. Wow, only $20!” He fingers another pullover and I notice him sneaking a glimpse at its Boss label. “I can’t stop—I can’t stop shopping!” he wails at the top of his lungs. “I’m glad Spurlock, who produced my movie, isn’t in this store! I can confess to you, Lynn, but I don’t want it on the silver screen!”
He takes another gander at the mirror and proclaims, “Woo-hoo—it’s Billy time on the avenue! What we are seeing here is depraved sin.” Alas, the Boss garment is three times as much as the Barneys sweater. Billy wants both but buys only the cheaper one, planning to discuss the situation with his wife, who is the director of the Church of Stop Shopping. “I’m gonna talk to Savitri about this one. It’s such a beauty,” he says. “It’s so handsome.”
We’re about to leave when Billy notices a pair of thick, soft trousers. “Wow, lemme try these on!” He drops his pants—he’s not a shy guy—and says, “I think I’ve got permission to get a good warm pair of pants.”
Yeah, but do they have to be Versace? I say, eyeing the label.
“They’re a perfect fit! Oh my God, I have to buy these,” he says. “I just don’t care about my reputation. You think they’re warm? Oh, man, feel that—it’s brilliant—I gotta have them. I’m wearing them! Oh, it’s terrible! Eighty bucks! Wait, I can’t get them over my boots.” He tucks them in, then checks the mirror like the most hardened fashionista and sighs, “OK, I’m vain. It’s a different look, but it’s good.”
When the owner asks him if he’d like a shopping bag for his purchases, Billy is horrified—it probably wouldn’t do for the head of the Church of Stop Shopping to be seen in the East Village with bags of new clothes. As we head out into the chilly twilight, I ask Billy, now snug in his Versace pants, his Barneys sweater secretly sequestered in his backpack, if he is having the best time ever. I mean the whole season, what with the book and the movie and all, but he misunderstands. “Oh, yes!” he crows. “The fun of shopping!”