Editor’s Note: This story was produced through a partnership between INDY is The 9th Street Journal, published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
In the shops around Durham, the aisles are usually well diversified with toilet paper brands supported by happy bear families and the cherubic mascots are sterile. A sign above the depleted shelves of the Target of 15/501 states: “Due to the high demand and to support all guests, we will limit the quantities of toilet paper, washable wipes and facial tissues to 1 each per guest.”
These are terrible times. An unexpected consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as paper towels and washable tissue (now infamous). It’s not just Target. The shelves echo the emptiness of Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and practically any other Durham store that sells it.
The void in the corridors of household products made room for the Durhamites. Listservs, Facebook groups and Instagram posts show how the community came together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil.
On a Durham email thread, a woman offered her recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialist retailer who sells a version said to be 100% recycled. He pointed out that he was not piling up a supply of the document (which has become somewhat of a taboo, especially in Durham for the community), but was simply a longtime subscriber to the service. Ironically, the woman seemed not to care: her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups who may have difficulty getting it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised.
Scott Sellers, the father of two children, is also trying to get some TP under the stall, so to speak. He and some of the other younger members of the list have come together to run errands for those most at risk – and make sure they get the toilet paper they need. The effort, he says, is “to emphasize the best of us”.
Sellers have listened to horror stories of stocks.
Harris Teeter supplies [toilet paper] at 6:30 in the morning, “he says,” and people are waiting in line until the deadline. “
He is still scratching his head to understand the culture of hoarding. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.
“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a shop with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, despite growing unpredictability, seems productive.
People seem to desire this feeling. Throughout the county, there is boring silence. Workplaces are closed, shops are closed. People look for control, then store their pantries and fill the linen closets with toilet paper.
A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” says Seller. “For example, this gives me a piece of anchorage during this completely uncertain period.”
Empty shelves on target on 15/501.
David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. It is agreed that it is less of use and more of preparation. When expecting a baby, this concept is called nesting: the impulse to create a comfortable space for the new baby. When a pandemic is expected, it is a question of preparing the nest for an unclear future.
“People are not familiar with the meaning of all these orders on the spot and we feel insecure,” he says. “It has been known that you must have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply that people take for granted.”
Do you think there is also some group thinking. “Get your attention when you see the empty shelves.” Everyone wonders why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but they don’t want to be the ones caught empty handed.
People have traveled extensively from Rocky Mount and Jackson County to visit his shop. So he is loudly advertising their stock: a sign outside the door boasts “We have toilet paper!”
“Supply and demand”, he underlines. “We have it; other people don’t.”
Not only is paper one of the many retailers who have decided to set a limit per customer in an attempt to flatten the inventory curve. “I want to make sure there is enough for everyone,” says Matthews.
At the end of the day, Matthews doesn’t care about the psychology behind hoarding. Like listserv sellers and volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while I’m not as soon as paper – they have plenty.
And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom and have tried to get creative. The washable wipes, which are also starting to run out (much to the displeasure of city officials) are designed to serve as an alternative to TP and dissolve in the sewers. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-attributed “No. 1 brand of washable wipes among the national brands of washable wipes, “says he begins this dissolution process immediately after washing.
The city of Durham asks to be different.
“The wipes are not washable, regardless of what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, recently published. The post office continues to implore residents to stop using the products, which can block domestic pipes or sewer lines. He summarizes the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes”, perhaps in a wink at the respiratory pandemic that causes the wave of socks.
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