Aging with Amazon: A Purchase History Memoir

If you are what you buy (is that a saying?), then Tim Lehman’s Amazon purchase history paints an accurate portrait of his life.

Photo by George Grinsted

I don’t remember how I first found Amazon. I do remember that I was in fifth grade, and my family still used dial up — whichever ad-supported client-of-the-month my dad had picked most recently. I recall my mom’s reaction when I excitedly called up to her in kitchen, telling her that I found a place to buy books online. She had heard of Amazon and thought that it sounded dangerous. She wasn’t worried about internet security or credit card fraud or anything that scared early users of the internet. What worried her was that she knew me — she was worried about all the money I could spend.

Within each Amazon user’s account is a “Your Orders” section that lists every purchase made by that account, broken down by year. It’s a history that, until recently, could only be constructed by saving old receipts. I grew up along with Amazon, in a way, and each item in my history helps describe who I am and who I was at the time of purchase.

My first order occurred on my birthday. It was 1999, I was in seventh grade, and I was intrigued by my friend Tucker’s gym class soliloquies about Nimbus 2000 broomsticks, the superior Thunderbolt, and a sport called Quidditch. With birthday money pooled, I bought the first three Harry Potter novels. It was an inadvertently prescient order — my first purchase from a website that helped define a decade was for three decade-defining books. My next order was less prescient (though no less timely): a Lego edition of Anakin Skywalker’s podracer from Star Wars: Episode I. I enjoyed building the toy more than the movie.

Y2K began with another milestone: my first online pre-order. I was so excited by the idea of pre-ordering the next Harry Potter that I placed the order six months early — so early that the book was listed under its working title.

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The next few years saw sporadic purchases — Christmas and birthday gifts for a favored cousin, Star Wars and Spider-Man DVDs for myself. Two purchases in 2005 stand out. In January, a copy of Inside the World of Philip Pullman: Darkness Visible; in October, Halo for Mac. The Pullman book was recommended by my mom as I searched for the sources I needed to write my senior thesis. It was a studious purchase, an order symbolizing the work I did all spring writing and preparing for my end-of-year exams. Halo was the opposite. After spending my senior year working harder in school than I ever had before, freshman year of college afforded me more free time than I knew what to do with. I didn’t actually get very far in Halo — I spent far more time watching The X-Files (the complete 5th season purchased November 2006).

After freshman year I was sick of paying outrageous prices for textbooks from the school store, so I turned again to Amazon. That semester I bought both Thomas Elsaesser’s Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative and 501 Spanish Verbs. I don’t remember ever opening either. I did, however, devour copies of the comic books 300 and Watchmen upon their arrival. Later in my sophomore year I bought a box set of all three seasons of Arrested Development. To my dismay, one disc of season three arrived scratched and unplayable. I alerted Amazon, and quickly received an entire replacement set. That reminds me: Anybody want to buy seasons one and two of Arrested Development? Mint condition.

During junior year, my eyes were opened to smart online writing from places like Daring Fireball and podcasts like You Look Nice Today. These were important discoveries for me, artifacts of an online community writing intelligently about things they cared passionately about. I celebrated by buying a Moleskine notebook and A Confederacy of Dunces.

I graduated from college and began dating a nice girl, who remains my girlfriend to this day. This means that, regardless of how many knots my stomach clenches into when I look back over the Christmas and anniversary gifts I ordered for her, no matter the embarrassment I feel when I think back to giving her pots and pans and the Glee soundtrack, my chronically unromantic orders from Amazon have not yet been responsible for the end of our relationship.

Judging by my Amazon purchases, 2011 may be the year that I make the mental leap into adulthood. I’ve placed three orders so far, and not one of them has been for Star Wars memorabilia or Harry Potter books. Order one was for printer paper (to print my taxes). Order two was an Aeropress coffeemaker (because I wake up early for my job and the Mr. Coffee just wasn’t cutting it anymore — nor was it successfully brewing pots of coffee, for that matter). Order three — currently in transit — is for a pair of shoe trees that I’m hoping will help reduce the habitual odor issues my shoes suffer from.

On their own, the things I’ve bought from Amazon don’t mean much — toys when I was younger, books while in college, household items as I began to rent a place of my own — but each one triggers a memory. I’m reminded of spending a week straight playing Quest for Glory 5 one summer with my cousin. The voice recorder I bought takes me back to the semester I interned for a local news website. Looking back over the books I purchased while in college reminds me of how much required reading I skipped.

I have no idea where many of these things I bought ended up — that podracer is probably laying in 134 pieces somewhere — but Amazon’s record is as good as the items themselves. Each order is a snapshot, and together they form of photo album of a specific part of my life. Things break or disappear. My purchase history is forever.


Photo by George Grinsted

Tim Lehman is a graduate of Macalester College. In his spare time, he attempts to relive the four months he spent studying in Amsterdam by drinking Grolsch and eating sub-standard Minnesota falafel. He may well be missing the point.