Guest Q&A: Buy-By Brian: Losing all, starting over, learning much

[Today brings you the latest guest Q&A, conducted by Ada Puiu, a senior at (or actually, I believe, a recent graduate of) the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto. Her earlier Q&As are here and here. More about guest Q&As here.]

I got my baby back, originally uploaded by BrokenStar57.

Imagine going to bed one night, waking up, and discovering everything you owned (from the sentimental to the practical to the luxury) is gone. This is exactly what happened to designer Brian Jones. After waking up on the day of his big life move from San Francisco to Chicago, Brian faced the harsh reality that the van sitting outside his home, filled with all all of his possessions, had been stolen while he slept. After trying in vain to recover some of his life, he decided to look at this tragedy as an opportunity — a way to reach a better understanding of what it means to be a consumer.

Since late-August 2007, the Buy-By Brian Blog ( has been a virtual diary of every item Brian has had to purchase (and repurchase) in order to rebuild the material part of his life. Some things (like pictures or his work) cannot be bought back. But in the more than 100 entries he has written over the past 9 months, he has chronicled every non-disposable item he has bought, and has given his readers an insight into what factors influence his buying decisions (need/want, price, sentimentality, etc). In reading his entries, I’ve actually found myself becoming more aware of how much we consume as a culture, and how easy it is to fill our lives with “wants” rather than ‘needs’ – something I was always aware of as a business student, but rarely got the chance to see illustrated in a real-life way.

Brian was kind enough to answer some questions for this Q&A, giving a little more insight into what this project means to him.

– Ada Puiu

Q: If it’s true that “you are what you buy,” you’ve pretty much opened up your entire life to your readers. You even make a point of recounting things you’ve bought that may be out of the norm, or even embarrassing (the tweezers, for example). Have you noticed your buying habits change at all with everything being so out in the open?

A: Ha, yes. I debated with myself about the tweezers for a while. Surprisingly that’s probably the most personal thing I’ve purchased. That and all my readers know that I prefer briefs to boxers. A lot of the personal items people buy usually fall under the “disposables” category, which I decided in the beginning not to include in this project.

What the pluck, originally uploaded by BrokenStar57.

As terrible as it was to lose all that I did, it was extremely liberating. I actually don’t like buying things now. After seeing how simple and clutter-free my life can be, every purchase makes me feel that much more weighed down. However, this conflicts quite a bit with me writing a blog about the things I buy. Sometimes I actually feel like I should go shopping just because it’s been two weeks since I posted something.

How much of what you’ve bought has actually replaced what you used to have, and how much has been things you’ve always wanted but never got around to purchasing?

There are only two or three things I’ve bought that are exact replacements of items I had previously. Those were some of the harder things to buy because I’m thinking, “I had this already!”

My goal has been to purchase fewer things that are higher quality, so they will last much longer. I’ve also tried to buy as responsibly as I can, which has been much harder than I hoped. It’s amazing how few things are made in the USA or even Canada and it’s made me realize how wide open the market is for (well-designed) green products. Although as we’ve seen recently with Nau, it’s not an easy market to take on.

What type of response have you been getting from people reading your blog?

I don’t get much feedback in the way of comments, but I do track the site with Google analytics and gain some pretty interesting insight from it. Since I list all of the part numbers, make and model of what I buy, I get a lot of traffic from people Googling specific keywords. Of all the things I’ve purchased, the most popular product searched is a wall-mount bike hanger—which I bought and wasn’t even able to use.

What sort of insights have you gained into consumer habits and buying power?

We buy way too much stuff. The hardest part of making each post is deciding whether to categorize the item as a “need” or a “want.” I’ve found that sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit either. Those items, along with all the wants, tend to have a much shorter lifespan in our culture, usually because of perceived obsolescence. We constantly want to replace the old with the new, even if the old is still fully capable of serving its purpose. Even when I am buying a “green product” I try to discern whether I really need it or not. Green consumption is such an oxymoron. If you are buying something you really need, buying responsibly is always the better option. But when someone is buying a pair of Tom’s Shoes just to add another pair of shoes to their overflowing closet, you have to question the logic.

You mention in your first post that you were concerned about what would drive someone to steal someone else’s possessions. What have you gleened from your experiment so far in terms of better understanding the mentality of committing such an act?


I understand that people need to provide for themselves and will go about it by whatever means they know. I’m sure someone got a fair amount of money to feed themselves or their addictions with some of my computer equipment, but most of those things had little or no value on the streets or even in a pawnshop. I am just really curious to know what thoughts went through these guys’ heads (if anything) once they got back to their lair and realized that they had the entire life possessions of a single individual.

Finally, how long are you planning on chronicling your purchases?

A: The original plan was to do it for a year and turn it into a book of some sort. As much as this is a cataloging project, it’s also a photography project for me. But in an effort to post things in a timely manner, some of the shots were never really captured the way I would have liked, and the commentary may not have been fully realized. There is a good chance that I will continue doing this, if for nothing other than my renter’s insurance (which I didn’t have last time around).

Stick a fork in it, originally uploaded by BrokenStar57.

Murketing thanks Ada Puiu, and Brian Jones of Also. check out a Flickr set of Mr. Jones’ images here.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I think it is quite interesting that Brian re-consider to buy stuff. Of course, there are some ‘need’ items and ‘want’ items, but I think it is real personal matters to decide consumer habits.
If I were Brian, I would constantly buy stuff, but nothing will ever fill the void.
Well, maybe consider to buy stuff more carefully, of course.

Written By Young Choi on December 17th, 2008 @ 4:33 pm
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