Review: An Artist/Photographer Analyzes the Wanderlust of Stray Shopping Carts

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
By Julian Montague
Second edition, 2023, University of Chicago Press

Julian Montague published his first edition of The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America in 2006. We are fortunate to have his 2023 second edition because it includes an afterword, in which he describes and reflects on some of the reactions to his first edition. For instance, it won the Diagram/Booksellers prize for The Oddest Book Title of 2006. This led to a “brief, surreal period of international press” with interviewers wanting to speak “to the lunatic who wrote a book about shopping carts.” 

I like to imagine Montague explaining to the interviewer politely but a bit huffily, that it is, instead, “a conceptual art project.”

The cover text notes that it is both rigorous and absurd and offers a unique vision of how we classify and understand our urban environment. It is also, of course, a playful look at one aspect of modern capitalism narrowed down to the retail industry. Montague is an artist, graphic designer and photographer who lives in Buffalo, NY.

Montague devotes 33 pages of his photographic guide to his categorization of False and True Strays, where they may be found and why and how they may have wandered. The True Stray categories range from damaged, fragments and plow crush to plaza drift and bus stop discard. 

Montague approaches his research in a serious, analytical manner. But his tongue is planted firmly in cheek as he notes in his preface that the system has not been tested or applied widely in Western North America, Canada, or Mexico. It is probable, he says, that “the System in its present form would encompass the majority of Western stray cart activity.”  (So, do not be melancholy, shopping cart aficionados in urban areas and especially near suburban shopping malls. The carts you see in your daily runs or drives fit neatly into Montague’s categorization.)

In his introductory section, the author discusses terminology and offers notes on identification, geography, et cetera. In the next two sections, he defines his two main categories: Class A: False Strays and Class B: True Strays. (I have bold-faced some of the author’s key identifiers and characteristics of stray shopping carts.)

A True Stray example; type identified as Damaged.

Class A: False Strays may still be found on the original source (shopping center parking lot or any other business that uses shopping carts in a conventional way) but are diverted from their primary function because of damage or something that otherwise renders them useless. Such a cart may also be ultimately returned to the source from which it originated.

Class B: True Strays are in locations separate and even distant from their original source and will not be returned to their original source site. They may be damaged, used as personal property, structurally modified, vandalized, or crushed by trains or snowplows. (The author carried out most of his research in his home town of Buffalo, the snow capital of the US.) True Strays may be found in gap spaces such as ditches, spaces behind buildings, under bridges, and overpasses, and between properties, public or private. Other types are Gap Marginalization (carts moved into Gap Spaces because they have become nuisances) and Edge Marginalization (a nuisance cart removed from personal or private property to just beyond the property line).

A fourth section is made up of 88 pages of photographic specimens, each identified by category. This is where Montague displays his talent as a photographer. His specimen photos, each one captioned by category and type, are not only descriptive but sometimes quite beautiful in portraying the desolation of his subjects’ fates.  

The final two sections 5 and 6 are made up of two vandalism site studies, one simple and one complex. The simple vandalism site study is set in the Scajaguada Creek area, in the eastern suburbs of Buffalo, where many carts are submerged in the murky creek water. Montague helpfully includes a site map, identifying locations of bridges (they make it easy to dump carts into the creek) and gap spaces.

The author labels this a Snow Immobilization situation, subject to a later Plow Crush.

The complex vandalism site study is set in the Niagara River Gorge, in Niagara Reservation State Park, near a residential neighborhood that includes several sources. The park has a footbridge and an access road from the neighborhood, but the focal point of cart vandalism is a rocky ledge that overlooks the gorge. Carts are pushed off the ledge to fall 50 feet to a steep incline. In addition to shopping carts, Montague says, “the cascading field of detritus includes cars, tires, rugs, mattresses, street signs, bicycles, appliances, wood, rocks, pipes and chunks of concrete.” The site has been a hot spot for vandalism activity for decades, Montague says.

In his Afterword, Montague notes that one of the central themes of the project is the idea that the act of naming and ordering can make you see what you haven’t seen before and that describing or ordering things doesn’t make those things less strange or life less absurd. By the end of your time with Montague’s book, you may find that these stray shopping carts have taken on a poignant, humanoid aspect.

His one-page Appendix: Related Phenomena identifies objects that follow some of the same transitional patterns as shopping carts: stray plastic bags, discarded car tires, and stray traffic cones.

As I spent time with Montague’s book, I was reminded of a similar but less analytical view of urban decay and detritus. Montague’s imagery is reminiscent of the work of urbex photographer Jerry Olejniczak in his book, Abandoned Chicagoland: Rust on the Prairiesreviewed here two years ago. 

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification is available on the publisher’s website and from your favorite bookseller. If you have time on your hands, you may want to read some of the reviews on amazon.com, where readers enthusiastically endorse the value of Montague’s analysis.

All photos courtesy of the artist and the publisher. Any anthropomorphizing can be attributed to the reviewer.

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Picture of the author
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.