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Consumer cathedrals

During preparation for my move to the Bay State earlier this year, Californians would often ask what it was I liked about Massachusetts. I had a list of responses, but among the first was always, ''The stores are required by law to close on Sundays.''

This caused a variety of reactions, from incredulity, to heartfelt appreciation, to a recoiling in horror. For Californians, daily access to the great emporiums of mass consumption is a basic human right; the multi-leveled, covered, and air-conditioned shopping mall has become life's social center, if not the community's cathedral.

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Now the Massachusetts legislature is about to change what remains of the state's Sunday blue laws so as to allow all commercial establishments except package stores to remain open on Sundays. The House and Senate have already passed the measure, which still must be signed by the governor.

I should have known this was coming - after all, Massachusetts was a longtime holdout, a rebel among New England states which over the past few years had gradually followed the rest of the nation in allowing stores to open on Sundays.

When I read the news, I wondered why it caused such pangs of disappointment. I remembered how a few years ago, when living in western Massachusetts, I experienced an almost subversive sense of liberation at the sight of a quiet sea of black asphalt surrounding an equally quiet shopping mall on a Sunday afternoon. The giants of American retail merchandising were locked up tight, not by choice but because the state said they had to be.

Children were not there drooling over the newest electronic gadgets, or begging their parents for the shiny stuffed dog in the window. Adolescents were not there aimlessly passing their time surveying the display windows or checking out the latest offering in fast foods. Nor were any adults there, fufilling their dreams for ever more and more things.

All of these people were up to something else - maybe even no good - but all were taking the day off from the consumerism that occupied so much of the other days. Sunday was still a day of rest.

Now that day of rest is going to be taken away.

Nonsense, you say, no one will be required to go to the local shopping mall. True enough, but statistics will probably soon show Sunday becoming one of the biggest shopping days in Massachusetts, just as it is elsewhere in the country. The urge to shop, spend, and fulfill those consumer dreams will be hard to resist on a day when so many people are not working.

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Members of the state legislature have, of course, been given good reasons why stores should be allowed to open on Sundays.

Sales tax revenue is expected to grow by as much as $45 million, partially because people won't have to go out of state for Sunday shopping, but also because consumers, unable to resist the urge, will be spending more money. At the House debate on the issue, Jordan Marsh president Elliot Stone said his company's experience in other states proved that Sunday hours mean increased sales.

Under the legislation, no retail worker will be required to work on Sundays. This sounds good, but anyone who believes it is naive. When I was in high school I worked for a large supermarket chain in California, with the protection of the retail clerks union. I didn't care to work Sundays - and wasn't supposed to have to - but it was a busy shopping day, and other workers wanted Sundays off, too. So to avoid bad relations with my co-workers and management, I worked Sundays.

Perhaps the most convincing argument is that Sunday retail hours will mean new jobs - as many as 13,000, according to one report. This is hard to counter, with unemployment so high. In addition, it will mean that more two-income families who find it hard to get together to shop will have another day to do so.

Yet I'm reminded of a book by the French novelist Boris Vian, ''L'Ecume des jours,'' where the main character, desperate for employment, signs on to work in an armaments factory. His job is to operate a machine which runs not on electricity, oil or steam, but on the warmth of the human body. And so day after day he lies naked against the cold steel of the giant apparatus, and it churns out its product.

In a similar way, we will be keeping the wheels of consumerism turning, seven days a week. As workers, and as shoppers, we will be providing our consumer cathedrals, now cold as concrete on Sundays, with the human warmth they need to stay alive.

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