It's hard to tell if the appeal of Austin, Texas comes from—or in spite of—the SXSW festival that inundates its city, with philanthropists and opportunists alike looking for the next moment to self-promote their life's work in an overwhelming and crazy week. The main characteristics of the town, (and it is a town, despite its capitol status or the population that boasts almost 1 million) is humble and dusty, like it was partially cleaned off and placed on view for visitors trying to relieve a pang of nostalgia. Austin's residents are there in refurbished food trucks and kitschy craft shops: living their lives with a laid-back coolness that an out-dated camera might acquire behind a museum glass window.
Of course, this is what also makes it the cutting edge of hipsterdom, where thrift shops are the authentic version of Amazon and local music venues eclipse the shiny appeal of iTunes. SXSW is the embodiment of that trend, with discoverable new foodie obsessions, underground bands, and young start-ups on every corner. It is the epitome of the millennial mantra: I don't need work/life balance because my passion is my work which is my life. I will create and endorse companies with a consciousness that gives back to the local community. It's subscribing to a brand not just because of the product, but because of what it represents and how that in turn adds to the self-effacing image that I curate to the world.
It's a unique place that can categorize Whole Foods, which started as a local business in 1980 and has since grown into a multi-billion dollar company, as a sell-out. But to the many locals aiming to "Keep Austin Weird", this mega-chain could be called just that. A failure. An outright abandonment of the cool, eclectic, and strange.
Of course, it wouldn't be Texas without some overblown pride as well. Michael, my friend and personal tour guide during my visit, couldn't help but point out Bill Clinton's favorite taco place. He proclaimed Austin the "New Hollywood" and highlighted the multitude of celebrities living in the area such as actress Sandra Bullock and fashion designer Tom Ford. This all before we arrived for lunch at the Hopdoddy Burger Bar.
It's not hard to imagine what's made this burger place a success south of the river: pairing hormone-free beef with handcrafted beer and freshly baked buns from scratch is what Austinites would call culinary heaven. A crowd snaked around the side of the building in a line of plaid and jeans, but we were randomly offered a seat at the bar instead of having to wait for a table. I asked the bartender for a beer that had flavor but wasn't too strong. Without further consultation, he started pouring me a beer from the tap. He placed a Texas-sized glass in front of me, which was frothing with handcrafted bubbles of flavor. With two hands and a firm grip, I picked it up to taste it. "It's brewed here in Austin," he said with a confident nod.
I asked if this was the only location of this restaurant, to which he answered that there were indeed three more, one of which was in Arizona. He took our orders (I had the Magic Shroom), and headed to the kitchen. Michael looked pensive as he stared into his micro-brew, and I asked him what was the matter. "I didn't know there was one in Arizona," he said.
After our meal, we walked back into the sun. North towards the downtown area was Snack Bar (which offers "globally inspiring, locally grown, ethical foods...with nostalgic Austin ambiance") and the sentimentally named Heritage Boot, an upscale leather shop featuring handmade Western-style boots. Of course this shop exists which a certain artful irony to further emphasize the strangeness between the two demographics of the town, one steeped in tradition and the other obsessed with curating the present: the cast of caricatures being the southern Republican cowboy and the liberal earth-conscious hipster living together. Hilarity ensues?
Michael suggested a popular thrift shop he thought I would enjoy, so we made our way further down South Congress Avenue towards Uncommon Objects, self-described as "your eccentric uncle's attic on steroids" as well as "genuine" and "quirky". This is Austin, and this is to be expected, but in this case it turned out also to be undeniably true.
Through the squeaky doors we walked into what was actually one large room made into smaller segments by the placement of stuff. Different furniture and decorations categorized different areas into nooks of dust and charm. The woman behind the counter, obviously trying to keep up with the influx of SXSW festival goers, hustled from behind a long glass counter to show the odd brooch or rusted mirror to interested customers.
Meanwhile, (proudly ignorant of any loss of value), old cameras, whimsically strewn up chairs, and trunks of yellowed pictures and postcards sat on self-aware desks. Books that were published a hundred years ago lie in carefully curated bookshelves, flanked by barnacle-covered glass bottles.
Watches that had been deemed obliterated by the convenience of cellphones at the turn of the century now were a fashion necessity. Knick knacks you would pass over at a garage sale were being sold at high prices for their character and history.
It was a beautiful store, and having lived in Williamsburg I felt a certain unique kinship (though not a full understanding) of the whole movement.
On the surface, SXSW seems like a forward-thinking, capitalist dream. Companies lure crowds in with giveaways of water bottles and t-shirts. Once, a women literally screamed out a hashtag while she was crossing the street, promising free pizza to anyone that gave the company a shout-out on Twitter. And yet: Uber was picking people up for free, food trucks were getting Yelp reviews on their organic vegan tortillas, and Samsung allowed the public to play video games on their giant plasma screens.
Despite what could be viewed as an obnoxious branding initiative, SXSW maintains a certain charm because of the town that hosts it. Austin tolerates these big brands as a compliment to the full potential of the city, and the brands themselves respects millennial values by not just hashtagging, but by interacting with people in unique and innovative ways. And by calling themselves eccentric and strange if they think that will help.
In many ways, Austin could be easily dismissed as too self-conscious about its "weirdness" to be weird at all, like a girl telling a group of friends that she doesn't think she's pretty, then pausing for a response.
In that awkward pause, you realize that there is very little you can say. Austin is weird, and it likes it that way.