A Look Back at the Greatest (and Only) Stray Shopping Cart Identification Guide Ever Made

It’s been ten years since Julian Montague’s delightfully odd project was first published.

Image Julian Montague
Julian Montague

No matter where you are, you will inevitably come across a shopping cart. Taken for granted in their natural retail habitats, the carts that stray from their homes are the ones with a life few will ever piece together.

Some find fulfillment as repurposed objects. Others—far too many—are found mangled behind a dumpster or in a creek. It may be impossible (and a total waste of time) to figure out the stories behind these stray carts. But for those who seek some level of understanding, there is a classification system.

(Julian Montague)

The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification turns ten in 2016. Created by artist Julian Montague, the book attempts to bring clarity to a world littered with shopping carts far away from their birth stores. Written in the voice of a character who takes the project as seriously as a birder would take a birding guide, the book is as complex as it is wry.

There are 21 kinds of “true strays” and nine “false strays” depending on a cart’s condition and where it is observed. Cart-watching (carting?) can get complicated. In one photo, for example, two red shopping carts from two separate retailers are spotted. One on the left is determined to be an A/2 PLAZA DRIFT, B/18 AS REFUSE RECEPTACLE while the one next to it is a B/7 TRANSIENT IMPOSTER, B/14 ARCHAIC, B/18 AS REFUSE RECEPTACLE.

A winner of the 2006 award for Oddest Book Title of the Year, Montague’s guide received a decent amount of media attention when it came out. But, published in the rudimentary years of social media, it missed out on a chance for the level of virality it may have achieved today. So far, there are few, if any, efforts to add to Montague’s research. Perhaps it’s too good. Perhaps it’s too insane. Regardless, CityLab recently caught up with the man behind the guide to take a look back at the project and where it stands today.

How did this idea come about?

Julian Montague: The initial idea was in 1999. At the time I was starting to work as a graphic designer. I hadn’t gone to school for art or design, although I had always been kind of involved in it. The woman I was seeing at the time was a photographer and we were driving through an intersection in north Buffalo where there are all sorts of stores around and I noticed all of these shopping carts—at bus stops and on people’s lawns—in all these weird positions. I said to her, “There’s something you should do about shopping carts.” Thankfully, she wasn’t interested and we broke up not long after. I wanted an art project I could do on my own and design an interface for because I was really interested in the graphic part of it.

(Julian Montague)

I had always been taking pictures and making art, but this project ended up making me an actual professional artist. On paper it’s not much of a plan; things sort of just happened. I knew if I just photographed shopping carts it would read in a one-dimensional social documentary way, and I’m not interested in making super simple statements about consumerism. I realized it would be more interesting to figure out what’s happening with these shopping carts. That started with this very rudimentary set of designations, some of which survived through to the final version, some of which changed a lot.

It was originally published in Basta, a local zine here [in Buffalo] in the late ‘90s. People responded to it pretty quickly. By 2003, I had a show in Hartford, Connecticut, and I shot more carts there. I did a residency in Cleveland for six weeks in the winter of 2005, so I did a lot of shooting there while riding around on my bike. There are a few from Florida, a few from other random travels. It just ended up being places that I went to.

Someone from Abrams had seen my work in an art fair and asked if I had ever thought of doing a book, which I had; it was in my mind the whole time. So I put together the pitch for the book in 2005, and the book came out in 2006. In a perfect world, there’d be a full European version, but that wasn’t possible. I figured that I knew enough about the East Coast to make the claim that it’s “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America.”

(Julian Montague)

Was the structure inspired by a birding guide?

I can’t say I’m a birder, but I’ve always been a fan of the aesthetics of [the books] since I was a little kid. I also wanted the project to exist in book form. It’s not a book about the project: the book is the project, and it’s all written in the voice of someone who takes shopping carts extremely seriously. The system actually works—it’s just that nobody needs the system.

People do sometimes use it or ask me questions about it. Some people see the project as social commentary, but it’s not.

I’d go to a city, I’d look at a map and go, “Where’s the water near the shopping center?” It’s all the same everywhere. Rich areas, poor areas—people want to throw shopping carts in the water. Shopping carts are this uniquely useful thing [and] they get appropriated for all sorts of reasons. People associate them with with the homeless, [but] that’s just a tiny percentage. Really, shopping carts are just this weird utilitarian object that’s quasi-free. People cut the wheels off the bottom to make a new cart in a machine shop or a suburban garage or something. Someone finds a cart near their house and they put it in their garage in the suburbs and move stuff around.

It’s a very interesting story—how the shopping cart functions in a weird, nomadic way in suburban and urban environments—but I don’t think it’s a great indicator of the ills of society. I even found shopping carts in the canal outside the Royal Palace of Sweden! That compulsion, the vandalism part of it, that kind of general mischief seems to be universal and not necessarily a reaction to terrible economic conditions.

People take things however they want. Some look at the photos and anthropomorphize the carts and see them as victims, which I like—I think it definitely invites that kind of interpretation.

Can you talk about the section of your guide that focuses on the Niagara Gorge?

I was just hiking down the gorge, the part that’s near the Schoellkopf Power Station. I must have already started the project and had noticed it. It is pretty spectacular. It’s also spectacular what other kinds of things have been thrown off of there. There was a mattress stuck in a tree. Maybe someone just needed to throw a mattress out, which is hard to do. It just illustrates my whole theory about people throwing things off of things. Some of it may be because carts are disposable, but most is just for the thrill of doing it.

(Julian Montague)

How aware were you of people’s creative destruction and reuse of shopping carts before this project?

I wasn’t aware at all, just like everyone else. A lot of this stuff was new to me: Coming across a cart without wheels like, “Wow, someone actually sawed this off. Someone knows what they’re doing; this didn’t just break.” Once people see it and look through the book, then they see shopping carts everywhere. Once you give something a name and define it a little bit, it just pops out, which happens with birds. If you learned about birds in a birding guide, all of a sudden random birds are everywhere.

That process is fascinating to me, that you can change the way people see a certain thing just by having them come to an art exhibit—no matter how crazy it is, like this system I put together. It’s enough to make them see this peripheral space that was previously unseeable.

What kind of feedback did you get from people who weren’t from the art world?

Over the years, a lot of people have seemed interested. The publishers wanted a quirky, weird thing and so the book was marketed in the humor section. Watching people read the stuff in exhibits, it’s addressing something they know from the world, which most of my art tries to do in some way. Anybody, people totally disengaged from art, recognize the humor of it and are like, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen this scene. There’s a system behind this.” People got all of that.

How long did it take to develop all the classes and types?

A couple of years. A lot of the work was done in bursts, but it was pretty much in place by 2003. Just figuring out the logic of the whole thing and being very rigorous with it. Looking back, [it’s] weird because I’m so far away from it that it looks like someone else did it. I even had these other things from earlier stages of the project that I ended up cutting, like charts showing which types can become other types. They’re beautiful graphics but were really hard to logically figure out.

I think what a lot of people misunderstand from looking at this project is that I’m not a super organized, anal person. This is a character I play. It’s a huge effort to actually think this way; I’m not good at math. I aspire to be orderly and organized and I love this clean design and all this stuff, but in reality this sort of organizational thinking is not something that comes naturally to me. When people see your work, they tend to associate it immediately with you but this is much more like an actor playing a role than it is a portrait of my mind.

So people who only knew about you through this project assumed you were a savant obsessed with shopping carts?

When I won the prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year in 2006—which was my real 15 minutes of fame—it was absolutely like that. Before, I was mostly encountering people in the art world and people who thought, “Oh, you must be so OCD to think like this,” and then I’d explain that it’s not quite like that. But when I won that prize, I ended up being interviewed on the BBC World Service and other places.

The prize is a silly thing in the sense that there are unintentionally hilarious book titles—that’s one thing—versus a knowingly ironic contemporary art thing that’s weird, so they really shouldn’t be the same category. Nevertheless, I’m very glad that I won it because it really was huge publicity.

(Julian Montague)

The AP picked it up so it was basically in every English language newspaper in the world. I was standing in my kitchen talking to some morning radio show in England with 7 million people listening to it. It was really weird. I’m fairly comfortable being able to talk about these things in a very short amount of time to frame what you do and why you do it and make it sound interesting or funny. With the World Service, I was interviewed and after I got off the air, they were like “Wow, do you think anyone would actually buy that thing?” They wanted to talk to a total weirdo, but they didn’t necessarily get that.

The book keeps popping up in weird ways. A couple of years ago, the AV Club had it on a gift list. I don’t think it’s sold enough to get me any new royalties. They printed like 5,000 copies. Nevertheless, it’s done me a world of good.

You’d say it’s aged pretty well after 10 years?

There are always ways it can be improved. I’ve done a few performative things where I read from the book and I realize reading through it that maybe I could have changed the wording here and there. There are some design issues—like the typeface selection—which I don’t think are bad, but you’re always evolving as you think about these things. Generally, I think it’s okay. It’s weird that all this time has passed. I’ve done a lot of other stuff since, but nothing as successful.

Has it had an impact on the way you categorize other projects since?

In my subsequent project, which is about the intersection of animals and architecture, I use the device of a fictional character at the center of it and I make fake books that the character reads. I’m definitely still playing in a similar world that I created here, but a little less rigorous and a lot weirder. I more or less make work that is reaching out into the world—taking something that people are already familiar with and then reinterpreting it, as opposed to making work that is a dialogue with art history.

With Animals and Architecture, a lot of it is about spiders—something people are aware of. It’s an opportunity for me to think about that space in a hidden world and a way to make it interesting, and that’s what I like to do. The shopping cart project is really the best example of that, because it worked on people. They see it and are like, “I see shopping carts everywhere now!” When an artwork can change the way I see something or think about something I encounter in the world, then I feel like it’s a successful piece of work.

I did get a lot of Internet attention and it got passed around, especially when that prize came out. Right now it’s popping up in a viral “The Stupidest Book Covers, Ever!” list put together by some moron intern, probably. But I do have regrets in regards to the virality of it. I really should have set up something where people could send in pictures of carts, something that would engage the audience in setting up a database of cart images. I had talked a couple of years ago with someone about doing an app version. I don’t really think that’s where my energies are, but that does feel like a missed opportunity. People send me pictures of shopping carts now, especially if they see one in a really weird situation. I’ll still take a picture of one at the right place and time, but it doesn’t feel as vital to me now.

(Julian Montague)

So no updated field guide in the works?

I don’t know. If someone came to me and said, “Do a new edition,” it’d be weird to get back into that mindset. Totally doable, though. It must feel like what bands feel when they have to play songs they wrote when they were 22 and now they’re 50.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the Author

  • Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.