Today, my wife and spent what would have been a thousand dollars at any other time — for less that a hundred dollars! We spent it on a “90% off” sale as the Hartford Seminary Bookstore closed today. While I love the savings, and I’m sure it looks good from a financial standpoint, I feel bad taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune — rather like buying a foreclosed home on the cheap. It just seems like bad karma. Helping myself while someone else becomes homeless just doesn’t seem right to me.
Anyway, while I was at the bookstore, my wife and I got to wondering if the seminary bookstore in Rochester was going to close and she talked about how even bigger schools order books on-line now. Apparently, it’s more streamlined to buy and sell books online individually. While Michelle thinks it just moves jobs around in the economy, I think it’s just a way for the corporate giants to rip us off, take people out of the market and keep the profits for themselves. Needless to say, I’m more skeptical — or maybe just more depressed — at the bookstore’s closing. The one thing we agreed on is that one less bookstore means the loss of an experience. She said, “How will I know what’s out there if I don’t see the displays in the stores?”. Stores provide an odd thing: the sense that I don’t know everything about the universe. I don’t know what’s just been published, or what book might change my life if I come across it on some dusty shelf or what mystery author I might discover by accident because it’s on a shelf. Because someone else is presenting it to me, I have little control over what I come across. I can’t just read what I think will re-inforce my own position. Mystery can happen. Magic can happen. As it is, if I go on line and search, I usually go searching for what I think I need and Google or whoever tells me what it looks like — or at least the top 10 versions of it — 50 if I really want to go searching. But today, I bought books that “popped out at me” — something I’d like to read some day or about a project I’d like to dream about or things that just looked interesting that I never would have considered. I don’t think I bought one book I’d ever thought of before, but they all look fascinating to me. So now, I don’t have to just listen to myself talk or think, I am forced — through chance or coincidence — to hear a viewpoint I didn’t even know was out there. That’s cool.
In the same way, while we were hanging around outside the bookkstore, we were talking about my new Ipod Touch — an incredible gizmo that does so many things that I’m sure it will be a part of my personal life for a long time. It’s a GREAT gizmo, but it comes with a price. The thing I will most do with it is download music — singles, mostly, that I heard on the radio or were recommended by a friend.
But does anybody remember the “concept album”? Every song is a piece of the puzzle, making the whole more than just the sum of the parts. That’s gone if you leave it up to me to pick the songs. One of my favorite records of all time is Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World”. The album contains 2 “classic” cuts — “Shining Star” and “That’s the Way of the World” , but it has incredible other songs — “Reasons” (another hit by itself), but my favorite song is called “All About Love” and it’s incredibly beautiful and full of all kinds of advice a 14 year old boy needed to hear to have confidence with women. Besides that, there are these incredibly funky songs between songs — instrumental pieces — that aren’t even credited on the album. But they are there and they just pop up out of nowhere at some of the best spots. And if I bought the singles, I would never hear these brilliant, cool things! Cindy Lauper’s albums in the 1980’s yielded 5 or 6 hits, until the entire album was out in one form or another. Likewise for Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man” album/CD. But that means there were at least 5 pieces of music that were worth hearing, and probably more. If you bought the album, you knew that already and probably didn’t spend as much as you would buying each single.
When an artist puts out an album/CD or whatever, there are some pieces that never make it to the radio. When records had to be flipped over, there was a “B” side — some song that the artist or their company thought should go on the the other side. The Beatles often had songs on the “B” side that became hits. Numerous other artists had their “B” side become the hit single and were as surprised as anybody when it happened.
Remember when Forrest Gumo said “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get”? Bookstores and complete albums are the box in that sentence. The sensation of going into record store or a bookstore is not one my kids will probably remember — or they might be the last generation to do so. They will never know album art or the surreal sense that there’s all kinds of things out there — even in the bargain bin — that might change your life. The smell of old books in a bookstore will be gone for them, as will the chance to meet a future loved one for the first time over mutual interest in books or music. Buying as a public thing will go the way of the dinosaur, so the chance to meet some person by asking if they’ve ever heard of this music or that book is gone. We will isolate and go even further from knowing each other because we are in control of our lives and we can have it delivered. This is a big deal.
This leads me to my last good/bad gizmo. We have Netflix and we have a Wii. Both really cool and really inexpensive entertainment. If you put them together, you can watch movies streaming on the TV — nearly any movie. And with the price of movie theaters these days, my family and I can watch a whole months worth of movies, etc. for less than it costs the family to go out — and if they want popcorn, we could spend 6 months of Netflix on one movie — easily. So, with the economy the way it is, we’ll stay home and be entertained. The public time — the sense of movies on the big screen with a crowd that laughs or cries together will be lost. Assuming I have grandchlidren, they will probably never see a movie with a crowd in quite the same way that we do now. I remember the opening night of “The Empire Strikes Back” in Hollywood at 2 o’clock in the morning and laughing with the crowd, avoiding the spaceships on the screen with the rest of the people there, and appaluding at the end. My kids have seen Star Wars and Empire by now, I think. But they’ll never know the thrill of watching it publicly, with a crowd of 200 people or so on a screen bigger than your house. Darth Vader or the shark from Jaws aren’t nearly as frightening when they’re in your house.
Do I love3 my computer and Barnes and Noble.com? Do I really love my Ipod? Do I love the convenience and money savings of Netflix? A resounding “YES!” to all of those. But I worry sometimes about the loss that comes with them. Bookstore closings are really depressing — especially if you associate the place with good people and good times and the mystery of what happens next. So I grieve and I celebrate all at the same time, for the beginning of the new gizmos and end of these eras.