In a cab heading south from Santa Monica to LAX a few weeks ago, I am immediately struck by a profound gap in the landscape. At once, I am reminded to take time to mourn for something very specific for a moment or two before it disappears completely. Among the ugly urban scatter that defines LA's endless strip architecture, you will see, if you look closely, the beginning of an epidemic. It is the rapid and steady decline of stores that once sold the artifacts we used to call records, CDs, books, movie rentals and even games. At some point, in the not so distant future, we will live in a world without the places that used to give us physical access to music, cinema and literature.
I am not suggesting that you shed tears for the massive, empty retail spaces that once housed "Blockbuster", "Hollywood Video", "Tower Records", "Musicland" and eventually, in the not-to-distant future "Border's" and "Barnes & Noble". Despite their shameless "massness", their eager prominent promotion of mediocrity, they served as place for people to use their hands, noses and ears to explore. Of course, the real victims here are the tens of thousands of small record, book and video stores where passionate zealots stood behind counters parsing out words of wisdom and turning on the young and old to new and old classics. Even Nick Hornby, who captured all that was good and noble about this dying class in his seminal story 'High Fidelity', has probably acquiesced. Acknowledging the futility of trying to maintain purity in this changing world, he has probably to some extent gone 'digital' himself.
But these thoughts are not about eulogizing badly run businesses that refused to accept and adapt to the future. Rather, they are a lament for future generations who will never have the chance to discover for themselves, the physical objects that can be seminal pieces of art with the power to change their lives. Way too much has already been said about the beauty, perfection and ugly consequences of the devices that are so much a part of our world. I will resist piling on and try, instead, to make a point or two about a subtle downstream consequence. Apple is not a villain here, nor is Amazon, Netflix or Microsoft, and none deserve punishment for the many deaths they have facilitated. Still, amidst the settling dust of iPods/phones/pads, Kindle's, and XBOX's, people are forgetting how to use their hands and eyes to discover.
I, myself, am guilty. I own multiple laptops and PCs, an iPhone, iPod, iPad, Kindle and XBOX. I am no longer a very frequent patron of the stores and rituals that helped define, in no small way, my own cultural foundation. I have not bought a piece of physical music since I starting buying MP3's online from primarily eMusic three years ago. I watch movies streaming from Netflix on Roku or XBOX Live. For me enjoying the product is unchanged. It can be more spontaneous, and the satisfaction is instantaneous, but the process of discovery while perhaps more efficient and precise, is also antiseptic and undifferentiated. I no longer interact with humans when picking movies or music. I can no longer recall the store or time and place, when I first touched a life-changing piece of art. It is now just clicks on a screen.
I spent much of my youth, from the moment I could drive, rifling through the musty bins of the used record stores on Coventry Road in Cleveland looking for hidden gems (where I first heard Yo La Tengo playing while I shopped). After college, in NYC, I spent even more hours on St. Mark's rifling through even bigger bins at five or six stores along one small block - they are all gone now. After moving to San Francisco, just over a decade ago, I was introduced to Amoeba Records, a massive former bowling alley on Haight Street still filled with literally millions of pieces of music. Although it still survives, I haven't been in years. I have probably spent a few thousand hours of my life collecting music, flipping through vinyl, inspecting the grooves, breathing in the unique smells of the stores, chatting with the overeducated clerks and peering over the shoulders of the surrounding hipsters looking for tips. Back then I was never looking for the obvious, but hoping to hit pay dirt by unearthing some hidden gem, overlooked by the rest of the world, sitting idle and marked down in the clearance bin. Hours would fly by, and when I was finished, I would dash back to enjoy the fruits of the joyful harvest. I still remember the ritual of inspecting the album art, scanning the lyrics printed on the vinyl sleeve, reading the liner notes. I now barely even remember the names of songs. Of course, without the immediacy and completeness of store inventories, you really needed to "look" hard. Now of course, almost everything you can imagine and much you could not is available instantly, no work required. This is good and bad.
It must have been during high school in the mid 80's when I first started visiting video stores. I grew up in a small town in a pre-Blockbuster era or area (I really don't remember). I would occasionally spend as long as it might take to watch a film, looking at the tattered VHS boxes in the small not very well stocked store reading the short reviews, studying the cast, and admiring the art. In NYC it was Kim's Video that turned me on to the films of Mike Leigh, Jim Jarmusch, and others because that store was stocked based on director instead of genre. This was, at the time, revolutionary. By the time I got to graduate school in NYC in 1995 I was lucky enough to live near the incredible Movie Place video store on the Upper West side where I received an informal education from the "professors" who worked in the store. Remember, Tarrantino himself and and many others also honed their cinematic educations at the counters of video stores, watching movies all day and selling recommendations for free out of passion. Talking and touching were the only ways to make decisions at the store.
A bit later on, I began to appreciate the beauty of book stores. To be specific, I discovered the Strand bookstore in NY (where I first stumbled on Paul Auster), Powell's in Portland (where I discovered Murakami), and the book stalls along the Thames (where I first bought Martin Amis). It takes longer to read books, so I went less often. Still, a great bookstore, even the paradigm shifting Barnes & Noble superstores that emerged in the early 90's, became a different sort of destination with comfy chairs and coffee. Because of this, some suspect that bookstores will survive longer than their music and movie brethren, but a kindle or iPad at Starbucks fulfills the same purpose. It is unlikely that a book store employee could possibly have as comprehensive a knowledge of the entire cannon of literature as a music or movie clerk who has the content running all day while at work. This makes discovery in this venue was even more important. Still, none of these people could know as much as a massive, real-time database of everything. More importantly, physical books have a very specific smell, and used books often have notes, inscriptions and other personalization's scattered throughout, their digital cousins have neither.
And so, as the tactile pursuit of the cultural arts disappears, it is only fair to acknowledge how, in many ways, you were never armed with the right equipment in the old days. There was no Amazon collaboratively filtered recommendations to check, no www.metacritic.com meta scores to cross reference, no social web to tap for peer review. and feedback. There was no www.IMDB.com available for film, no Pandora for music discovery. Of course, part of that old paradigm is that mistakes were made. Bad records and books were bought. Disappointing films were rented. Despite these minor setbacks, the joy of the unexpected existed, and the mitigation of mistakes took actual work.
Nothing in life will ever be as satisfying as buying the $1 used copy of an incredible record by a band you had never heard of, but bought for the album art that turned out to be American Music Club's "Mercury." The same holds true for that reviewer copy of "The Virgin Suicides," bought because you liked the title. And yes, you learned through the director classification system on the shelves, just how incredible Hal Ashby or Robert Altman really was. The joy of the unexpected beat the satisfaction of not making mistakes.
I rarely make mistakes anymore. I have streamed music samples, read the reviews, read excerpts, watched trailers. This is good, but I am rarely surprised and it all smells and feels the same. It is also easy to forget that stores only ever have a small fraction of the stuff you want, even the good ones. Amazon, Apple and Netflix have almost everything immediately. The frustration of finding that the one movie copy had been rented or that a record or book needed to be special-ordered was heartbreaking. Immediacy. No driving to stores, no waiting in lines. You can be impulsive and thorough.
There is one other side effect of this goodness that I have begun to notice. Because everything is available in real time, and considerably cheaper than it used to be, my patience is much shorter. I don't listen to music as often as you sometimes need to in order to fall in love'. I move on because there is another one waiting a click away. On Netflix, I quit films within 20 minutes if I am just not in the mood. Again, some great movies just take time to develop, but for $9 a month for all-you-can-eat, there is no sunk cost.
There is another point to be made about the broad effects of iPads and Kindles on our culture. The clues people give about themselves used to be displayed proudly, or not, on the shelves of their homes and apartments. At dinner or a cocktail party, just a few moments in front of a bookshelf or record or CD rack could provide the kind of insight about your host it might otherwise take years to develop. In a future world without bookshelves, we will have many of these clues all neatly contained in files in your pocket or backpack. But, a phone or kindle is private, and access to it is more intimate than a moment in front of a rack of CDs.
For most people, most of the time, the digitization of content may inspire them to read more, listen more and watch more. This is good. We will also use fewer unnecessary resources to distribute and consume the content. Less paper = less trees. No need for shrink-wrapped plastic DVD, CD and game boxes is also very good. In the process though, we will eliminate another handful of human interactions that are no longer part of daily life. We will lose the specific context of discovery; that is, the place where you bought that life-changing book or record, or the trip to the video store where you and that special someone picked the DVD that let you fall in love whilst watching. We live in an increasingly digital age. I am now a collector of a massive amount of bits, stored on hard drives that are backed up on another drive stored in the cloud. Pretty soon, everything will be voice-activated and my hands, which used to help me find things in stores and then used to help me flip through libraries of stuff on computers, won't even be necessary.
This Christmas, XBOX will release a device called Kinect, which will eliminate the controller from game play and menu navigation. A camera connected to the console will sense movement thereby eliminating controllers. At that point, I will be able to navigate music, my Netflix queue, photos and play games with gestures and motions. "Natural human interfaces" will replace even the predictable swipe of my fingers or poking at keyboards. Touch will officially die. I wonder what Darwin would think of all this.