Monday, August 30, 2010

Requiem For A Habit

Some of my fondest travel memories are of shopping for classical recordings in my favorite CD stores in the country's larger cities. I had favorite Tower Records franchises with huge classical music sections in both Chicago and Philadelphia, and there were several must-see places in New York (JR's, a couple Tower Records locations, HMV). I would comb the racks for as many interesting titles as I could afford (OK, and a couple beyond that) and then afterward sit at a favorite pizza joint and go through the liner notes & photos. (One of life's perfect days for me involved riding the Blue Line downtown from O'Hare and spending an hour or two at Tower on Wabash, then looking thru my CDs over a spinach deep-dish at Gino's.)

I began collecting in the last waning days of the LP, but LPs were done the minute the CD came along (I had to take out a loan for my first CD player, and I had several discs before I even had a machine to play them on). I remember the CD being so futuristic and daring when it was introduced; and I wonder if anyone foresaw that putting music into a digital format for CDs would quickly spell the end of CDs too. Certainly I didn't.

When my favorite stores began to close a decade ago, I went through a period of mourning. I hadn't fully begun to buy music online, and the rather specialized and obscure stuff I like to listen to was not immediately available for download (in some cases it still isn't). After years of LP and then CD shopping as an event--flipping through the selections in one's favorite sections; looking over the new releases; being drawn to a particular kind of cover art--the business of looking at filenames online was a tough sell. (I'm reminded of people having trouble quitting smoking because the actions and motions of the habit are ingrained and comforting.)

But time marches inexorably forward, and my favorite stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul are all that remain. And even they have thinned and shrunk, with more and more store space being devoted to new and used DVDs. I know that one day very soon I will walk thru the door to find the classical music section gone--and that'll be the end of it. And with downloads and streaming, standard DVD movies are now going the way of the CD; only the huge amount of data on a Blu-Ray disc is keeping the use of discs alive. With hard drive storage and bandwidth on a constant upward trend, this technology is surely not long for the world either.

The print media have been hanging on, but we're obviously hearing the death rattle here as well. Newspapers in the traditional sense are on life support, and magazines are feeling the pinch (and virtually all now have an online presence). Books have been the slowest to digitize--slower anyway than magazines and newspapers--maybe because many established readers love the look and feel of a book. There's something hidebound and comfortable about a physical book. It's a connection to history, to the great thinkers of the past. Unlike audio recordings, the tradition of the written word goes back centuries; writing is one of the key things that marks human civilization.

But as technology has advanced, books have begun to seem a touch, well, antique (heresy!). And the lines between all these media have become quite blurry. An online paper or blog may have video or interactive charts or polls; an excellent sound recording may have accompanying video; your phone's reader lives cheek-by-jowl with your weather apps and your text messaging and your location apps. (In the span of a couple years I suddenly find the yellow pages book seems like something from an archeological dig. I wouldn't even consider using a phone book to find the number or location of a business.) But books are more than just books; there is a bunch of stuff attached to "book culture" that will be hard to lose, stuff that needed the commerce of the bookstore for sustenance: the coffee shop and bakery, the fireplace with comfy chairs and other book-lovers all around. For the non-bar crowd, the bookstore makes for a great, brainy hangout.

Actually, I'm thrilled by so many of the changes, the ability to read magazines and books on a single iPad, with blogs and movies and videos (and so much more) at my fingertips with the same device. But this NYT article makes me a little wistful for what I'm losing in the bargain. This particular place became one of the last places to buy classical music CDs in the city after all the other had closed. And I've bought a lot of books there.

But there's no getting around it. I'm sick of carrying 10 lbs of books around with me on my travels, and the lure of the iPad is irresistible. I'll miss this bookstore (though I shed no tears for the demise of Barnes & Noble generally), but it's time to move on.


Jon said...

I'm sorry to say that if the newspaper and magazine industry leave me, I will be forever lost. An un thumbed newspaper is still one of lifes great simple pleasures! I cant see myself reading my favorite magazine on an ipad. But then again, who knows. I too, may be forced to change. What a day that will be!

wunelle said...

Ah, laddie: you're not safe! Here you are, online, reading blogs, checking out the news. It's only a matter of time before you get the BDDisgrace online or the Echolalia Shopper.

The sky IS falling! Next thing you know, you'll be driving an air-conditioned truck with an automatic transmission and reading the day's news on an e-reader!

dbackdad said...

I'm not a luddite and enjoy the new technology. I will certainly have an e-reader of some kind (hopefully an iPad) within the next year. That being said, I still enjoy books, enjoy having books. Heck, books and bookcases make up about half the decoration of my house. And as you say, I like the ambiance and atmosphere of the bookstore and coffee shop. I think there will be room for both electronic and non-electronic reading for quite awhile.

CyberKitten said...

I shall remain a fan of hardcopy.... at least for now.