Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The World's Largest Storeroom

Bookshops' Latest Sad Plot Twist, an article by David Streitfeld in today's LA Times, tells the interesting but unhappy tale of the fate of independent bookstores. Many long-established shops are already gone: A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco opened in 1982 and closed last year; Cody's flagship store in Berkeley has closed after fifty years in business; twenty-year old Dutton's in Brentwood, owned by Doug Dutton, is threatened by possible development of its site and the two-year old Dutton's in Beverly Hills failed to survive. Streitfeld didn't mention it in his column, but we lost the original forty-five year old Dutton's in North Hollywood last year (and its small, much younger outpost in Burbank) when owner Dave Dutton retired.

The first challenge to the independents came from the big chain stores; now the greatest threat is the Internet. Streitfeld writes, "It's an unsettling if inevitable process. Half a century ago, (poet and blogger Ron Silliman) said, he would play chess and checkers with his grandfather as they listened to the radio. 'That stopped once the TV arrived, because now we all had to face the same direction,' he wrote. Those for whom 'browsing' has much more of an online connotation than a physical one barely register the shift . . . The Internet has transformed American culture from a place where a few sold the same thing to many -- think network television or the Hollywood studios or even booksellers circa 1970 -- to one where the middleman or gatekeeper can be circumvented."

That radical cultural shift affects more than just bookstores. Just about everything is now available online: office supplies, household furnishings, hardware, clothing, even groceries can be purchased without leaving home. Some websites offer comparison shopping, listing multiple online sources for various items and their prices. Shopping has never been easier for consumers, the selection of items has never been greater -- and online stores never close. This is a mixed blessing for those who tend to consume so much and so often that their homes are already packed with too much stuff.

On one hand, the constant availability of a vast array of products can be particularly dangerous for people who have difficulty discriminating between "need" and "want." The rather hypnotic effect of online browsing also can cause even the most diligent of us to succumb. If a click of the mouse is all that's required to purchase something, it's a temptation that can be hard to resist.

On the other hand, the situation can work to our advantage. If so many things are easy to acquire, that means that we don't need to have everything imaginable crammed into our homes. The Internet serves as a gigantic storeroom that we can tap to fill our needs and, meanwhile, we can live with less, secure in the knowledge that we can order online, get overnight shipping if necessary and, voila! -- Stuff, delivered to our door.

This applies to retail spaces, too, many of which are open twenty-four hours. Unless you live in a very small town or an isolated rural area and have an urgent need for, let's say, a paper clip at four in the morning, chances are you can rely on a neighborhood store to be ready and waiting with a box of them to solve your problem. The retail space serves as your storeroom. (This brings up another issue about why you won't often find yourself in that situation if you have only what you need in your house, because you'll notice when you're just about out of paper clips and will replenish your supply, thus avoiding the four a.m. emergency. But we'll save that discussion for another time.)

And, of course, in spite of the huge amount of stuff available to buy without stepping outside of your door, some things really do require more personal contact to be either workable or satisfying. Almost anyone over the age of twelve is hard-pressed to order clothes without trying them on and expect a good fit, so until clothing sizes are standardized (don't hold your breath!), most of us will rely on a retail store. Unless there's a particular gourmet item that's caught your fancy, most of us will buy our food from the local grocer. And, at least for me, while I'm delighted to be able to sell my book online through Amazon and confess that I have often ordered from them, I lament the diminishing number of independent booksellers. Nothing will ever quite take the place of whiling away a couple of hours in the slightly musty disarray of Dutton's, where treasures lay hidden in books piled on the floor and Dave, in North Hollywood, and Steve, in Burbank, were always good for a suggestion of an interesting author or just a friendly conversation.

That, by the way, reinforces the favorite reminder I like to share with my readers: it's people, not things, that are most important in our lives.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

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