Most of our weekends involve a visit to what Diane and I jokingly call “our home away from home” - Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove. We look for books and magazines that interest us, take a table in the cafe and spend an hour or more deciding what, if anything, to purchase. I sip on a large peppermint mocha (never complete without an extra shot of espresso and whipped cream). Diane drinks water, tea or (when it’s in season) hot apple cider. We split a bagel.
We go so frequently, in fact, that several of the baristas know us. One doesn’t just recognize us, but remembers our order. I arrive at the register and within seconds two-thirds of it is rung up (Diane’s drink is always the wild card), small talk is exchanged and - well, it’s nice. Yesterday, for example, the young woman at the register noted that she hadn’t seen me lately (likely due to her schedule). Or last weekend, when we arrived after a filling lunch at Pasta Fazool, the memory maven was taken aback when I subtracted the bagel from our order and then explained why. “You’re cheating on us,” she teased. Then, apropos of nothing, she added, “I like your hat. It’s so old school!”
Old school, of course, is slang for old-fashioned. Which, when it comes to fashion, fits me to the proverbial T.
In 20 years time, though, I fear the same will be said of the B&Ns of the world. The company’s CEO told the Wall Street Journal recently that he foresees the chain closing about 20 stores a year over the next decade, to bring its total number down to 450 to 500. The reality is likely more dire. One need look at the music business (or Borders) to see the future: well-stocked chain music stores slipped into oblivion years ago; and the independents dotting the landscape continue to dwindle in number. Sure, Best Buy and Wal-Mart carry the hits and high-profile new releases, but to purchase an archival release - which I do quite often - generally means heading online to Amazon or iTunes.
The increasing popularity of tablets and e-readers insures the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. That's not to say paper books will go away; but, as with music (where CDs still outsell downloads), the retailers that stock a deep selection will be limited to online.
Pluses and minuses exist for every paradigm shift, and the transition to a digital marketplace is no exception. One plus when it comes to music: the ability to preview an album prior to buying it. One minus: there’s no more stumbling across unexpected treasures. I remember where and when I bought a slew of specific albums due to my utter delight and surprise at finding them. Now? The magic and mystery of discovery has been replaced by algorithms; and all purchases are from one spot: here at my computer.
Don’t get me wrong - I’m still delighted by what I buy. And those algorithms have led to many a cool find, such as jazz-pop singer Melody Gardot, whose name popped onto my Amazon recommended list while I was browsing Peggy Lee CDs one day in 2009.
Of course, the listening experience itself has remained fairly static: whether headphones or speakers, or iPod, stereo or computer, music is ethereal. We may feel it, but we can’t touch it; it may touch us, but it can’t feel us. The same’s true of the reading experience. It’s an intellectual and emotional exercise in which words on a page are translated into imagery in our brain. Whether one’s reading a paper product or a digital simulation, that much won’t change.
But everything else? The meandering through the aisles, scanning of titles and previewing of books, the sipping of high-octane caffeine drinks in a cafe populated by a convivial staff? That’s a ritual that will be missed.