Monday, August 10, 2009

Seredipity and the Changing Commercial Landscape

A few days ago I read this article; the author argues that the rise of online shopping, coupled with the slow decline of bricks-and-mortar shops selling books and music, combined with the popularity of electronic readers and music players, has meant that our choices in media are actually more limited and that it's become more difficult to find things by accident. It's hard to stumble on that obscure book you'd never seen before, or a band you've never heard of. You can't scan someone's CD collection, or see what they're reading on the bus; online shopping means your selection is limited to what Amazon and iTunes decides to show you, which is calculated by proprietary, unknowable algorithms and capitalistic priorities.

I've long believed that online shopping for books and music loses the serendipity of wandering through a bookstore (or record store), pulling this or that off the shelf, browsing, hunting. I love shopping at both independent bookstores and chains, not to mention used bookstores. As long as there's lots to browse, I'm a happy bibliophile. I love it when I find indie bookstores that have an idiosyncratic selection, those that don't just put out this month's Indie Next List but really make an effort to find things that are off-the-beaten-path and shows knowledge of the area or even the neighborhood. You can't get that online.

Same with music. Have you ever had the experience of walking into a record store and hearing something great on the speakers, asking what it is and walking out with a great new album you never knew existed? I've found so many of my favorite artists that way. Mary Lou Lord, The Old 97s, Coralie Clement, and more. I never would have heard of them any other way.

When I was in college, and even into my twenties, I would spend hours in the music stores of Boston and Cambridge, large and small- the huge HMV with its listening stations and aisles of music from all over the world, a cramped hipster basement in Nantucket, used vinyl shops in Cambridge, it didn't matter. And I can't tell you how thrilled I was when Virgin Megastore- a world-class music emporium- opened in Boston, and how heartbroken I was when it closed.

And yes, I shopped there right to the bitter end. Once, I bought what I thought was a CD of Clement's jazzy French pop, only to find out the disc actually contained music by a Mexican mariachi band. When I went in to exchange it, I walked out with not only a new CD and no hassles, but also a great suggestion from the staff about another French singer I might like. Would iTunes be so helpful?

As a child, browsing in used bookstores formed the basis of my literary education. I would never have read Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, or Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, or a hundred other books, had I been limited to online shopping. In college, the Harvard Coop in Cambridge and Waterstone's in Boston were the dual mother ships of books; I couldn't get enough of browsing their displays and wandering their stacks. Not only did I find wonderful books in their aisles but wonderful people- once I even bumped into a long-lost friend and fellow bookworm at Waterstone's cafe. I wouldn't have found him browsing online.

I've recently given up online shopping for books- I deleted my Amazon account and keep my wishlist on a pad of paper. I do maintain a wishlist on, but it's just for family to use for holiday gift-giving, not for me to buy from. And it's easy for me to say that it's no problem relying on bricks-and-mortar- I live in one of the best bibliophilic cities in the country. Our neighborhood music and bookshops deserve our support, not just for their sake but for ours. When they lose, we lose more than just another storefront- we lose the opportunity for learning and discovery.