Shopping for books

On Oct. 31, an era will draw to a close: Hastings, long my favorite emporium of books, music and movies, will cease to exist, the victim of corporate bankruptcy. It will be a sad day.

For about 16 years, Hastings has been my go-to for just about anything entertainment-related. I have been a patron of its locations in Sherman, Texas; Benton, Arkansas; Ada, Oklahoma; Conway, Arkansas, and even Paris, Texas, for almost 20 years. Now, the Amarillo-based company is going the way of Macauley Culkin’s career: though it will have a lasting impact, it won’t be around any longer.

This is truly sad, and proof-positive of the tremendous – and not altogether enjoyable – changes wrought by instant, on-demand, digital technology. What it all boils down to is this: if I can watch “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” five minutes from now on my phone, for the low-low cost of, what, $7.99, why would I want to GO TO A STORE and BUY IT ON DVD? It’s that simple. Convenience. We consumers have taken a bite out of the poison Apple, and it has eliminated all we used to know and love.

I did love Hastings. I remember the first time ever I set foot in one of their stores. It was in Conway and I was on my way to visit relatives. Tired from the road, I spotted the store in a shopping center and, automatically curious, made a quick detour into the parking lot. Inside I found a heaven – an absolute nirvana – of all things interesting to me. This might sound crazy, but it was the first time I ran across letterboxed movies on VHS tape. Yes. This was a big deal. Also, Hastings had lots of Kurt Vonnegut on the shelf – Vonnegut was fast becoming my favorite author, and here on the shelf in front of me was a book not even my university library had, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons! I didn’t have the money, but I bought it, anyway. How could I not?

Fast-forward to a couple of years later, when I was touring Sherman, considering taking a job there. The town was nice and fine and all, but when I spotted a “mega-Hastings” in a shopping center on Texoma Parkway, I knew I’d found my home. Indeed, I spent more time and money there than anywhere else in town. It was sort of a life-saver. As I lived alone, I was in constant need of cheap entertainment. The DVD revolution had just hit, and VHS tapes were on their way into the dustbin of history (where Hastings will soon reside). I could rent these cool DVDs for like a buck each and while away countless hours at home. More to the point, Hastings sold books like you wouldn’t believe – books I couldn’t have found anywhere else (except perhaps online). I remember purchasing the DVD of “The Shining” in that Sherman Hastings, one of my very first DVD purchases, and also a copy of Charles Bukowski’s book, The Most Beautiful Girl in Town. Hastings was my friend, my best friend. Hastings helped me survive.

My favorite Hastings story has to be the time I did a book-signing there (in the new, revamped Sherman location). This was in October of 2005. I self-published a book titled Klandestined, a would-be thriller about a newspaper reporter taking on the Ku Klux Klan and a corrupt sheriff. Hastings was the only store in our region that would not only carry my book but let me set up a table and a poster and sign copies. Not sure how long I sat there that afternoon, greeting customers at the door and even signing a handful of (over-priced) copies, but somewhere during that four-plus hour ordeal, an old friend I hadn’t seen in decades dropped by, out of the blue, to buy my book. We sat at my table and yakked for at least a couple of hours – I was so excited, I’d forgotten I was supposed to be interacting with customers. Not exactly the most profitable experience of my life, but one I’ll certainly remember. (My book, by the way, was sold there for years afterward.)

In various relationship states, single, married or divorced, I would turn to Hastings time and again, for comfort and stress-relief. It was cool just to go and wander the aisles, checking out the most random and, yes, useless, merchandise invented. I bought countless hundreds of books and movies. This was the kind of place that encouraged public reading, casual browsing and let loitering go unpunished. How could you possibly take it all in if you weren’t willing to hang out for at least an hour or two? Hastings was the purveyor of more than just books, music and DVDs. It sold VINYL RECORD ALBUMS. Yes, about 10 years ago, vinyl started making a (limited, hard-to-find) comeback, and Hastings championed the format right away. It prominently placed a bin full of records right in the middle of its stores, and here I found glorious pressings of albums old and new.

Hastings was a second home for comic-book geeks. When a friend of mine and I both got back into reading graphic novels, I spent even more time at Hastings. That’s where I purchased countless bundles of Batman and Silver Surfer comics and my first-ever, hardcover copy of Frank Miller’s 300 (years before the excruciating Zach Snyder movie). And when I went on my U2 kick, tracking down and purchasing any and everything related to the Irish band, I prowled its aisles mercilessly, finding such gems as a photo album covering the band’s career, and rare single releases, and concert souvenirs, and even a beautiful little hardback children’s book illustrated by Bono. If it was niche and I was interested, Hastings would inevitably stock it on its shelves.

Hastings was certainly home to me. I felt comforted there, safe. Its customers were all of the same mindset: let’s find something to do. It didn’t matter how much time you wasted there, the point was, you were being entertained just browsing. You can’t go in Walmart and browse; hell, you can’t even really browse in Target (which is much more customer friendly). Hastings was like a library, the only difference was, everything was for sale. And I mean, Hastings sold hard. It was like the dirtiest whore in town. If you wanted cheap entertainment, by God, you went to Hastings to find it.

Ultimately, the drive to sell, sell, SELL! became something of a downer. The low price-point, the disposability of the merchandise began to sink in. Inevitably, the stores began to take on kind of a carnival aspect. Was all this stuff really just junk? Was there anything of real value here? Did the entirety of the world of popular entertainment ultimately just boil down to the remaindered bin in a Hastings? I was beginning to think the answer was yes.

I’ll just say it – cheap became the prevailing word for Hastings. They had multiple copies of everything because customers could come in and sell their wares back to the store. And do you know what? I was one of those customers. I’d buy a bunch of stuff at Hastings and five months later do a “buyback.” The merchandise had depreciated so badly that I got back only a fraction of what I paid – but hey, it’d be enough for in-store credit, which was all I wanted. This seemed like something that’s studied in economics as an example of a business that’s going out of business.

The last five or six times I visited Hastings, I admit having a depressing experience. The word junk kept coming to mind. There didn’t seem to be anything nice or new, just more stuff for sale.Christa and I once spent an entire hour perusing its gag-gift aisle. She had never been to a Hastings and so found the gag gifts appealing … but to me, they had sort of taken over the whole store. There were meme-y T-shirts, tons of comic books and graphic novels, tons of used CDs (for a dollar each), posters, candy bars and PEZ dispensers, toys, cheap consumer electronics, gift cards, deeply discounted DVDs, discounted paperbacks, a growing number of Christian-y products, sports merchandise, costumes, masks, action figures, clothing accessories, magazines, all manner of games, and promotional items pushing the latest summer blockbuster.

In other words – in its final iteration, Hastings had become bloated, oversaturated and overstuffed with  …. stuff. Despite its massive inventory (almost all of it secondhand), little of it seemed worthwhile. The stores developed a samey-same quality that was, for lack of a better word, depressing. Instead of going in and cheerfully choosing something meaningful, the customer was asked to wade through a bunch of ill-considered, low-priced kibble to find something that felt generic.

To summarize, the last time I was in a Hastings store, I’m pretty sure I thought to myself, “What a bunch of crap.”

Look, let’s not dance on the chain’s grave. Hastings was great. I’ll miss it. The world is not the same without it. That’s one less purveyor of hard-copy books, movies and literature, and that is a bad thing. People need the option of going to browse for these things as opposed to just cherry-picking online (which I admit I also do). Gone are the days of going to a brick-and-mortar store to rent a movie, bumping into a friend, and comparing thoughts on what to rent. Now gone are the days of lingering among the stacks while sipping a cup of coffee, browsing the whole of an author’s output in a single sitting, and taking just what you want, for a carefully considered price. Yes, you can do it digitally, but there’s that human need for escape, a change of scenery, and human interaction, that you can’t get online. But it’s too late. We’re stuck missing what we don’t have.

I can think of only one other chain now that deals discounted or used books, movies and music, and that is Half-Price Books, which doesn’t have a store anywhere near here. (The closest is in McKinney, Texas.) How long will that franchise hang on? I have no idea, but if Hastings’ fate is any guide, I’d say maybe 15 years. At best. The world is shifting into something else, and I am not quite sure what that is, but it is almost certainly one without books.

 

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