I’m a collector – I love collecting hard copies of movies, books, albums, even pictures … it’s my background, my childhood. I was raised to buy the things that I loved. Note that I said things – not digital downloads. I might have moved into the 21st century along with everyone else, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still require the printed page or the physically recorded album in my hands. Sadly – tragically – it appears that all of that is going away.
Here’s a funny fact: chances are excellent that I can walk into any entertainment store (Books a Million, FYE, etc.) at random and find the music I want on vinyl, but NOT on CD or in any other format. Twenty years ago, the vinyl format was dead – and had been for a long, long time, so long that even then, I could not recall the last album I bought on vinyl.
Records – the kind you played on a turntable, that got scratched and skipped, that were packaged in BEAUTIFUL, ARTISTIC slipcases and paper envelopes – you know, actual music – were my delivery system of choice as a kid. I bought Star Wars soundtracks, Loony Tunes, and finally pop-music albums on vinyl and played the shit out of them. (Not to get too far afield in the realm of pop-culture “remember when,” but I also bought those book-and-record sets, which were printed stories accompanied by recorded words and music. Those were the best, Jerry, the best!)
Then one morning I awoke and you could no longer buy vinyl at my local Walmart. They had been replaced – in one fell stroke – with …. can you guess? … the cassette tape. (I won’t even mention eight-tracks.) Yes, all my vinyl had to be replaced with cassettes, which I will admit, were handier and somehow sounded better. (I don’t know that they actually did sound better; I never performed any scientific audio testing … maybe that was only wishful thinking on my part. Scratches, however, were gone, and tapes just sounded cleaner and more modern.) I doubt that I went around missing vinyl albums; I made the transition just fine. This was in the early-to-mid-80s; by 1990, formats changed again.
I’ve always said that when a new device makes it into Walmart, it’s no longer a niche, experimental, “cool” concept, but a commodity with a ready audience – and the price for it drops dramatically. Compact discs certainly fit that description. In 1987, I remember reading with envy about Sting’s latest album on CD and the crystal-clear fidelity of the format. How I wanted a CD player! But how and where to buy one? I had no idea – only rich people owned CDs. Then I bought U2’s “Achtung Baby” on CD, and everything changed – I was no longer a tape man. All my cassettes went out the window; out with the old, in with the new!
All of that is preface to this: recently, I traveled to the megalopolis of Dallas, Texas, on a shopping excursion that was basically meant for our girls but into which I was able to squeeze one quick run for myself. This was to the ultimate shoppers’ paradise, Grapevine Mills, the largest indoor mall in North Texas. What was I in search of? Any and everything – no particular target purchase. I just wanted to “go look.”
Grapevine Mills was once home to the biggest music, record and book store I’ve ever seen: Virgin Megastore. My first visit was in late 1999; the sheer size and scope of the place was mind-blowing to a small-town Arkansas boy like me. I found new copies of books I’d spent years searching for (Amazon was a resource back then but not as commonly used). And music, and movies on DVD? Fugeddaboudit! Virgin had everything! It was the coolest store I’d ever been in. (And so was the branch in Mockingbird Station in downtown Dallas, to which you could ride DART.)
Well, guess what, boys and girls? Virgin Megastore no longer exists. The economy and good-old-fashioned corporate incompetence (in a shifting market) killed it. That Valhalla-like store in Grapevine has been gone for at least a decade. I knew I would not be able to browse its shelves, but the Internet told me that a BAM and an FYW could still be found among its hundreds of shops. Good enough.
The BAM I found in Grapevine Mills was a thundering disappointment – small, cramped, rather sloppy, and filled with all the usual BAM products – the same, worn-out remaindered bins, the same, fire-sale titles, the same FIVE TONS of manga and Marvel and DC graphic novels. I have a nose for these things, and I knew in ten seconds that I would find NOTHING worth purchasing in this particular BAM. For this I traveled about 1,000 miles?
Further down the “street,” I found FYE, AKA, For Your Entertainment, with which I had passing familiarity. (There’s an outlet in nearby Hot Springs, Ark.) Wow! Talk about another letdown! This store was jam-packed with all kinds of CRAP ranging from more Batman/Superman/Giant Bleeding Asshole comic books, to action figures no one wants, to posters and plastic vomit and 25M marked-down DVDs I can find at Target for even LESS. There were few customers and the clerk looked bored. The lighting was terrible and the merchandise was jammed helter-skelter into the center of the floor. The walls were reserved for – get this – BOBBLE HEADS, yes, those annoying little “toys” that never seem to sell very well, representing all your “favorite characters” from your “favorite shows and movies.” Bobble heads have taken over America’s entertainment stores. Thing is, NO ONE IS BUYING THEM. I think that about 10 years ago, about a billion of them were manufactured, and they have been DUMPED into stores like FYE because, well, what are we gonna do with them?
My intention had been to shop for some CDs, since you can hardly find CDs anymore, unless you use the nemesis of stores like Virgin and FYE, and that is Amazon. However, the CD selections at both BAM and FYE SUCKED. They each consisted of one pathetic bin in which handfuls of overpriced ($14.99-20.00) CDs jostled for attention against all kinds of other, unrelated crap. I browsed quickly but came away empty-handed. The simple truth is, I don’t have to pay those kinds of prices for music, which is exactly why the CD and DVD business is in its present condition – digital products have overwhelmed the hard copies from a price perspective. I can cherry-pick the songs I want, for $1.99 each, from iTunes.
I don’t mean to launch a diatribe against the digital music business. I’m still pissed, for example, that Garth Brooks has yet to release his music to iTunes, so that I can cherry-pick his songs (which is precisely the reason he hasn’t released to iTunes – he values the albums over the individual songs, though another reason is that he’s so rich he doesn’t need iTunes). But it makes me sad that a cool shopping experience has been raped by the bargain-bin industry, left to incompetently-managed stores that are depressing to walk into because there is such an overabundance of sheer junk.
Walk through any high-end mall in America (or, OK, Dallas), and you’ll find any number of stores catering to clothes shoppers; those stores will be as beautiful and thoughtfully-arranged as any art museum in New York. Yet stores for book purchasers, music lovers, etc., have been pushed off to the shadows, down next to Great American Cookie Co. and across the way from Condom Sense. All because, well, that kind of product doesn’t move anymore. It’s no longer the American crack-cocaine it once was. People can buy that shit over their phone. But there are still consumers out there who want that browsing experience. Has the market for entertainment fallen so far, so fast, that you feel almost like you have to wear a raincoat and a ski mask to shop for it?
(By the way, those high-end clothiers aren’t doing any better financially – Macy’s and about a dozen other big-name companies are closing stores left and right. Why? Because people can buy the same clothes cheaper over the Internet, from mom-and-pop sellers! Talk about karma.)
Such a walk will reveal another fact: American corporate culture has completely devalued and de-emphasized the written word. You can’t find books anymore and no one reads anything that isn’t on a screen the size of an index card. We’re sold everything else – shoes, jewelry, baseball caps, exotic soaps, framed memes, ersatz artwork, and sugary junk – but not the written word. In the age of Trump, when anti-intellectualism and a distrust of reading has reached an all-time high, the distribution of books should be valued more highly than ever. (There’s a reason 1984 is once again a best-seller – where you can find it.)
So … as far as books and music, Grapevine Mills is out for me. Yes, it sells lots of clothes and shoes and tchotchkes, but I find those anywhere – especially online. Why go back? Why mix and mingle with the hordes when I can buy from home, in the comfort of my underwear? Why travel to a store, park, wrestle with the elements, and get exercise when I can find anything I’ve ever wanted on Amazon or iTunes? This the exact mindset that killed Virgin Megastore and will eventually kill Grapevine Mills; ironically, the mindset of bringing Virgin, etc., back from the dead, will be the only thing that stops malls from going the way of the pterodactyls.
I come back to the vinyl record. Extraordinarily, both BAM and FYE boasted more albums on vinyl than on CD. People, as it turns out, do like the hard copy – they like covers and liner notes. They will buy records as long as they think they’re cool. Think about that. The zombie that was “wax” is now back in a big way. What can that mean for the rest of analog entertainment? There’s an old saying that may prove true in retail: what once was old, is new again.