Sunday, Dec 18, 2011 8:00 PM UTC

The clerk, RIP

The clerk has been killed by the economy, Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. Computers might want your creative job next

art in crisis clerks

 (Credit: A still from "Clerks")

He may not look much like Justin Timberlake, but Jeff Miller is something of a Hollywood player. Or, rather, he was — until he got a call on Labor Day from his employers, the owners of the best and most important movie rental store in the orbit of Hollywood. For a decade the bearded, teddy-bear-like Miller helped run Rocket Video, a place frequented by directors, actors and aspirants, and staffed by obsessive savants. But thanks to Netflix, streaming video and the damage done to the store’s rental revenue, it was all over for this onetime destination – in a hurry.

A few weeks later, the inevitable closing party arrived on its stretch of La Brea Boulevard. “There was shock,” recalls Miller, a native of steel-belt Pennsylvania originally drawn to movies by old horror films and Abbott & Costello. “There were women who came in crying. There were people who wanted to take photos of their family with me because they’d grown up with Rocket.”

Some of the store’s patrons were regular film-lovers in the neighborhood; others were better known. Miller recalls William H. Macy renting ’70s porn before his role in “Boogie Nights,” Courtney Love coming by until she got angry about the store stocking the unsympathetic documentary “Kurt and Courtney” and blew up at the staff, Frank Darabont renting zombie films while he was conceiving the TV series “The Walking Dead.”

The shop’s most loyal celebrity customer was Faye Dunaway, who regularly came in to ask him for advice about foreign directors. “She said, ‘I was gonna take a film course but I figured I could just come in here and talk to you guys.’ ” She paid back the debt by doing numerous events at the store.

Rocket’s story – a strong reputation and longstanding community love, followed by sudden collapse – is not unique: Thousands of bookstores, record stores and video shops have gone under in the last few years. And with them, people like Miller have lost their jobs during the worst job market since the Great Depression.

The years following the 2008 market crash have been hard on many people. But due to other transitions in the economy and culture – the continued trickling-up of wealth to the very top, the “storm of innovation” unleashed by the Internet, a growing faux-populist disregard for expertise — certain sectors have been hit harder than others. Shop clerks, however erudite, don’t fit into the most influential definition of “the creative class” – urban scholar Richard Florida considers these folks members of the service class, about which he is not optimistic. But they’ve been, over the decades, important conduits between consumers and culture — and a training ground and meeting spot for some of our best writers, filmmakers and bands.

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Science fiction novels often sketch future worlds in which computers have replaced – or tried to subvert — human beings. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” opens well after wars between “thinking machines” and mankind. (Humans won, forbidding the construction of computers or robots; super-intelligent “mentats” performs the more intricate mental functions.) In Philip K. Dick’s work, almost everything is uncannily automated – including pets. (Check out “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the novel “Blade Runner” is based on.)

Closer to home, the damage automation has done to blue-collar employment – assembly lines, bank tellers, customer-service types – is now a well-documented aspect of life in the developed world. When a Don DeLillo character encountered an ATM in 1985’s “White Noise,” he brooded on its eerie inhumanity; these days we take such things for granted.

And technology – which began by destroying unskilled labor – has begun working its way up to fields that require real expertise. For now, doctors, lawyers and hedge-fund managers are safe. But people whose connection to culture involves putting books, records and films in the hands of paying customers – are an endangered species. Employers don’t have to pay medical benefits to algorithms that offer glib, simplified, if-you-like-this recommendations.

OK, OK — we also know they’re figures of fun. Kevin Smith made them into foul-mouth suburban stoners in “Clerks,” and Nick Hornby and Stephen Frears made the “High Fidelity” gang into smug, retro-obsessed elitist losers. And some clerks, it’s fair to say, are just killing time.

But for decades, bright, hard-working creative types – sometimes, though not always, lacking college degrees or professional connections – have been drawn to working in shops that allow them to filter the flow of culture, one customer at a time. One of these self-made savants was Jonathan Lethem, who clerked at bookstores in New York and the Bay Area before, during and after an aborted college degree, long before he became an internationally respected novelist.

“I think of bookstore jobs as my university,” says Lethem. (His new nonfiction collection, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” emphasizes the catholic nature of his taste and his provocative way of discussing work he loves – both qualities embodied by the best store clerks.) “The physical trade of books was a hallowed way to become a writer in the pre-MFA era. It was the only work I wanted to do, and the only work I was qualified to do.”

Those years shaped his taste as a reader profoundly. “With bookstores, you go in and you find the things you weren’t looking for. The clerk is doing that 24/7 – my reading was shaped by what was left behind. And you develop a loathing for the false canon – the two books each year that everybody is supposed to read.”

It also shaped the writer he would become, known for a mongrel, genre-blending style. “You can’t hang onto those sacred quarantines,” he says, “when you see the mad diversity around you.”

Lethem, of course, is not alone: Writer Mary Gaitskill and Decemberists singer Colin Meloy – now an author himself — started out in bookstores; punk heroine Patti Smith worked at New York’s sprawling the Strand. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck clerked at record stores in Louisville, Ky., and Athens, Ga., respectively. Quentin Tarantino – who could almost be a character from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” – developed his distinctive blend of junk culture, Asian film and cinephile obsession while laboring at a video store in Manhattan Beach: Video Archives was his film school.

These places speak to people outside urban bohemians. Poet and critic Dana Gioia, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts,  grew up in the ’50s, in the rough Southern California town of Hawthorne, with parents who lacked college degrees. “When I was a little kid, there was a used bookstore every 10 blocks,” he recalls. “There would be some grumpy old man running it: If you came in a couple of times he’d comment on your books — not in a charming way that you’d put in a movie. But it showed you that other people read and had opinions; it was a socialization. So much of culture is chance encounters between human beings.”

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So why are these places closing and their staffs sent into unemployment or forced to transfer their expertise to unpaid blogging? Some of the cause is simply the hangover of the 2008 market crash, which has slowed retail sales and sent unemployment to 12 percent in some places, including the very culture-savvy cities that used to support many of these stores.

Each industry has its own story, but the common denominator seems to be the Internet.

Bookstores have had an especially hard time: Competing with Amazon and other online sources that discount books and don’t require bricks and mortar spaces in dense, urban areas has proven fatal. In the last few years, Boston has lost Wordsworth, Los Angeles has lost Dutton’s Brentwood Books, Metropolis Books and the Mystery Bookstore. Borders is history. Used bookstores continue to drop so quickly it’s hard to keep track.

Even Portland’s mighty Powell’s Books, which not only takes up an entire block in a city of readers and was ahead of the curve in selling books over the Internet, laid off some of its expert staff this year and may not be done making cuts.

The collapse of record stores is part of a larger implosion of the music industry, says Steve Knopper, a Rolling Stone correspondent and author of the industry chronicle “Appetite for Self-Destruction.” As his title implies, the labels should have seen the threat of Internet piracy coming, but it dealt them a fatal blow. The new, Internet-inspired business model — replacing the sale of $15 CDs by selling individual songs at 99 cents a pop and sharing that with Apple – shrunk things further.

“Apple had basically taken over the entire music business,” writes Knopper, who still misses the Denver Tower Records and a shop called Hegewisch in Indiana that made his first newspaper job a lot less lonely. You can love the convenience of iTunes and still recognize that it’s made it much harder for stores to compete.

Gary Calamar remembers moving to Los Angeles the late ’70s, fresh from New York. He dropped into a record store in the Licorice Pizza chain and a punk-rock girl helped turn him onto some new music. “She would recommend things and run back and play them for me over the in-store system,” he says now. “I remember walking out of the store with singles from the Police, B-52′s, Devo, the Knack. I was in love with L.A.”

Now indoctrinated, Calamar soon had a record store job of his own, moving a career that would lead him to become a KCRW deejay and music consultant for shows like “Six Feet Under” and “Dexter.” Calamar is also the author, with Phil Gallo, of “Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again,” which looks at places like Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, and Newbury Comics in Boston – as well as many shops that have since closed and taken their staffs with them. For his equivalent, moving to a big city in the 21st century, that ladder into the industry no longer exists.

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The loss of clerks – and the spaces in which they work – is a loss for the culture as a whole. It’s intangible, though. “So much of it is happenstance and chance,” says Doug Dutton, who ran Dutton’s Brentwood Books, arguably Los Angeles’ finest bookstore, until its 2008 closing. One of his most beloved clerks was a poet and crime-fiction junkie named Scott Wannberg. “All you had to do was say something about noir mysteries, and it would open a stream. Conversation can lead to all kinds of things – to mutual distaste, to romance, or profound meetings of the minds. These pathways of connections are very important, and disappearing.” (Wannberg’s death this year was mourned by the city’s literary world.)

There’s a bigger, more tangible dimension to all of this: The death of the clerk as cultural curator is part of a larger move by which computers are putting educated “knowledge workers” out of jobs. It’s not just the guy on the assembly line, now – it’s the autodidact at the bookstore. Next, they’re coming for librarians – many of whom are dreaded “public employees.” Other white-collar jobs could start to drop as computers become more ruthlessly efficient and human beings find it harder and harder to keep up.

The actual work of creativity – creating a short story or a film — is not yet something computers can replicate, says Andrew McAfee, author, with fellow MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson, of “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.”

“But that doesn’t mean that automation and technology isn’t a threat to the creative class,” McAfee says. “Members of the creative class need day jobs, and some of those classic day jobs – Quentin Tarantino working in a video store – are endangered.” Same with writers, he says, as the Web puts a downward price on their labor.

Artificial intelligence that replicates human abilities – websites that recommend books or CDs, for instance — have surged just in the last few years. “I’m blown away by the power of some of these algorithms. We now have digital alternatives to store clerks. Amazon has all the money and all the will in the world to get it right.”

McAfee, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, says he breaks with peers who see  today’s difficulties as similar to transitions like the Industrial Revolution that ultimately created more jobs than they destroyed. “We’re talking about a new reality,” he says.

“When you don’t need people for their muscle power, of for their communication abilities, or for their pattern recognition, an entrepreneur, someone wanting to start a company, looks around and says, ‘Remind me what I need human labor for?’ The pool of things that’s uniquely human is shrinking.”

In a world of rapid technological advance, where even some highly trained lawyers and medical pathologists are in trouble, the humble clerk doesn’t stand a chance. The out-of-work video store clerk, blogging in his bedroom for free, may be a kind of canary in the cultural coal mine. We don’t always get warnings before our livelihood – or our lives – suddenly change. But the signs today, of a new kind of creative destruction, are getting harder and harder to ignore.

“I have a feeling we better start reading that science fiction,” McAfee says. “That reality is coming to us, and coming to us sooner then we expect.”