The collector's conundrum

How do you browse for books and music when stores are becoming obsolete, and objects are turning to ether?

By Meghan Lewit

Published December 21, 2012 8:45PM (EST)


It was a shot heard round the world, sort of, by people who still value liner notes. A casual revelation from an NPR intern over the summer that she had only bought 15 CDs in her life, despite possessing an iTunes library crammed with 11,000 songs, sparked a minor scandal and distressed everyone over the age of 25. In addition to raising questions about moral responsibility to the artists, the admission solidified the cold reality that pop culture consumption is no longer a predominantly tactile experience.

I am someone who straddles between the tactile generation and the digital one (my college years coincided with the rise and fall of Napster). The philosophical lines I’ve drawn are entirely arbitrary. I’ve given my music listening over to iTunes and I blow through multiple seasons of serial dramas on my computer, but refuse to purchase an e-reader. I accept the reality that physical stores selling books, records, CDs and DVDs may soon exist solely — if indeed they do at all — as labors of love. But it saddens me that in this new world order, browsing is becoming a dying art.

Pop culture lovers tend to be collectors by nature — whether in the form of vast digital libraries or stacks of discs taking up precious space in a spare room. But for longtime lovers and hoarders of cultural ephemera, the act of browsing has always been more than just a method of accumulation: It’s both a ritual and a form of community building. The gratification comes not so much from the purchasing, but from the process of search and discovery; from poring over book covers and the thrill of uncovering the exact rare DVD import you’ve been searching for at the back of a shelf. To possess this actual stuff is to transform an ephemeral experience into something concrete, a beloved artifact that can be preserved and revisited.

In some ways, the physical spaces that hold these artifacts are like modern temples, providing a place for soothing ritualistic behavior and quiet contemplation. The 1995 novel "High Fidelity," by Nick Hornby (and subsequent film), is based on record-store culture — the places where people come to judge and be judged not on who they are, but what they like. Michael Chabon’s latest novel, "Telegraph Avenue," also treats the neighborhood record store at the center of its story with a kind of spiritual reverence. It’s noted Hollywood lore that a young Quentin Tarantino got hooked on grindhouse films while hanging out at Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee video rental store in North Hollywood.

The landscape of my own life is dotted with such locations: bookstores I stumbled on and lost myself in for hours, the video store in West L.A. that had a prodigious collection of obscure British television imports. I remember wandering idly through an independent bookstore in Beverly Hills (which has since closed) one afternoon and observing an employee giving book recommendations to a young women, a statuesque model/actress type. His excitement grew as he yanked more books off the shelves and piled them up in her arms. When he shoved "Love in the Time of Cholera" at his would-be Eliza Doolittle, I thought she was going to faint. I wonder if she still has all those books, and what she thought of Gabriel García Márquez.

When we moved from Los Angeles a couple of years ago, my husband and I packed up more than 15 boxes of books and movies and transported them to a storage-challenged Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment. (By comparison our entire kitchen was packed up in a mere five boxes.) The DVDs have since been divorced from their cases and filed neatly into bins, but the books remain haphazardly piled up around the apartment with a hoarder’s logic. A woman I know, a lifelong New Yorker, never holds onto a book. She buys it, reads it and then passes it along within a circle of friends. Walk down any block in NYC and you’ll see used books deposited on stoops and street corners awaiting their next owners, true to the city’s accumulate-and-purge cycle.

I’ve never been able to adopt this pragmatically cavalier approach to book owning. My books are trusted companions. They travel with me as tactile reminders of a particular time in my life or a favorite discovery. I imagine it’s much the same for a friend of mine who finally recently transitioned his massive CD collection to digital files, but still keeps all the liner notes in a box in storage.

None of this is to say that the Internet and digital applications don’t play a vital role in cultural consumption. Now when you hear a catchy tune in a coffee shop you can Shazam it and have it downloaded to your iPhone within seconds, instead of the old method of walking into a music store and awkwardly humming it to an employee. If it accomplished nothing else, the Web is an incredible tool for building communities around shared interests. In a single day you can watch every obscure title made by your favorite cult filmmaker, find an online community of fellow fans, and post fan-fiction based on your favorite movie. Perhaps future Tarantinos will find more inspiration this way than they would in their local video rental joint.

The limitless selection offered in the digital era makes consumption easier and more effective, but also somehow less fun. Maybe this is purely my age speaking, but I miss the weekend ritual of stopping at the video store, wandering among the shelves and good-naturedly bickering over the selections. Now when I watch a movie with other people, we tend to spend ages scanning through endless lists of titles on a screen before finally settling on something about which everyone is apathetic. I believe it is a basic human truth that infinite options breed paralysis. Also, some of us just prefer a challenge.

My husband in particular is prone to undertaking nerd quests. His latest one was to obtain every episode of the early 1990s television show "Northern Exposure" with all the original music — never released due to licensing issues. After an exhaustive Internet search, he tracked down a dealer in Canada who supposedly could deliver the goods (to preserve his anonymity I will just call him George). A few weeks later we received the package: every episode of the series painstakingly copied to DVD. George had created his own DVD menu with clips of the show, typed up an episode guide, and included a personal letter wishing us well as we embarked on our Alaskan adventure. “May the Great Moose be with you,” he signed off.

The experience of receiving this lovingly and quirkily handcrafted DVD set is something that could never have been replicated by downloading the series or watching it on Hulu. Yet without the Web, the Georges of the world would exist on a virtual island, unable to share their passions and the fruits of their labor with the wider world.

I guess my hope is that, despite the many benefits of digital consumption, these neighborhood temples and the physical artifacts they contain will always exist in some form for the seekers. Maybe that’s how it was always destined to be — that surviving book/video/record/comic stores should serve a passionate, niche population. Maybe the art of browsing was never really meant for the masses.

Meghan Lewit

Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She has contributed to The, The Awl, Zocalo Public Square, L.A. Weekly and others. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Lewit.

MORE FROM Meghan Lewit

Related Topics ------------------------------------------