Monday, November 19, 2012

It's been a funny old month

Behold the majesty.
It came as something as a surprise, while I was waiting for my bus connection, that the book store I'm now working at is smack on Route 66. Indeed, about 75% of the commute to work runs right along it.

I knew, notionally, that the 'main street of America' ran through St Louis, but it was a little jarring when I realised I was actually standing on the bloody thing. Jarring because, well, you can see why in the picture. It's not exactly the Highway to Heaven. It's not quite what I was expecting from the likes of what Nat King Cole was singing about.

I imagine, given the hundreds of miles the route runs, there's much more scenic bits of it than this particular piece of urban wasteland; being on Grand Station's doorstep, an area famed for being an unsightly boil on the arse of the city, it's never going to look fantastic. And indeed, once the bus rolls into Maplewood and the like, it starts looking a bit better. But only by a slight amount, I'm afraid.

The stores along Manchester seem to be doing a lot better than other places I've seen. There's a lot of bars, coffee shops, and surprising sounding enterprises: A 'genuine' British/Irish Pub, which I haven't been inside so I'll reserve judgement. A Mongolian restaurant. A drive-through sushi kiosk. But there's also a lot of those stores that I think of as 'boundary shops', existing on the very boundary conditions that barely allow them to stay in business. These tend to exist slightly outside the urban center of cities, but not quite before you get into the suburbs. They all appear to have been there a very, very long time, but you can't quite imagine when there was a massive demand for their products. Every city I've lived in has had these; picture frame stores, dental plate wholesalers, foam rubber cushion purveyors. They all seem so unlikely to do a brisk trade that I've been convinced for years that many of them are CIA or MI6 fronts, and all manner of shenanigans is going on through that door behind the counter.

But the overall impression the area gives the impression that it's clinging to edge of survival, that these stores are slowly being eroded away by the huge shopping malls and online businesses. The stores are certainly game, and some of them do seem to be doing well, but it's a friendly, cornershop style environment which very people seem to want any more.  It feels like a place that's somehow existed past its time, that these stores are still around past the point where there's any major demand for them. Much, perhaps, like Route 66 itself.

State of the art.
There seems to be a lot of this about. I saw with a certain melancholy a few weeks ago that the BBC have finally shut down Ceefax, which was something of a surprise as I was under the impression no-one had so much as glanced at it since about 1995. For anyone born past that point, or who isn't a Briton, Ceefax was a digital service broadcast alongside terrestrial TV signals. A TV capable of receiving the data (which was pretty much every British television made past 1980) could flop this info straight onto your screen. It was a very early cousin of the world wide web, in some ways: You could check the weather forecast, plan holidays, catch up on the news, and so on and so forth. All in glorious four colour, eight bit graphics. It also provided subtitles for most TV shows. It was clunky, it consisted of a few hundred pages a day maximum, and there certainly wasn't any user input or any way to make your own pages. But it worked, and people used it.

Or at least, I imagine they used to use it. Now that the Internet is everywhere, especially now its in your pocket on your phone, I can't imagine anyone has used Ceefax in over a decade. The web is quicker, more diverse, more data-dense, and far prettier to look at.  Shutting it down makes sense, and yet... I can't help feeling we're losing something. Something we no longer want, or need, but it's still lost. I doubt there'll be any campaigns to save Teletext and Ceefax from the scrapheap anywhere, and that really just makes me realise all the more that the world has moved on. For the better in many ways, but it's still moving.

All this sounds like it's leading up to describing the place I now work, and I have to admit, I was expecting a second hand bookstore to be something that would be on the edge of extinction. I can't remember the last time I bought a book, an actual paper book. Part of that was packing up my belongings and moving to the US; I didn't really want to be weighed down with hundreds more books. Another major factor is living in an apartment where there's not a whole lot of room. But a lot of it is to do with Amazon, and eBooks.

I was way ahead of the wave with eBooks; I was reading them before there was anything notionally like an eReader. I used PDAs, I used sub-notebooks like the Psion, I used cellphones, I used anything with a screen that'd fit in a pocket. Nowadays, eReaders and tablets are everywhere. The days when people would ask what the hell I was looking at on the bus are long gone. Paperless editions are actually starting to outsell hardcopy books. With that in mind, I did expect the store to be in the process of slow decline.

Despite everything, though, it's not. Or at least not nearly as much as you'd expect. The owner is concerned as to what might happen in the next few years, but right now, people come into the store. New customers, to my eternal amusement, has a severe case of "TARDIS face" when they enter, the exact face people pull on Doctor Who when they enter that police box for the first time; the store is far, far bigger on the inside than it has any right to be, and every horizontal surface available is packed to the ceiling with books. And they buy the books. They buy them, and they come back for more. There are people that have been coming there for nearly thirty years, and it's pretty much the oldest and biggest store of its kind in the area. And books ship out every day to far corners of the world, from online ordering.

Business could be brisker, certainly, but for what it is, it does exceedingly well. I'm hoping it's not quite ready to be put in the same category as Ceefax. Its day hasn't gone yet, whatever the next few years might bring.

And perhaps that might be said of Route 66 as well. Perhaps eventually, it might come back to something approaching its heyday. Although that might require people to do something other than want to get from A to B as efficiently and quickly as possible, or step outside to buy multiple things rather than have them all under one roof. It's not likely, but the road seems to survive in the hopes this might happen one day.

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