Friday, June 12, 2009

Going Quietly Into the Night

I've been around for the death of several cherished American institutions, having patronized independent book, hardware and record stores as big box companies bullied them into the grave. But, counterintuitively, the more I tried to support such places, the more I started to question just how tragic it was that they'd soon be gone.

Let's talk about books. Indie bookstores had limited stock, iffy organization, and high prices. And while some were owned by wonderfully colorful characters as labors of love, most were simply stores - just like Barnes & Noble, but without the low prices, huge selection, immaculate organization, or long operating hours. And there are colorful characters working in Barnes & Nobles; people for whom books are every bit as much a labor of love.

Don't get me wrong. I found the systematic extermination - targeting mom and pops to expunge every iota of competition - disgusting. That's why I went out of my way to shop in indies. But rarely did I feel these places appreciated my business. Why had I traveled the distance, paid the premium, rushed in before closing, and risked disappointment? In retrospect, while I regret the rare gems that were lost, most deserved to vanish.

Indies might have taken the offensive by mustering all the creativity, personal warmth and customer service they could. Instead, most grew more chain-like; inflexible and impersonal. Bending over backwards to offer my support, I rarely enjoyed more pleasant experiences than those offered by encroaching mega-chains.

Perhaps they were stunned and demoralized by the impending checkmate. But at such times, institutions truly worth rescuing and mourning prove their mettle. Consider the final days of Bo, the ill-fortuned bastion of Korean wonderfulness that once broke my heart. Here's part of my obituary, which was published as part of a weekly diary I wrote for Slate:
"....the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.
That's the spirit! But Maria was a rare exception. Good restaurants which fail to catch on most often respond by declining into cranky attitude and lackluster cooking, alienating their remaining clientele. It makes no sense, but that's how it is!

Now, sigh, check out this bush league editorial from last week's NY Observer. It's a deadringer for the sort of ham-fisted, hazy-minded, unedited rant one finds in the average blog. And that makes my head want to explode. If I was one of the lucky few with a job in the newspaper business at this point, I'd bleed marrow to make each and every word a gem; defying readers to dismiss the greater value of serious journalism.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that one bad editorial - or one cranky bookstore manager - ought to damn an entire industry to extinction. But it's so very disappointing when desperate straits fail to inspire noble striving.

1 comment:

Tom Viemont said...

I have been encouraged by the investigative journalism at Raleigh, NC's, News & Observer and the Chicago Tribune. Both papers have skewered local politicians who have used their political influence for their own gain. Without local papers doing investigative journalism, the politicians will run amok.

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