I was in the UK when it happened. HMV and Virgin and other big music outlets suddenly rearranged themselves. One day, their entrances were enormous displays of music. The next day, the music was gone, and instead there were DVDs. Lots and lots of DVDs.
I remember being fascinated, and a bit excited, because I saw that this change meant the true arrival of video-at-home, and the final transition away from a world in thrall to broadcast. How we watched TV had changed forever! The DVD age had begun!
But that wasn’t all it meant.
“However, times they are a-changin’, and sad but true – Virgin Megastores are no longer open in the UK, Ireland, Spain, US, Canada, Australia and Japan.” – Virgin corporate website
“Administrators for HMV have identified a further 37 stores for closure, taking the total to 103.” – The Guardian, reporting in February
All over the world, the High Street is changing. Hidden in the general upheaval of a global economic crisis has been a smaller, more enduring change. A whole class of products are disappearing from our retail environment – and they are never coming back.
One by one, these stores are closing up for good. As they close I wonder if there is something at work here beyond the normal swell and fade of commerce and retail, something with an impact that reaches beyond “retail therapy” and the ding of a cash register. I can’t shake the feeling that this is a change that matters, and that what we are losing here will reduce us, irrevocably.
I think back to before the big change, walking through Wellington. Along Lambton Quay first: magazine shops, music outlets, bookshops. Manners had music and games and more magazines, then into Cuba, for comics, more music, and a whole run of second-hand bookshops. So much interesting stuff to look at and pick up and flick through and maybe sometimes buy. Today, that walk is much less interesting. Few storefronts offer magazines, books, music, and the rest.
The disappeared are all members of one category: call it “content”. The true product isn’t the object sitting on those diminishing store shelves, but what is contained within. Not the CD, the music. Not the book, the story. Not the page, but the marks made upon it.
This is not to say that objects don’t matter – the endless holy war of vinyl vs. non-vinyl is proof enough of that – rather, it just means that the product is not fixed to the object. Content can be delivered to you in any number of ways. And, like water finding the easiest way downhill, content is increasingly detaching itself from any physical object at all.
(What is the other category making up the remainder of High Street shops? Tools and decorations and the like – call this lot “form”, then, just to annoy every art history major reading this.)
When the DVDs came to the front of the shop, the music went to the back, and it didn’t stop there. The internet had happened, and as speed and capacity increased, it wanted desperately for content. (“Content is king” – every web entrepreneur, including the shadowy boss of the Ruminator.) And users were delighted: as music and stories and other pure-content products went online, the catalogues became steadily deeper and more accessible. Now, almost anything you can think of is available to you in moments. We are living in a golden age of content.
And yet, and yet, the shops are closing down.
Does it even matter? It’s all there online, more than you could ever want. You want music? Have all of it. Books? There they are, available in an instant. You want comics, essays, films, whole series of TV? Drown in it! And let’s not mythologise what we’re losing – giant chain stores, businesses without heart. Small, dedicated outposts of culture will remain, right? Independent booksellers, specialist music stores, and more. So does it matter?
I suspect it does.
Those dedicated outposts will remain, but only as outposts. The footprint of content in the physical world is shrinking massively. And the physical world matters because we are stuck here. Because every time we step outside to walk through the world, we reproduce that world in our heads. We can’t help it. We are products of our environment and it matters what we see around us.
And increasingly, inevitably, what we see is jeans, and vases, and bathroom mirrors, and pepper grinders, and boots, and moisturisers, and earrings, and mobile phones. Beautifully-crafted tools and decorations. And no stories, anywhere.
Because when I say content, what I really mean is stories. Music and essays and novels and more, all of them to me are stories, and stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world, how we dream beyond the edges, how we fit ourselves into a chaotic flow that will not slow down for us. Stories give us our humanity. And we are heading for a time when stories are hidden away from the physical world.
Shops are important. Encoded into our folded-up mental maps, their simple presence reminds us of what is possible and what is important. The shops in our retail zones, just like the institutions in our civic centres, are how a community tells itself what it values and what it wants to be.
Your online world is one you build around yourself, but the physical world is one we build together and share.
Is this simply a lament, then? Can anything be done? The change is happening and it cannot be stopped. The wealth of content online will continue to expand, in directions we cannot fully imagine. Physical books and music and the like are destined to become the domain of specialist retailers, little owner-operated shops on the edges of town. (Even kids books will go this way when a child-proof ipad is developed.) Perhaps the only call to action possible is to reflect on this change, and what it means, and to pledge to find other ways to put stories in the world around us. To embed them in the physical world so the next generation is reminded every day that they matter.
I am optimistic, in the end, that we will find ways to do this; in fact, I am sure we will, because we are humans, and we are indivisible from our stories. Perhaps it will one-day be seen as a kind of madness that we once modelled our world in shops and products, and that the shopping mall influenced our lives more than the art gallery. And perhaps that day will come sooner if in ways large and small we remind ourselves, always, what we really are: storytellers. Singers. Creatures of content.