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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Greetings from an obsolescent profession


by Jamie Lutton


Reflecting on Christmas presents:

It has been a few weeks, but I am still recovering from Christmas.

One problem for the used book seller is giving presents to family members. Rarely do they like books as much as you do, and so they weary of getting something cool that they know you paid 50 cents for.
My solution is to give new and used DVD's as presents. You usually know the target person's taste in movies, and so can guess at what they would like. And became there are so many good old movies and documentaries out there, there are lots to pick from, especially for young people who are not familiar with classics.

I give comedies, usually. After the crash of 2008, I gave everyone a gloomy documentary about the corruption in the stock market, called Inside Job, but I don't think a single one of the recipients  watched it.
This year I was wiser, and stuck to comedies or action-dramas that fit the person who got them.

The problem with a DVD as a gift is that it will not with handling fall open one scene or another to tempt someone to play the thing. It has to sell itself on the packaging alone. A way to improve DVDS would be that they would play when you handled them, some blurb perhaps, to tempt you to put it in the machine.  For example, I gave How to Tame Your Dragon, a children's fantasy movie,   to my big brother this year. If the thing started talking in a Scottish accent, or roared, , it would charm the casual handler of the thing to play it. Or show the face of the Black Dragon in the movie, which was drawn and animated to strongly suggest a giant black cat with green eyes. But the gaudy packaging and the reviews are all it has to sell itself on it's own (if the recipient does not Google it).

I suppose this feature will be added to physical DVD's in a few generations of design. I do hope that film makers do not rely totally on the cloud for storing movies, because some very good films will be forgotten, if there are not physical copies around.

That is why SCARECROW VIDEO in the University District is so good. It has 120,000 + videos, and you can go around and LOOK at the packages, all arranged in a library form, for rental. Sorry for the plug, but this place is the very best place I have found for locating obscure films, and is the closest thing to the feel of a used bookstore, or library, just for movies.
No other place is open anymore, anyway; Broadway Video was a close second, but it is gone now, due to lack of support, as is the video store on 15th on Capitol HIll.I went in to SCARECROW  six months ago to try and find a movie I saw once when I was 13 or so, on broadcast TV, that scared the crap out of me.
I only remembered a few scenes, and the plot. That it was about a piece of the Earth being torn away - by accident, by a Scientific Experiment Gone Wrong.  And one scene where the Hero and Heroine are fleeing up from under ground in an elevator, and a big timber crashes through the elevator, almost killing them. I gave a vague description to one of the guys at SCARECROW, and he thought for a moment, and told me to look at the end of the world section of the disaster movie room, and I would find it there.  I look at a few packages and found the movie, rented it, and it was as good as I remembered.

Crack in the World, made in 1965, is the name: it had very good special effects for the time, (dubbed in video of Hawaiian volcanic eruptions, etc) and good writing for this sort of film.  I recalled the terror I felt seeing it as a kid. This film and The Birds by Hitchcock gave me a taste for well written science fiction films, which I still have today.

The video rental industry is vanishing like book stores, because 70% of all films are easy to get on NetFlix, and you can order the rest on Amazon. The trick is, and this is a big trick, what if you don't know what to rent, or read?

Many young people have never heard of many great films. They will look at you blankly when you recommend The President's Analyst (1966 comedy), or even To Have and to Have Not (Adaption of a Hemingway book - a Bogart film where he met Lauren Bacall, and they light up the film ). Any film made before 1977 is The Dark Ages to most people, and not visited, even on bored Saturday afternoons when channel surfing on Cable.  It takes a good video store employee to suggest watching one of these old movies, or a rabid movie buff who can then take you to a (still existing) video store to rent a given old movie.

 This is the same problem booksellers have. Amazon will get you Where'd you go, Bernadette  or I Feel Bad About my Neck, recent best sellers, but it takes a bookseller to suggest you read Down and Out in Paris and London or To my Niece on First Reading Jane Austen, The first title is George Orwell's 'breakout' book, the second, a brilliant book,  by an otherwise mediocre writer Fay Weldon.  To know about these old titles, and to stock them and hold them for the months they take to sell takes patience and knowledge, and not selling books like they were quarts of milk, interchangeable.

Supporting places that stock these older titles, and even more, staff that have read books other than the current best sellers and who can tell you about them, is vanishing rapidly.

Places like NetFlix and Amazon take our customers, by stripping out the 'bestseller' sales, which support the sales of these lesser known books.  This is a real pity. We are living in the platinum age of writing. More people are literate than ever before, more people are writing, yet we have fewer and fewer readers.  And it is the same for film.  The number of films made is growing rapidly, but fewer and fewer older films are being watched and enjoyed. Maybe 50 films made before 1977 are known to the general public, but that number is dwindling.

Most people age 25 have not seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, let alone most of them. Or a Kathrine Hepburn movie, or a Cary Grant movie. Or going even further back, a Frank Capra movie, a Hitchcock movie or a Kurosawa film.  Same with older writers.

Even the incredibly well known authors suffer this. Few people read any book by Herman Melville except Moby Dick: when I mention The White Jacket by him, a book was not only popular in his lifetime, but caused such a scandal that it stopped sadistic flogging in the American Navy (a good generation before it stopped in the British one).

My supernal favorite in books are the nonfiction titles, which are particularity neglected. A best seller in nonfiction such as history from 10 years ago will be so common on the market that Amazon sells it for a penny; making it very hard to stock and sell. What with the iPhone technology, I can hold such a book up and try to sell it, and my 'wise' customer will find that it is a penny online, decide that it 'cant be any good at that price' or just buy it online, leaving my copy behind.

One problem I have that SCARECROW VIDEO does not have (?) is that I am 'showroomed' more than they are. My wise customers go around my shop taking photos of books they like, so that they can go home and order them on Amazon Prime, and ''save a few dollars."

This is very discouraging. If I quit this being a bookseller, it will be because of that practice. The insanity of using my shop to make lists to buy online, really discourages me.

I would be better off just having a shop where every book is over $20, and not carry the exciting $5 to $10 books, if that is the future of my business.  And restrict my sales to online sales, to avoid the public altogether.

I want to ask the people who come into my shop to 'showroom' me about how they can live with themselves, but I suppose these are the same people who take cellphone calls while I am ringing them up. In other words, moral idiots.   Well, I will let the marketplace decide, and if it 'decides' I am obsolete,  I will have been driven out of the 'open shop' side of the used book trade. 

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