Digital Times


Recently, three places that I thought of as New York institutions closed: Kim’s Video, J&R Music and Computer World, and Pearl Paint. A large part of their closing was due to the absurd skyrocketing of New York real estate — basically, the greed of landlords looking to get rich and not giving a shit about the families or businesses or lives or perhaps even the character of an entire city, if you want to get hyperbolic, that they’re destroying in the process. But I and others have written about this already and I don’t want to hash and rehash those sentiments. There’s another side to this story that interests me.  

I doubt anyone was surprised by the closing of Kim’s. Kim’s Video was a place where you could find obscure films of all sorts, so it was a great resource for cinephiles and film students. It has a particular place in my heart because I lived in the Village for my first five years in New York, when I was a film student, and the couple of Kim’s locations I frequented there (apparently there were six at the store’s height of popularity, with the Avenue A location most legendary for its snarkiness) were in many ways responsible for my cinematic education — more so than most of my lousy professors at NYU. And yet this demise seemed inevitable. Who goes to the video store any more? Aside from those still watching cable, pretty much everyone streams their content these days unless they need something that’s only available on DVD — and then they use Netflix, or maybe go to the library if their library is good, or purchase it online. But soon, all video is going to be available digitally or not available at all.

As for J&R, it had been declining for many years as well. Having started out as a basement record store in 1971 founded by Joseph and Rachelle Friedman, J&R had expanded, by the ‘80s, into a record “superstore,” with several storefronts that took over Park Row in the City Hall area of Manhattan — one for Classical, one for Rock and Pop, one for Latin and World Music, etc. My dad used to shop there when we drove into the city on weekends to see my grandparents, and I came to appreciate the place when I developed into a pop-music-obsessed teenager and discovered you could get virtually any album there for $5.99 or less. In the ‘90s and ’00s, the decline of the LP and then the CD hurt all music stores, but while Tower Records went under in 2006, J&R managed to survive by moving more heavily into electronics and computers, morphing into J&R Music and Computer World. Even in that line, however, the store found itself battling a deadly trifecta: the damage to the economy of first 9/11 and then the recession, the competition of Big Box retailers like Best Buy, and finally, online sales. Unlike its also-Jewish-couple-inspired-initials-named cousin, camera/electronics superstore B&H, J&R seems never to have developed a really successful online business — or maybe it just didn’t have the efficiency of those conveyor belts. Whatever the reason, B&H seems to be surviving while J&R is gone. 

The end of Pearl Paint seems, to me, particularly sad, because it was a place that catered to the needs of creators more than consumers. It was an art supply mecca, with six floors of every tool and material, as well as knowledgeable staff who were themselves resources for the artists who shopped there. One specific time I remember visiting there was when I was going to have photographs displayed in a café in Park Slope. At the time — I think it was 1997 but I’m not really sure (more on that later) — I was living in a three story house there and had built my own darkroom in the basement where I made black and white prints, mostly from the hundreds of photographs I’d taken on a three-week trip cross-country with friends. I was excited about having the opportunity to show the pictures, but it meant I had to figure out a cheap and not entirely half-assed way to hang about forty 8×10 photographs. “Binder clips,” an artist friend of mine suggested, “and Pearl Paint.” So I went to an office supply store (that also no longer exists) and bought a couple of pounds of binder clips, and at Pearl Paint I found black poster board for mounting, sheets of plastic to cover the photos, and a roll of fishing line to hang everything — all for an amount a nonunion freelancer could afford to spend on something that wasn’t going to make any money. Creativity and a little labor was all it took. Now, of course, I do all my photo work digitally, and that’s also mainly how I display it — and I think that’s true of a growing number of artists. The people who still create and hang with their hands and need the supplies for that can find them cheaply and easily online. Of course, if you’re in the middle of a painting and run out of burnt umber, you’re screwed, but other than that, you can probably get most of what you need these days, even in terms of advice, from online art supply stores or eBay or forums or list-serves of like-minded artists, without talking to a human being or leaving the house.

So what’s the point of all this, you might say, other than providing myself with a good nostalgia waah? I am obviously not against technology. I need it, and I also like it. I get sick of hearing people, especially people my age who are really not old enough to be crotchety, complain about it all the time – “those damn kids who never play outside because they’re playing games on their DS’s,” “darned hipsters always looking at their cell phones,” “all this texting!” blah blah blah – as if we could go back, even if we wanted to (and I never really liked talking on the phone so I’m overjoyed that I can now text basically everyone except my parents). While I don’t get as excited about every new toy that comes out as some (read: my husband, who last week got an iPad Air 2 and an iPhone 6+), I do try to keep up with the possibilities opened up to us by each new shiny and the things it can do. I love that there are still places we haven’t been in media and storytelling and concepts we can barely wrap our heads around yet because they are still being invented. That’s thrilling to me. 

But that doesn’t mean that I think, just because the technology is moving this fast, that we shouldn’t take the time to give more thought to where it’s taking us. So much is changing. I feel like I missed the moment when it basically stopped being necessary to buy music, when the very concept of ownership of it changed. I will probably never buy another album or song, ever, because I can listen to basically everything I’d want, any time, on a music service like Beats or Spotify. That, in itself, is kind of huge. What are the implications? I don’t know, and I feel like I should have figured it out before I made that leap — but it’s already happened. And what about the slow death of newspapers and books, and now of broadcast television? We all kind of know this has all been en route, with online news sources and the Kindle and TiVo and streaming all the variations thereof, but it doesn’t seem like people are really preparing for what’s next, and how it’s going to change us. Because all of these changes change us too. I’m not sure we realize how much of who we are and our culture and our habits and our day-to-day revolve around media. Until recently, most of us in the US were on a similar schedule where we all read the paper, went to school/work, came home, ate dinner, listened to and watched what was on radio and tv and talked about it the next day. Now, we work from home, read and attend classes online, watch whatever whenever wherever streaming to our mobile devices – there always seems to be more we can be doing and consuming, and all at the same time. We see the little changes this causes – getting spoilered on Facebook and Twitter because we get all of our news on Facebook and Twitter as well as memes and videos on Facebook and Twitter that start global trends – everything Facebook and Twitter, basically, the rise and rise and rise of social media is one big component of all this. But for who we are and how we behave, the rise of the digital means…what, exactly? There’s a lot of talk of guidelines for good digital citizenship or “netiquette,” which is basically just following the rules of how you should treat people that we all know but somehow think we can get around in the faceless online world, but is that just the inevitable result of the ability to easily forget that we are all human beings when all we see are words — which are really just zeros and ones — on a screen? 

So it’s not just New York that has changed, or the way those who live here create, or consume, or communicate. It’s all of that, to the point that we’ve altered the way we live, and not just here, but everywhere. I don’t care about the loss of things being replaced by new things. Sure, I miss the feel of a paperback’s pages, or the sound of static on a record, but that’s really because they remind me of a time and place and a person who I once was. Though even that, my memory, is different now, in an era where I don’t need to remember phone numbers or the best way to get somewhere or what happened on a particular day, because I now have all of that stored in my pocket instead of in my head. And if texting and all forms of online conversation instead of talking feeds the introverted side of me that likes to deal with actual people less, how am I different then? Who is this new person? Do I like her? How well do I even know her?

But who has the time to ask these questions when we all have so much to do? 

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