Moving into the next decade, we are being endlessly pummeled by journalists and pundits in the media attempting to sum up for us poor saps what the last ten years mean in the larger context – as if the last decade of credit markets gone mad followed by economic collapse needs a better academic summation than: we saw, we spent, we went broke.
A recent visit to a Borders book store in Las Vegas, Nevada, served as a stark reminder to me how much the collective culture has changed over the last ten years, and how the corporate media (and we, as willing consumers) have denigrated the art and craft of writing to the level of respect afforded to a perfume sample at a high-end department store, just another brand of corporate media heroin to be pushed.
Ten years ago it was not impossible or unthinkable to enter a chain bookstore and hunt down the rarest of beasts in the homogenized box store retail jungle: a cheerful and informative clerk who could prove helpful in discriminating between, say, a recognized Hemingway classic and a posthumously published work that contributes nothing significant to the author’s canon, surviving only as an ATM for the Hemingway estate. Such distinctions are important for a literary novice, lest they depart the store with a copy of True at First Light instead of Death in the Afternoon.
In the modern retail environment, with independent book sellers going the way of VHS video, the average book store clerk and cashier is little more than a slave to a corporate brand that hypes not only books but music, electronics, movies, and board games, as if all popular culture is interchangeable, housed under one deluxe, glass-domed roof for your shopping convenience (with the ubiquitous Starbucks or Seattle’s Best Coffee shop on-site for those clueless, caffeine-addled customers who confuse the functions of a book retailer with those of a lending library or a Beat-era bistro).
Las Vegas, where I have been exiled from my native California for the last three years, is a hell-bent, open-air insane asylum in the sand; any community whose revenue stream is primarily taken from the salt mines of vice is bound by any reasonable sociological measurement index to house more than its fair share of fragile and often violent egos.
It takes a certain moral flexibility to live here, a city built out of a mobster’s dream of a hedonistic playground for adults in the middle of nowhere. The failure of the city’s founders and future protectors to install some sort of fail-safe device in the face of a worldwide economic slowdown is reflected in the city’s current unemployment rate, hovering just above 13 percent as of this writing.
Like Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the inhabitants of the town he put on the map do not trend toward self-realization; it should therefore come as no surprise that “full service” massage parlors outrank book stores by a staggering ratio in Las Vegas.
The 2010 Yellow Pages directory for Greater Las Vegas – including the neighboring communities of Boulder City, Henderson, and United States Senator Harry Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nevada – lists five full pages of massage parlors, including one page of listings for those seeking what is passively classified as “non-therapeutic” adult massage (contrary to popular misconception, prostitution is not legal in Clark County, where Las Vegas is situated).
Flipping through the alphabetical listings in the Greater Las Vegas Yellow Pages, one happens upon the listings for retail book dealers on page 278, sharing the page with bail bondsmen and booking agents.
The first six book dealers listed are the last retail establishments one would patronize for a copy of Moby Dick unless it’s the gay porn version on DVD, which can probably be found at either one of two Adult Superstores listed as “book dealers”, as well as Adult Supreme on South Main Street, Adult World on Valley View Boulevard, A Showgirl Video on the Strip, and A-Action Adult Books and Video, located in a part of town I would not recommend venturing to without an armed escort.
Continuing through the slim listings for book dealers (three small columns), one discovers a sole B. Dalton Bookseller in Henderson; there are three Barnes and Noble retailers in the Vegas Valley and a Barnes and Noble College Bookstore at UNLV. The only other chain book retailer in the community is Borders Book Shop and Café, represented in Las Vegas by an impressive seven outlets, two of them Borders Express stores.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those box store haters. Barnes and Noble and Borders have their place in the retail market; in fact, many urban communities across the United States only have one choice for a book shopping experience: B&N, Borders, or stay indoors and take your business to Amazon or the aforementioned retailers in an online shopping mall.
This was the choice confronting me one Thursday afternoon in February when I urgently needed some reference books for several long-term projects I am working on (including my monthly literature column for PopMatters, currently on a short hiatus): order the books I need online and pay extra for expedited shipping or jump in a taxi cab and travel the three miles from my home to the local Borders Book Shop and Café in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin and have the much-needed material in my hands before sunset; opting for the latter choice sent me on an unexpected and remarkably unsettling journey into the heart of book marketing, new century style.