It was a Wednesday morning around lunchtime and my schedule was empty for a few hours between meetings.
Driving east along Dunlap Avenue near Interstate 17, I was passing Metrocenter Mall when a strange urge struck.
I hung a right. A minute later, I found myself driving through a parking lot emptier than the brain of your average politician.
This was how I browsed a bookstore for the first time in years.
Inside Barnes & Noble, the 20-something behind the customer service counter greeted me with the kind of enthusiasm I imagine shipwreck survivors muster when rescuers finally land on the beach.
“Hey there, sir! Welcome! How are you?” she sing-songed. “Can I help you find anything?”
The answer in my head: 2009. I used to go to bookstores all the time in 2009. Also, I fit into slim-cut jeans, still recalled Bruce Jenner as an Olympic decathlete and rooted for the Phoenix Suns when they didn’t suck.
“You’ll be the first to know,” I told her, before veering toward the magazines. The once-familiar sight of glossy covers in rows felt odd, like revisiting your old hometown after years away.
Oddly, soft-core porn like Penthouse is still published in magazine form these days, wrapped in plastic and stashed behind the sports magazines.
Given that it’s virtually impossible to avoid naked people on the Internet in 2020 – displayed free of charge – I can’t imagine who still buys Penthouse and Playboy, but at least, uh, old-fashioned “readers” have that option.
Barnes & Noble also still sells scores of novels in hardcover and paperback, which I imagine most people use as bookends, doorstops and gag gifts.
As an avid reader, a guy who goes through a hundred books annually, I don’t remember the last time I read a book in paper form.
For old time’s sake, I spent a few minutes searching for the cliffsnote versions of various works of literature I was assigned to read in high school, but skipped.
One day I may get around to Aldous Huxley and Zora Neale Hurston in full. But surely in digital form and not with sufficient clarity to write a five-page, double-spaced term paper.
It was comforting to find old favorites still on the shelves: “Catch-22,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and the incomparable “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of the Nazi death camps.
Flipping through them, I tried to recall when and why I gave up paper texts for digital.
Dates are hazy, but the why is easy: The majority of us have traded the superior heft of texts, the tactile joy of turning pages and the ability to scribble in a book’s margins for the simplicity of pointing, clicking, buying, downloading, reading.
You didn’t need to stand in the business aisle to get a lesson in 21st-century economics: Plenty of overhead in the form of square footage, power and human beings.
But the place was devoid of humanity.
Sure, some local bookstores – Changing Hands, the Poisoned Pen – still make a go of it, but a thought occurred: When our children’s, children’s children go to Old Western towns like Rawhide for kicks in 2120, will the fake scenery still be saloons, shooting galleries and the undertaker?
Or will the place feature storefronts like Borders, Fashion Bug and The Gap?
Sheer guilt made me buy something: Another copy of “The Great Gatsby,” though I already own more than a few. I haven’t read it in a couple years, but that famous last line of Fitzgerald’s stuck with me as I turned back onto Dunlap Avenue.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”