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The Death of Browsing

The Death of Browsing (photo)

Waxing nostalgic on a shopping art that is quickly getting lost.

This is how I know I’m getting old: I get mopey and nostalgic at the news that Best Buy plans to drastically reduce the amount of floor space in its stores devoted to CDs and DVDs. The reasons make perfect sense from an economic perspective: people are buying less CDs and DVDs than video games and iPods and cell phones. But I don’t want to look at this from an economic perspective. I want to consider it from an emotional one.

The removal of DVDs and CDs from stores like Best Buy (and the recently announced bankruptcy of Blockbuster) sounds the death knell on one of my favorite pastimes: browsing. Understand, I like buying media online. The last Blu-ray I bought came from Amazon. The last album I bought came from iTunes. I have a huge Netflix plan. I recognize that we’re moving towards a future where there won’t be any physical media, just data stored on servers and devices. And I would never deny the value of owning a single pocket-sized gadget that contains thousands of albums or books or movies. These are fine companies and services. They carry almost everything and they’re rarely out of stock.

But there are some things these online services cannot replicate, principally the pleasure of discovering something you didn’t know you were looking for in the first place. I love buying movies online, but only when I know exactly what I want: browsing a movie website is a means to an end, not an activity. It’s not leisurely, it’s focused. There’s no tactility, no admiring of box art, no considering of special features. You can’t go DVD shopping on a website with a buddy and compare notes about who’s seen what, who needs to catch up with this or that, who wishes they had held out for a better edition. I wasted spent a hefty portion of my youth doing that, and in doing so I bought a lot of movies and music that I otherwise might never have found.

That social aspect, that culture, is something that is disappearing for good, and most movie message boards with their harsh name calling and dogpile mentality are not a satisfying replacement. I often say that I did my post-graduate studies working at a video store, and it was a great place to expand my knowledge base about film. When I was growing up, there was a romance to video stores, which seemed to breed cineastes and future filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. They also provided a fruitful setting for movies about culture, but less than two decades after they were made “Empire Records” (1995) and “High Fidelity” (2000) are rapidly becoming as dated as the stock on their fictional shelves. We’re not far away from video stores becoming the stuff of “Back in my day!” stories that crotchety old people tell their disrespectful grandchildren.

I know this is a lot of kvetching over the decision of a giant electronics store. But availability and efficiency are nothing without the human element: Netflix gave someone a million dollars to improve their recommendation algorithm, but I still trust the taste of the guy at the one video store left in my neighborhood (though Netflix’s frequently deranged suggestions are always good for a chuckle: today it thinks that because I liked “Bullitt” I should watch “Revanche.” Hoooookay.). I hope my local joint stays open for a while. They tell me they’re thinking of adding a video game section.

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