Future Shock

As you may have heard if you watched TV or went online at all in the past few weeks, October 21, 2015 was “Back to the Future Day,” the day Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) visited in Back to the Future II. Many have analyzed what changes that film got right (such as big flat-screen TVs and video chats) and wrong (such as flying cars, hoverboards, and abolishing lawyers). “Jimmy Kimmel Live” recently had Fox and Lloyd reprising Marty and Doc, visiting our time and leaving very unimpressed.

Of course, contrasting the film or television version of the future what has actually come to pass is nothing new. Both media and fans have long had fun noting the dates in the “future” when key events were to have happened, whether it was the Eugenics Wars from 1992 to 1996 in “Star Trek” or Skynet’s 1997 rise in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Everyone gets a chuckle when Pan Am is still flying in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but are we any less dependent on advanced technology than those astronauts were on the Hal 9000? It is not just science fiction films predicting the future either. The blending of news and entertainment that Network showed may have seemed like satire in 1976, but now it is accepted as fact.

Lately I have been thinking of another film’s dire predictions vs. what really happened, and it is not one that you would ever expect. In 1998, You’ve Got Mail starred Meg Ryan as a children’s bookstore owner and Tom Hanks as an executive with Fox Books, a national bookstore chain. Fox Books was a thinly disguised version of Borders and Barnes & Noble. That company was shown as a giant, heartless monolith driving the smaller, independent bookstores out of business. While You’ve Got Mail was set in the then-present, it not so subtly hinted at a future where the mega-bookstores dominated, a future the film bemoaned.

I always respected and admired independent bookstores, but I never saw Borders or Barnes & Noble as villains. Those stores were open, spacious and inviting. The staff were knowledgeable, friendly and helpful. More importantly, those stores made it OK to browse. When I was a kid, if I spent more than a few minutes reading a book, the bookstore staff would generally ask me if I was going to buy it, implying that I should put it down if I was not. At Borders or Barnes & Noble, I could spend hours reading and not buy anything. The stores even supplied the chairs and couches. Company management smartly took the long-term view. Even if customers did not make a purchase that particular visit, the more comfortable they were the more likely they were to come back. Eventually this would lead to more purchases. That business plan certainly worked with me.

Those stores were about more than browsing and reading. For years Bill Henry and Joe Barber held their “Movie Guys” talks at Borders, first in Columbia then in Silver Spring. Brian Niemiec started the DC Film Society’s Cinema Lounge discussion group at the Friendship Heights Borders, then moved it to the downtown one. When Borders closed, Cinema Lounge moved to the downtown Barnes & Noble. One way or the other, I always looked forward to going to the store, grabbing a cup of coffee and talking about film.

We know the rest of the story. The Borders are all since gone. The Georgetown Barnes & Noble closed, as did the Union Station one. So when my wife learned from a friend that the downtown Barnes & Noble would close by the end of the year, it should not have come as much of a surprise, but it was, in the stomach punch sort of way. The store was the Cinema Lounge’s home. Store management and staff always treated us with kindness and respect. Losing any type of a home is never easy.

Borders went out of business for reasons that few would have predicted when You’ve Got Mail hit theaters. The Internet, still in its AOL stage then, would become the primary way people would buy books, whether the books were on paper or downloaded into a reader. Borders could not adjust, and went under. The DC Barnes & Noble is leaving for reasons everyone should have seen coming: corporate greed. In this case it was a foreign company buying the building and jacking up the rent.

If you went back in time and told DC audiences leaving You’ve Got Mail that, by the start of 2016, Borders and Barnes & Noble would be gone from the city, they might have smiled. I feel no joy but a profound sense of loss. While I am glad the indie bookstores are still around, I wish there had been room for all types. The Cinema Lounge will continue, but I will miss our longtime home. I will also miss the wide selection and the leisurely browsing. As Yogi Berra said (Yes, I’m quoting him yet again) “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Adam Spector
November 1, 2015

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