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Mail, Books, Starbucks: Signs Of The Apocalypse?

In this business, bad news comes in threes. Today, amid the mounting roll call of layoffs and closings across the economy, we have a trio of moves that together say something about both the hard times we find ourselves in and the changing nature of daily life.

--The Postmaster General asks Congress for permission to cut mail delivery from six days a week to five. This is immediately assumed to mean that Saturday home delivery of the mail is most likely to die. But it's not clear that that's how this would play out; the Postal Service might prefer to scrap a weekday (I vote for Monday--there's never anything good in the mail on Monday.) In the end, though, I bet Saturday is the one to go, largely because businesses will lobby hard against killing any weekday service.

--The Washington Post announces the death of its Book World weekly section of book reviews and literary commentary. Much of the material that now appears in that Sunday section of the paper will migrate to the Sunday Outlook section, but the demise of a stand-alone book section is a powerful statement about the decreasing importance of books in too many Americans' lives, the severe troubles in the newspaper industry, and the fact that most of us now spend more time staring at screens than turning the pages of any printed matter.

--Starbucks says it will close another 300 stores and lay off about 7,000 more workers, which means that my colleagues here on 15th Street might soon have fewer than four outlets of the coffee chain within two blocks of their desks.

So, here's the question: Which of these cuts tells us the most about the pickle we're in and the direction we're going in?

There have been much larger layoffs, and much more economically devastating closings. But these smaller moves speak to something much bigger than the paralyzed economy. Even as a new culture emerges on the web, one more oriented to video, speed and mobility, the move away from print is not just a transfer of content from one medium to another. It is a rejection of a slower culture, one that was based more on human filters, mass tastes, and lives led in far greater comfort with being alone, tied to others more through fantasy and imagination than through actual (virtual?) connected.

There is both good and bad in both the old and the new. This is not about life necessarily getting worse. But it is different, and each of these three moves signifies those differences powerfully.

The mail, for anyone over 35 or so, was not just a collection of bills and ads, but a deeply personal and intimate medium. I'm as addicted to email as the next guy, but nothing beats a love letter.

The book is a far different experience from any of its electronic competitors. No matter how amazing electronic book readers may be, they do not and will not feature the smells, tactile experiences, or distinctive and revealing designs that each volume has. I no longer recall the story lines of many of the great books I read as a child, but I still cherish the smell and touch of those books I discovered at the Kingsbridge Branch of the New York Public Library, and those experiences played every bit as important a role in luring me into the world of words and ideas as did the stories and characters contained between hard covers.

And although I am no coffee drinker and have actually never had a Starbucks coffee product, I see a deep satisfaction that the coffee house phenomenon has brought to many people who might otherwise spend way too much of their time tucked away in a bedroom or office, working through their days without so much as casting their eyes on another living creature. We are diminished every time we lose a space where we can be together with others, even--no, especially--with strangers.

So, which of these Signs of the Apocalypse is most damaging, most telling, most depressing?

My vote: The mail. Not because I'll miss out on any particularly wonderful things that come on Saturdays, or Tuesdays, or whatever day slips out of the delivery routine. Rather, it's because this is another, big break in the habits and structures that connect us to each other--to the mailman on his rounds, to the neighbors we see collecting their mail, to the hope that the next day's mail will bring the check that makes this month's rent payment possible, or--we can dream--to the note of thanks or solace or admiration or love that someone sat down to write, by hand, without being able to just click.

Your vote? (And feel free to add your reasons on the comment boards.....)

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  January 29, 2009; 10:44 AM ET
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Comments

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"I vote for Monday--there's never anything good in the mail on Monday."

What about Newsweek?

Posted by: ArlingtonVA3 | January 29, 2009 11:24 AM

Have the Post turn its excess real estate into special Starbucks where we can all come and read book reviews and pick up our mail on the off-day (Tues or Sat or whatever). That should solve it all by essentially killing three birds with one stone.

Posted by: blankspace | January 29, 2009 12:38 PM

The collapse of the WP Book World has more to do with the decline in readership of mewspapers than the decline in readership of books. Amazon Kindle readers will still want reviews even if it is not on paper.

Part of the problem is that the Post didn't seem to try to attract advertising from sources other than publishers. Why not advertise cars or watches or something else in that section? I know many people at the Post used to chuckle when they saw such an ad like that in the Times... well, which newspaper still has a book section?

Posted by: prokaryote | January 29, 2009 12:44 PM

"We are diminished every time we lose a space where we can be together with others, even--no, especially--with strangers."

There's always the library. They have books, too!

Posted by: Bitter_Bill | January 29, 2009 12:50 PM

Well, if the Post Office would simply refuse to accept or deliver junk mail, theirworkload and fuel needs would be cut in half. It would also keep millions of tons of garbage out of our landfills. Take that step before cutting back on delivery.

(and I know that cutting back on junk mail cuts down on their revenue, but without the junk mail they don't need as many workers and can do their job more economically.)

Posted by: wildfyre99 | January 29, 2009 12:59 PM

ohhh and as for Starbucks... Starbucks is a VIRUS. They are worse than Walmart edging out smaller retailers. Starbucks comes in and every small local coffee shop within miles closes and then Starbucks charges $5 for a freakin' cup of coffee...

Posted by: wildfyre99 | January 29, 2009 1:03 PM

Please, please, please, find a way to make it easier getting off mailing lists. I'd prefer a monthly, all-inclusive Lands' End catalog rather than the way it is broken down now, where I probably get 7 or 8 Lands' End catalogs a month. And don't get me started on the Hanes catalog. I get about 10 a month, in my married name, my maiden name, and in my husband's name. I just need one a month in case I run out of hose.

Posted by: EAHarrison | January 29, 2009 1:13 PM

Book World is more than a pile of book reviews - it has some interesting features too.

And they folded it once before and revived it, so maybe there's hope for another revival.

More people read books than read newspapers, anyway...and I say this as a 57-year-old diehard reader of both.

Posted by: jweissmn | January 29, 2009 1:16 PM

Mail on military bases overseas is not delivered on Saturdays (at least when my dad was stationed there). It only took a short time to get used to it, and then it was no big deal.

Posted by: mspatterson | January 29, 2009 1:31 PM

May Starbucks die a slow and painful death, the beast she is that lives.

Posted by: cbmuzik | January 29, 2009 1:43 PM

I think mail should be cut back on weekends. It's no big loss, means less junk mail and we'll still get the bills, tax stuff and bank statements that we fear to open.

As to Starbucks, it's the same with most retailers that strived to open the most stores in the most locations. Too big, too fast and in the process, they caused the closure of our small neighborhood shops and stores...they get no sympathy from me. Overpriced and over rated and I've never been a customer.

I read all of the major news online each morning, so I don't need the "hard copy" in my hands and have discontinued delivery.

Posted by: poescrow | January 29, 2009 1:57 PM

The Ball Canning Company started, thrived and is still successful today. Out of all our misery someone is likely to profit immeasurably.

Starbucks was always overrated in my estimation, Dunkin Donuts coffee is better as are their fattening treats.

After God created everything he decided that he needed a day off so why not give the Post Office 2 days off like everybody else; (except God).

I had the WaPo delivered for over a decade then canceled. This guy calls up offering all these great deals on the WaPo and I suggested to him to turn on his computer because it is all online and it is all free. Newspapers are dying, magazines are dying, and soon the news anchors on TV may be replaced by the on scene camera guy doing an exclusive live.

You got to roll with the punches or the punchers are going to roll over you.

Posted by: Sideswiped | January 29, 2009 2:53 PM

The Ball Canning Company is big in the aerospace field.

Posted by: wiredog | January 29, 2009 3:21 PM

Did anyone notice the news buried in the Book World story that Outlook is also being downsized to a traditional OpEd page format at the back of the Sunday A-section? Yikes!

Posted by: wesp | January 29, 2009 4:17 PM

(I vote for Monday--there's never anything good in the mail on Monday.)

____

Monday is basically the mail that someone didn't feel like delivering on Saturday.

Posted by: sugarstreet | January 29, 2009 8:20 PM

--The Washington Post announces the death of its Book World weekly section of book reviews and literary commentary. Much of the material that now appears in that Sunday section of the paper will migrate to the Sunday Outlook section, but the demise of a stand-alone book section is a powerful statement about the decreasing importance of books in too many Americans' lives, the severe troubles in the newspaper industry, and the fact that most of us now spend more time staring at screens than turning the pages of any printed matter.

----

This is well-said and there's not much more to add. However, I wonder if I am in the minority by not being all that impressed with Book World. The pieces just weren't meaty and lengthy enough. Space terrified the writers or editors. Why?? In a book review magazine, the reader craves depth. There wasn't much. Book World just kept getting more and more chopped up into tinier and tinier pieces. I gave up long ago.

Maybe reading just needs some big time reinvention. There's still a place for a book world, I think.

Posted by: sugarstreet | January 29, 2009 8:24 PM

Definitely not mail .. it's struggles reflect only a budding reality that it's a going to be dead business. Bills paid electronically, movies through wireless/cable, notes via email, packages via a myriad of other choices. The USPS is just another tree falling in the woods of change. Sooner we get on with the transition, like digital TV, the better.

Book section? Suffers the same fate as the rest of the paper. It'll all be in one section like the NY Post or Daily News soon. It's ALL about the internet and delivery to mobile devices. Put the paper in with the USPS and the history section of your at home library.

The real sign is Starbucks. It's the rocket reaching apogee (that's the top, right?) and falling back to earth. It won't take all with it but we all liked looking at it, soaring high and higher .. seemingly never to come back down.

But it is.

Posted by: tslats | January 29, 2009 11:32 PM

Folding Book World and moving some of its pieces to other places in the Post = re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Shoulda took the buyout, Marc...

Posted by: nunof1 | January 30, 2009 2:18 PM

taken

Posted by: sugarstreet | January 30, 2009 8:12 PM

I chose the loss of a mail delivery day as telling of changes. It is one of those institutions that you expect will never change. We are often shocked when we are faced with the reality of evolution. We have seen the U.S. Postal Service survive from even greater financial difficulties from their obsolete business practices to become competitive and pretty effective. Here's hoping they have the resolve to revise and create a vision that helps sustain the Postal Service as a relevant and valuable service in our world.

Check out the song that looks reflectively at how good things just do not last in Iris Dement's "Our Town."

Posted by: mtlove | January 31, 2009 11:12 AM

Wow, first Opus, then the Sunday Source, now the book world section going. That's too bad, I've gotten some of my best book selections from there...

Posted by: bromisky | January 31, 2009 4:24 PM

starbucks is to me, the telling one. Mail should be a five day a week enterprise, no particular reason to get it on the weekends. Newspapers are dying as a large industry, due to technological change as much as anything else (although management has had a lot to do with a lot of the fatalities) it's not a bad thing, it's just how it is. Anyone seen a typewriter repairman lately? sure, everyone loves the clackety clack and all that, just as everyone loves paper. But there are better things already here.

but coffee. when people start giving up their addictions, then you know there's trouble afoot.

Posted by: joshuaostevens | February 2, 2009 11:53 AM

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