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.
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