(99) Big Box

I went back to Big Box because I felt something was not quite right.  (BTW: B&N started in New York it did not “pop” up in NY. It was always an urban phenomenon in good part because its earliest cash cow was textbooks (new and used) beginning with NYU which are almost always based in cities or become their own cities like UMD at College Park, South Bend, Dalton, Bloomington, etc  And its penetration of the malls was initially through acquisition not building (B Daltons).

I want to complicate the analysis of Big Box stores.  B&N is a good example  because they pioneered the business model, esp vis a vis tying real estate into the equation (although the model was a particular one off store this guy built down south in the 80s). The famed “gay” bookstore “A Different Light” had a good demographic on the west coast and expanded from SF to LA. But due to various econ pressures closed the LA store in 2007?  They kept the flagship and moved into online sales for expansion. Now this has happened to many book sellers in the face of B&N. But there are other components that plague small bookstores, but the primary hurdle is that  customer’s demand the lowest price. This outweighs every other factor including deep personal identification with the alt brand. Secondly, the liberalizing trend of capitalism is the even distribution of common content across all channels – the so-called flattening of the world. Such a prejudice for distribution over content diminishes ideological and other differences that used to support alt cultures. B&N carried and sells (especially online) everything that “A Different Light” sells.  Which brings up a couple of other caveats: B&N expanded as communities cut funding for libraries and schools banned books. (It is ironic the author suggests turning an old KMart into a library when the funding for existing libraries gets smaller and smaller. More people would rather go to the mall. In this sense capitalism is fairly democratic in that “our” culture is not reflected so much in what “we” build but in what “we” buy into – leaving aside the argument that “we” are all brainwashed.)  Places like B&N ended up serving as communal meeting spaces as public monies dried up. It also was a place, unlike many libraries, where one could get books like “Adv of Huck Finn” and Lolita (No ID required)  And it was open until midnight.  There is a homogenizing effect from Big Box which the East Coast often sees as dumbing down. In some communities B&N was seen as a threat – a liberalizing force. There are various court cases (usually in the South) in which local customers ordered things like Sally Mann’s photography books. When they were called and told their book was in the customer called the police had the manager arrested for distributing child pornography.  Occasionally a local sympathetic judge would even push the case up the next rung of the ladder. B&N always fought these cases.  But all this is content based analysis which is what I actually want to avoid!  As Debord would argue, the identification of corps like B&N with control and power objectifies what is an autonomous force (capitalism).  B&N itself is being consumed by Amazon and others. It going through its own down sizing as more content becomes web based and big box stores respond to the devaluation of real estate (the secret profit point for B&N which was the master of leveraging leases and anchor rights) and the high cost of labor. Soon B&N will face their “Ipod moment” when they will have to reconfigure their business (which they have already begun to do) to face the reality that they will primarily be a process for electronic distribution. And Malls will need to be less about congealed products and more about ephemeral experience.  B&N is not going to implode like Circuit City, but this is just to argue that the big box is merely a temporary congealing of resources along the path of cheap resistance, an effect not a cause. I guess this is why I felt I wanted to go on (and on) about this – there is something about the general activity of the economy that is lost when I identify it to closely with things like superstores or islands of trash – as Koolhaas writes (and enacts) these manifestations are not necessary only incidental. I am still trying to digest this idea (which is why I can’t get to the waste yet!)


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