Interesting confluence of events last weekend.
La Petite Huque and the little clowncars and I went to Denver – Hux was doing some volunteer work, I wanted to buy a new telescope, and we always jump at the chance to spend some time in Chez Dancehall.
So Saturday afternoon, Dancey and the girls and I went to the telescope shop, whilst Hucky was volunteering. I had already ordered the scope and had a appointment with the owner of the shop for a little tutorial on how to use it. It was heaven in there – everything from binoculars to scopes so large they need to be pulled by a horse trailer. A gaggle of astronomy geeks stood at the counter, discussing lenses with great delight. They handled the lenses in their hands gingerly as they talked, as if the lenses were precious gems.
Minutes into the tutorial, it became clear this wasn’t the perfect scope for me (for those of you who care about these things, it was a 6” Schmidt-Cassegrain with a “go-to” controller). The owner knew this before I did, and deftly steered me toward a bigger, dumber, cheaper scope, knowing it fit my needs better (an 8” Dobsonian reflector, pictured below). Big, dumb and cheap is good.
She lost money by steering me toward a cheaper scope. But knew she’d made her customer happy. And so yes, she'd gain a customer, but more importantly she'd turn somebody on to astronomy by finding them a scope they wouldn’t get bored or frustrated with. And thus gain a lifelong customer. One who will keep buying scopes. And whose kids might buy scopes as well.
Except.... The landlord sold the strip mall they’re in. So they’re looking for a new place. I’m sure there is a razor thin profit margin keeping a store like that alive. So maybe they’ll survive, maybe they won’t. It’s significantly cheaper to get a scope over the internet, but you miss out on having a real live person listen to you and advise you, one who knows much more about these things than you do.
I hope their store makes it.
The next day I helped Dancehall’s hubby, O, move some furniture from their bookstore to their house. O’s had a used bookstore for decades, one that has won several awards for being the best used bookstore in the city. He recently closed the brick-and-mortar store to do strictly online sales.
We were surrounded by books as we moved bookshelves and furniture. It was like a church, if churches allowed smoking and grunting and farting and swearing. A book would catch my eye every few minutes, I’d ask O about it, he’d tell me about it, we went back to smoking and grunting and farting and swearing. Without fail, he knew the content of every book I mentioned. Not most of them. All of them.
When his store was open, book freaks would stand around and talk about what they'd read, in much the same way those astronomy geeks discussed lenses. They'd handle books gently as they talked, enjoying the tactile sensations of the cover, the pages, the weight in their hands.
I’m not gonna whine about the market forces shuttering these two shops. The world is what it is, and I too buy most of my books and music online (and almost did with the scope as well), and love the convenience and the price. An agile business goes with the flow of the marketplace, which is what O did, by moving to online sales. His business looks like it’s going to be fine. And maybe the telescope store will survive as well. But it’s sad what we’re losing in the process, these vast stores of information available to us by talking to people face-to-face who have spent decades doing what they do. The telescope lady knew what kind of scope I wanted better than I did. O handles hundreds of books a day, every day, and if he hasn’t read them, he has talked to somebody who has. They are experts in their fields, not because they have a degree, or a website, or a big-box franchise, but because they’ve been handling the everyday minutia of their respective businesses for years.
They will be missed. By us. And more importantly, by our children.