Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bigger, Dumber, Cheaper

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.


Jo said...

To me, that's an impressive telescope.

Oh I love non-chain bookstores, especially used bookstores. I can easily spend 3 hrs in there discussing books...it comforts me that there are people who can get as excited as I do over the obscure little delights that a life in pulp brings. I found some treasures at Four Corners bookstore in Colorado Springs...if only I'd known of O's store, I would have stopped there too!

O said...

Thanks Clowncar for the post, and your and your family's visit. And your help moving. And that bottle of Dickel Whiskey - it was good. Actually, it's still there, waiting for your next Denver trip.

I made the move long after I should have. After years of dealing with the public, I was loathe to give it up. It's kinda sterile - OK, not my workspace - but the day in day out of: find worthwhile book list worthwhile book online sell worthwhile book ship worthwhile book wait to get paid by amazon or alibris or whoever for worthwhile book. But I have free time. But I don't have the customer contact. Like all things, there is good and there is bad.

Anyhow, your post made me feel good. Thanks.

Mona Buonanotte said...

My biggest weakness is bookstores. I can spend hours...nay, days...in there touching the covers and skimming content and inhaling their papery goodness. Lately I've been looking books up on Amazon and calling my local bookstore to order them, just so I have an excuse to spend more time in the store. I may be totally weird.

That telescope looks HUGE! Is it taller than you?

Irrelephant said...

Bigger, dumber and cheaper. *g* I can relate. The further we advance along the "Improvement" road the further I want to walk back to where we came. There's something to be said for driving a truck that has no power steering, no power brakes nor air conditioning in an electronic world. It makes you appreciate those things for one thing, and when repairs come due they're always about ten times cheaper; your mechanic doesn't need a laptop and C++ certification to work on a 1971 GMC.

Nancy Dancehall said...

That telescope is as tall as me, Mona. A big eight incher...heh heh heh...

As always, it was a joy having you guys up to visit. Thanks for helping O move everything. Ad your little Dickel is safe in my possession. ;-)

Clowncar said...

It's an impressive telescope to me too, Jo. I am so psyched. And you can always visit O's store online - the link is in the post.

O, happy to make you feel good. I think I was in a good mood that day from waking up in your house without a hangover. Not sure that's ever happened before. Now keep your hands off my Dickel!

Mona, that telescope is is indeed taller than Nancy, though that's not saying much - there are mushrooms taller than Nancy. I think standing straight up (heh, heh) it's about 4 feet tall. I order from used bookstores through Amazon - that way it's fast and cheap and I can feel like I'm helping an independent bookseller stay afloat.

Yeah, the "technologically advanced" scope ate - I am not making this up - 8 AA batteries an hour. And you couldn't turn the scope yourself - you had to push the buttons on the controller to make it move. It's lie they were trying to suck the fun out of the experience. I'll take big, dumb and cheap every time.

And eight inches is just the girth, Nance. Heh, heh. Don't think I've said "heh, heh" this many times since spending the weekend at Camp Dick. Heh, heh. It was a joy to hang with you guys as well. And please keep my Dickel safe and warm til our return. Heh, etc.

Eric Shonkwiler said...

Hey Mr. Wizard! When there's a "wet moon" like there has been for the past week or so (at least for me) does that occur for everyone? Planetwide?

Clowncar said...

Ah, grasshoper, an excellent question (after I looked up what a wet moon was). My guess is that half the world sees a wet moon, and half sees a dry moon. Cuz everybody sees the same phase, any given night. So half se it pointing one way, half see it pointing the other.

Eric Shonkwiler said...


I should put up some excerpts of my novel that would interest you. I like talking about the sky, and use a few astronomy terms.