Paying the price

Over the weekend, my young daughter had a swimming lesson at a park district pool here in Chicago. As she was in the water, I had a chance to do a bit of wandering, and before I knew it I found myself in a used bookstore that I hadn’t known about before. My love for books in general, and used bookstores in particular, has been well-documented in this space, so I went inside and started to look around.

The store’s square footage was limited, since it’s on a busy street in a gentrifying area. I imagine that the rents are very high where the store is, while even five years ago it would have been far more reasonable than it is today. But better to have a bookstore, or any business really, than to let the space sit empty.

The store was a labyrinth of books, literally stacked from floor to ceiling in order to maximize the space they did have. How anyone can browse for books that are far off the ground I never bothered to ask. I figured my time was too limited to get into any of that. I’ll ask about it next time, if there is one.

I had engaged a few of my old friends from high school in a discussion on Facebook earlier in the day, and I had invoked Thomas Paine and his Age of Reason. It occurred to me that I was familiar with the work in a general sense, but hadn’t actually read it before. And what better place to remedy that than in a used bookstore? It was as if I had gone there for exactly that reason, even if it seemed like I was just trying to kill some time during a swimming lesson.

I somehow managed to find a copy of Paine’s work, but there wasn’t a price written inside, as there were with many of the books in the shop. So I took the book to the checkout register, presented my find, and asked what the price was. The proprietor of the shop gave me a price of six dollars, tax included.

The price seemed a bit high, since I’m used to going to garage sales and picking out books for a quarter or fifty cents, at the most. There was also a public library nearby, and I could have probably found a copy of Paine’s book there, for free (that is, once I pay off whatever overdue fines are on my account). The bottom line was that six bucks for a book seemed a bit high to me.

But then I realized that the cost of the book also took into account the rent on the space, and the electric bill, and the heat, when the winter sets in. Used bookstores are a rare treat, in the world of and Wal-Mart selling books and titles on Gutenberg and e-readers proliferating every day. If I want to help keep this bookstore in business, I need to pay a premium to do it. So I dug out the money, handed it to the shop’s owner, and walked away with a couple hundred pages of Thomas Paine’s take on matters of faith.

On my way back to the swimming pool where the lesson was finishing up, I felt good about supporting the cause of bookstores like this one. They’re an endangered breed, with all of the pressures that are building up on them every day. And if I have to kick in a little bit more to get a book that I want, I’ll do that because I’d hate to consider what a world without these types of shops would be like.


I love a good used bookstore

Lincoln never fails to inspire me. He’s more than just my middle name, although he is that as well. He’s the inspiration behind several things I’ve written in this space. And when I’m in a bookstore, as I was yesterday, I always know what subject to look for. And, fortunately, Lincoln books are always available to be had.

I was in a bookstore on Cape Cod yesterday. It’s the kind of place that couldn’t survive in too many places anymore. But, fortunately, a mix of locals with a literary bent, and an influx of tourists like me who want something to read at the beach, conspire to keep the place going. And that’s the sort of a world I want to be in, to be honest about it.

Wal-mart comes in and puts book chains out of business. Or Amazon comes along and gives readers a whole lot more choices than even the largest used bookstore can offer. Or, most disastrously of all, words printed on a page lose ground–slowly but steadily–to e-readers and other electronic devices. All of these factors put pressure on a book store like the one I was in yesterday. But they keep going, as if to thumb their nose at the forces arrayed against them. And I say good on them for doing so.

I had a range of perhaps five or six Lincoln books to choose from, and I wanted to get more than the one that I got. But I picked out Lincoln’s Sword by Douglas L. Wilson, and I’m working my way through it, whenever time at the beach or late nights in the summer cabin allow for it. I’ve already learned some things I didn’t know, such as that the version of Lincoln’s Farewell Address to Springfield in 1861 isn’t actually the way he delivered the speech to the people assembled on that day.

I have another week here on Cape Cod, which should be more than enough time to finish off the book. And, if possible, I’ll go back and pick up something else on my way out of town. It’s for a good cause, after all.

Game ready

I remember the first time I ever saw a microwave oven. It was about 1978, and my dad’s college roommate who lived in Tennessee had one. He showed my dad how to make an egg in it, which maybe took 30 seconds, and my dad was sold on the concept. As soon as we got back home from our visit to Tennessee, we acquired one of our own. Food preparation was a whole lot quicker after that.

My kids, who have never lived in a world without microwave ovens, might be excused for believing that anything more than three-and-a-half minutes is an eternity to wait for food. All of the prep work for food is done somewhere else, and all that’s left to be done is to take the carton from the box, set the timer, and wait a couple of minutes. Anything more than that is beyond comprehension to them.

That sort of mindset seems to have spilled over into sporting goods, as well. The sporting goods store itself is a thing of the past, with places like Wal-Mart and Target being the place to go for sporting goods today. This evening I was in a Target store with my teenager, wandering the aisles looking for a few things, when I came upon a by-product of the microwave mentality. I knew that I had to say a few words about it here. That’s why I do this, after all.

I was walking past a sporting goods aisle (there are two or three in the store) when I noticed their baseball gloves. I picked out a Rawlings model (left-handed, of course) and tried it on my hand. It was indicated as being for 7-9 year olds, which is about how old I was when I got my first glove. And this glove was black, too, just the way mine used to be when I was a kid. But there was a big difference between the glove on my hand in the picture above (I’m on the left, in the catching position) and the glove that was on my hand this evening in Target.

The difference was that the glove on my hand was described as being “game ready,” which is a term for a glove that’s already broken in. My glove, and the glove of my friend Scott in the picture, and the glove of every young kid in the 1970s, didn’t come in “game ready” condition. It came stiff and uncomfortable. There was one way to have a game ready glove, and that’s what we were doing in the picture.

We played catch in the back yard. We also played on baseball teams (but different ones, because I’m a year older than he is), and we played “hotbox” a lot, too. You basically had two players with their goves on, guarding two bases, and a runner trying to reach one base or the other safely. It was hours of fun for baseball-playing youth who didn’t have video games to distract them. Or sometimes, when it was dark outside and playing baseball wasn’t an option, I worked my glove by essentially pounding the ball with my left hand into the glove on my right hand. It was like playing catch with myself, really.

The payoff, after about a year or so of playing baseball all the time, was a glove that was properly broken in. That’s a lot better than “game ready,” in my mind, because an attachment to something was formed along the way. And a kid today, assuming he wants to play baseball in the first place, doesn’t have to break his glove in anymore. He can just skip the trouble and get a “game ready” model, instead. But he’s missing out on something by doing it this way, even if he doesn’t know what that something is.

This sounds like me being a humbug. And, truth be told, I love my microwave just as much as the next person does. But breaking in my baseball glove was a corner that I didn’t cut, and all these years later, I’m happy that it turned out that way.

The thing about Wal-Mart

I was on vacation last week, and lots of thoughts were kicking around inside my head. I even managed to get one out into this blog already, but for the most part I had neither the access to a computer nor the inclination to sit down and ruminate for the half-hour or so that I need to get one of these together. But I’m back to reality now, so the blog posts will start coming again. You’re welcome.

So on the first night of vacation, my family and I stayed in a hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And we get up to start the day and spy a Wal-Mart on our way out of town. There are Wal-Marts sort of close to where we live, but we don’t ever go and shop there. The Walton family doesn’t need my family’s money, after all. But there didn’t appear to be too many other options available between the hotel and the highway, and people do tend to try new things on vacation, so why not go in and see what the hubbub is about, right?

The first thing I noticed was the enormity of the store. I started instinctively taking pictures of the place, to try to convey its tremendous scale. But if you shop at Wal-Mart, you already know. Acres of goods, all with those low prices they love to brag about so much. Multiply that by the thousands of Wal-Marts there must be around the world, and the scale of this company is is either impressive or repulsive, depending on how you look at it. My vote is for repulsive.

I say that for two reasons. The first is that, for all of the jobs Wal-Mart has you believe they create when they open up a new store, there is also a lot of wreckage that comes with it. Fresh fruit markets–which I’m very fond of–can’t possibly match Wal-Mart’s buying power, and so when money is tight (as it always is nowadays) the consumer is going to buy the $1 bag of apples before they buy the $2 bag of apples. Any business that might have carved out a niche in a particular market, whether it’s in sporting goods, watches, prescription filling, or anything else, may as well close up shop when Wal-Mart comes to town. Market reality, yes. The world I want to live in, no.

But there’s another reason to hate on Wal-Mart. And it’s because they feed into the American zeitgeist of consumption. If they didn’t create it, they certainly feed on it. Or rather, they make it possible for all of us to feed on it.

Wal-Mart stores are a testament to the fact that Americans love to buy things. We have the money (or at least the credit necessary to create the illusion of having money), so why not go to a place that will give us more for the money than anyplace else? It’s the reason we’re so overweight as a people (and sadly, that does include me. I’ll be a hypocrite to suggest otherwise). Not only is it food, but it’s clothes, household items, and everything else Wal-Mart sells, even if it is made by cheap Chinese labor. We’ll buy it without a second thought, since consumerism is instilled into us from the day we’re born. That’s the real American Way here in 2011.

All these items, and all of them so cheap, simply encourages more and more consumption. So even when the economy turns bad and people have less money than they used to, they can still go and buy cheap things at Wal-Mart because, unfortunately, nobody can out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart. Places like Target and Meijer can compete and live to tell about it, but Wal-Mart eats their lunches at the end of the day.

It’s ironic that I’m discussing Wal-Mart on Labor Day. I’m sure that they made more money than usual today, since people had the day off of school and planned end-of-summer cookouts as a result. But Wal-Mart will fight, with every fiber of their being, to keep unions out of their stores. So rather than getting paid extra for working on a holiday, Wal-Mart “associates” don’t get to share in the company’s extra prosperity on a day like this. But the stockholders certainly do.

Things like overtime and health benefits, which many people benefit from and expect to have in their own jobs, are routinely denied by Wal-Mart. They can’t keep their “low prices” business model in place by doing that. But again, the American consumer either doesn’t understand this, or simply doesn’t care about it.

For my part, I won’t be visiting Wal-Marts anymore now that I’m back at home. However, I’m certain that the Walton family has enough other families dependent on their business model to survive.  I just hope that we, as a nation, can eventually survive them.

Nothing but shattered dreams

I’m taking a night off from writing about baseball tonight. It’s a combination of my team not playing and being a bit burned out on it. There is so much more to life than baseball, and I’m reminding myself of this tonight.

I took my kids to see a movie tonight. It was a fun little diversion from everyday life, and a couple of hours in the air conditioning on an unbelievably muggy day. Good family time, while they are still willing to have it. These days won’t last forever, so I have to enjoy it while I can.

As we’re driving home from the theater, a row of deserted factories caught my eye. I’ve seen them before–lots of times–but tonight they gave me food for thought, which is something I always appreciate. They seemed to be reminding me of why this country is in such awful shape.

While I don’t know when these factories were built,  it was clear that they’ve been abandoned for some time. But once they all hummed with activity. People were working hard, producing products that would be sold to other Americans. And the people who worked there fed their families, kept a home, maybe spent a week or two on vacation at this time of year. Maybe they lived near the factory, and were able to walk to work, or come home on their lunch breaks. Maybe they pulled an extra shift when they could, so that there would be extra presents under the Christmas tree, or a new color TV when they became available.  Maybe these people put their kids through school, and then retired to someplace warm when their time had come. But none of that seems to go on anymore.

The factories were shut down because whatever products they once produced can now be made by workers, probably in Asia, who will work for pennies on the dollar compared to American workers. So the factory owners closed down their operations, sent all the workers into whatever abyss lay ahead of them, and set up shop far, far away. That $25 pair of Levi’s still cost $25, but the margins were so much fatter than they ever were before. That’s good for business, but certainly not good for the people and places that were left behind.

There are now millions of Americans who once held these jobs, but can’t find a place to work anymore. Empty factories don’t provide jobs, or breathe life into the community where they are located. And the goods that these factories once produced are probably still available somewhere, but now they carry a label that reads “Made in China” or “Made in Honduras” or “Made in someplace you’ve never heard of before, but trust me, the natives will work cheap.”

So will these shuttered factories ever be opened again? I can’t see how they would be. If the “job creators” are given more money, as they always seem to want, then any jobs that they will create won’t be in the U.S.A. Too many unions, too many regulations, too many worker protections, excuse after excuse after excuse. It’s much easier to pack up and go to one of those countries where 50 cents a day is considered good money. We American consumers will just continue to buy whatever crap Wal-Mart stocks on its shelves, without the slightest thought about where and how it was made. In this sense, we’ve contributed mightily to our own decline.

With these thoughts bouncing around in my head, it rapidly went from a fun night out with the family into a more somber reflection on why we are where we are. But I needed it, and I wish that more people would reflect on these things. The movies, and “reality” TV, and nearly everything else in popular culture seems to be running contrary to that. And, without a row of deserted factories nearby, it’s unlikely that anybody would do this on their own. But perhaps they should.