It was inevitable that a movie centered on the up-and-coming technology of email and chat rooms would eventually become outdated. This I know.
But when I settled in to watch You’ve Got Mail for about the thousandth time, I realized a whole new level to which this movie now dates itself. Sure, the fashion of clunky shoes and tights has gone away (until the hipsters get ahold of it). No one goes in AOL chat rooms anymore. Dial-up is a cute nod to antiquity. I have to wonder how well the characters would have been able to maintain their anonymity had Facebook existed back then.
What I didn’t expect was the interesting way the central conflict has played itself out in real life. In the movie, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, owns an independent children’s bookstore. Tom Hanks’s character, Joe, is the heir of a big box bookstore called Fox Books, a bookstore comparable to Barnes & Noble.
The story is that Fox Books is opening a location down the street from Kathleen’s store, Shop Around the Corner. Despite a hard fight from Kathleen, Fox Books puts Shop Around the Corner out of business; the independent bookstore is no competition for Fox Books, a large store with lots of titles and coffee.
This conflict is one of the aspects of the movie that doesn’t feel completely antiquated; small, independent bookstores still get muscled out by larger booksellers. But what I didn’t foresee was that nowadays, the big box bookstores are in danger of extinction as well.
It seems that not a week goes by without my hearing some new story of the dangers posed to brick & mortar bookstores (big or small) by online sales. This week, The New York Times ran a story on how Barnes & Noble is good for sellers like Amazon because browsing a bookstore is usually how a reader finds a book to read in the first place. The online environment does not lend itself as easily to browsing. I hate, however, to think of a brick and mortar bookstore as merely a vehicle for browsing.
I’ve always enjoyed the movie You’ve Got Mail. With the killer combination of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and the writing of Nora Ephron and the indulgence of bookish geekery, it’s one of my favorites. But it reminded me of the importance of bookstores. It’s not something that needed reminding, per se, but rather drove it home for me again. Browsing in bookstores is important. Finding new books and new authors is essential. Find an independent bookstore and get to know the owner. Embrace the romance of bookshelves, of paperbacks you can flip through and sample. Walk into a Barnes & Noble and take a deep breath. Smell the coffee. Then go smell the books. Buy one, right then and there, impulsively. Repeat often.
(Smelling your computer screen does not compare. I think you’ll agree.)