Toys R Us

I was not a Toys R Us kid.

No, I wasn’t one of those weird religious kids who weren’t allowed to play video games, and I didn’t have hippy parents who thought GI Joe was promoting war. TRU just wasn’t an option for my corner of Indiana.

Like I mentioned in my previous post, K-Mart was a big part of my childhood. The two K’s really — K-Mart and Kroger. This was before Target, before Wal-Mart, and those two stores were the bulk of my retail experience in the mid to late Seventies. I spent all my time in the toy aisle of K-Mart; I could probably still note its location on a store map, had the store not been gutted and turned into a Big R farm supply. I also did a lot of my toy gawking at a now-gone variety store called GL Perry’s, which was just down from the Kroger in the also-gone Pierre Moran mall. But it was a few years before I really got locked into a proper toy store for my Lego and Star Wars needs.

The Concord Mall didn’t have a Toys R Us, but did have a Kay-Bee toy store. I was definitely a Kay-Bee kid. They originally had a narrow little store just to the left of the anchor that was then Robertson’s, and was later Meis, Elder-Beerman, and most recently Carson’s, before dying. It later moved into a bigger location in the middle of one of the arm’s spokes.

In my mind, Kay-Bee was slightly more disorganized and second-rate compared to TRU. The aisles were narrower, the shelves were more floor-to-ceiling and packed tighter, and the front half of the store was this blue-carpeted dumping ground for pallets and bins of toys, with little walking space between them. All the video games were locked away in glass cases behind the front counter, which was counterintuitive to browsing them for hours. It didn’t have the flow or the larger footprint of a bigger, standalone TRU store. It was a bit of a mess, but wonderful as a kid.

Another thing is that in retrospect, they had a lot more discount/clearance stuff, oddball brands and closeouts. It was a bit of a dumping ground for weird brands on the way out. And I used to fixate on that stuff, both because it was weird, but because it had the magical yellow tag on it saying it was discounted, showing the old price slashed out in red, the perfect argument for convincing a parent that you needed to buy it. And these strange off-brand things are now impossible to find online.

One weird example I was thinking about: so there was this big market for third-party Atari joysticks back in the day. Atari used a common 9-pin connector on the 2600, and they used the same circuit on the Commodore 64. I was always on the lookout for a better controller, a cheaper solution for the C64, and Kay-Bee was the dumping ground for every small company that tried to get in on the video game craze and got burned when it crashed. I remember buying a pair of the garbage wireless 2600 joysticks when those got dumped on clearance. I also had a weird touchpad controller that was like a mix of an Intellivision disc-style stick and the Atari keypads used by Star Raiders and nothing else. It wasn’t that great, but I have some obsession for finding it online, and it’s impossible.

The other big example was that Kay-Bee was a big dumping ground for the liquidation of the Mattel Aquarius, which was my first computer. I’ve already written about this at length, but the bullet is that Mattel crashed and burned about fifteen minutes after they quick-released this underpowered, chicklet-keyboarded machine, and they started showing up at Kay-Bee for like a hundred bucks in a bundle with four games and joysticks and everything else. I got that for my thirteenth birthday, and that started a whole great career that led up to where I am now. (Not sure if that’s good or bad, but middle management at a software company is probably better than coal mining.)

Anyway, Kay-Bee became my default place to go in the mall. Any time there was Christmas money or extra allowance or a birthday coming up, I’d gravitate to that spot in the mall. And every obsession of my pre-teen world was there, almost like a cycle of things I fixated on as a kid. It went from Star Wars to GI Joe to model trains to model planes to D&D to video games. I know a lot of people talk or write about how music or punk rock saved their lives, but for me, in those years, it was everything in Kay-Bee. I don’t know what path, better or worse, I would have traversed if I had not spent the beginning of junior high memorizing the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but going to Kay-Bee (and to Walden Books) to pore over the collection of modules and figurines and dice was a major percentage of my time.

At a certain point, things changed, and the fixation went to the other wing of the mall, the one with the independent record store, Super Sounds. The toy store was somewhat forgotten. It changed its name at some point to KB, and the later, Mitt Romney and friends drove them into the ground, a story that would later repeat itself with TRU. I never shopped at Kay-Bee after a certain point, although sometimes out at College Mall, I’d duck into that location as a nostalgia trip. I remember Kay-Bee going under, but I was tuned out of the news for whatever reason, and never really mourned it in any way.

Much later, Toys R Us did come into focus for me, but it was a place to look for video games. I remember buying a Nintendo 64 there, at the one in Seattle at Northgate Mall, and I’d always check them out to see if they had any weird cartridges, in the pre-Amazon days when you could just look up every cartridge in the world and be a click away from owning it.

But Toys R Us never had that strong reverberation with me, that primal childhood pull, just because it was off my radar. I think Chicagoland had many locations, and there actually was one just north of University Park mall, but I never regularly went to UP until I started driving, and then the interest was in music (and girls, but nothing ever happened there).

I can relate to the same angst that people have about the TRU bankruptcy, and the various rumors about brand necrophilia, the stories that they might come out of bankruptcy court as a holiday pop-up, or a mini-store inside Target, or whatever. I went through this with Wards, which I really missed after working there for years. And some random mail-order place later bought their name and use it for this pickwick-like catalog of Chinese junk, which never sat well with me. Wards vanished quickly, and it’s impossible to find any traces of it anymore. I’m guessing the same will happen to TRU. Lots of people are taking pictures now, but they’re uploading them to cloud services that will also die or be killed. Try finding a picture you put on Kodak Gallery or MySpace ten years ago — that’s what will happen to all deadmall history in a decade.

There was a TRU in Emeryville, a few miles from my house, which is now becoming some sporting goods store. I took a few shots last weekend of the one out in Dublin, which is just sitting there. I’m always curious to see what will happen with these places, and what direction retail would go. I should archive more, but like I said, the more I get into this, the more depressing it gets.

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Death of a Kmart

The news has been out for a bit about the bankruptcy filing of Sears Holdings, and the massive list of Sears and Kmart stores closing. In my area, it’s a bit odd, but the one in Stoneridge mall, an upscale mall that’s doing well, got the axe; the one in Hilltop mall, which is complete devastation, did not get closed. I think all the Sears stores I used to shop last century are gone, but that’s another post.

The closest Kmart to my house, which is in Pinole, is slated for closure. I’ve never shopped there, so I decided to head up there last week. It’s in a little shopping center just east of Hilltop mall, just down from a Target, and sort of hidden away on a lazy stretch of big-box stuff, like a Best Buy, a Lucky grocery, and across from a Sizzler that looks like it’s also circling the drain. (To be fair, most Sizzler restaurants have looked like that for decades, though.)

There are like three eras of Kmart for me. As a little kid, we were there almost every week with my mom. This was the Seventies, before Walmart, back in the days of blue light specials and the K Cafe, the place where I got all my Legos and Star Wars figures. I have very fond memories of that place. I can almost smell what the store in Elkhart smelled like, the mix of tru-green fertilizer in the garden center, syrupy cokes spilled on the floor of the cafe, and the heavy starched denim of Wrangler jeans. And I can still feel the wobble of the wire cart, the one with the broomstick affixed to one corner so you couldn’t push it out of the store.

I worked across the street at Taco Bell, and later just south at the Concord Mall. I bought my first CD player there. And in the days before Target and before Walmart, I bought a lot of stuff there. And that logo is the Kmart logo I always remember, the slanted red K and the minty blue letters for the mart. Those old-school stores all looked the same, too, with the low-slung rectangular marquee, no curves and styling, and the big, all-glass front.

Then there’s the Nineties era of Kmart. By the time I got to college, going to Kmart was not a necessity; it was ironic. I would go late at night with my friends when we wanted to remember childhood, and goof on how crappy things were there. And Icees and corn dogs. Kmart tried to change then, with the big red K and the white mart in script inside the K. Some became a Big Kmart, with the Big in blue, and a yellow swoop under it, in true Nineties graphical style. They also made those marquees big and round and lofty, tried to look less like an early Sixties grocery and more like an actual department store. They added more stuff to compete with Walmart and Target, groceries and drug stores and whatnot. I’d still pop in back when I was back in Elkhart. And when I got to New York, there were magically these Super K stores, which was a weird nostalgic throwback for me to visit. (More stories about those at some point, maybe.)

Then there’s the new Kmart. And I have no connection to this Kmart. None. It’s like brand necrophilia, like someone said, “let’s make a store shittier than Dollar General, and just as a goof, we’ll call it Kmart, and put a monochromatic logo designed by a five-year-old on the front.” A scattering of Craftsman crap, a random layout, and a general feeling that makes the old Seventies redneck Kmart look like a Nieman Marcus. There’s a Kmart out in Concord I occasionally go to on a goof, mostly because it’s a nice drive on the outskirts of Mt. Diablo. But when I’m inside, there’s no connection, nothing that reminds me of childhood, and definitely nothing I’d want to buy.

So, the Pinole store. It was total devastation. There were gaudy clearance signs everywhere, inside and out. It looked like any name-brand merchandise they may have had, was gone. Maybe it was bought up already; maybe it was sent back to the vendors for credit. Entire aisles were closed and taped off. People were throwing stuff on the floor everywhere. Kids were putting on halloween costumes, running through the store, ripping open toys, and throwing them on the ground, while their parents ignored them. The entire store smelled like shit. There were large signs by the layaway department that said ALL SALES FINAL, and others with the Sunday circular, saying WE ARE NOT A PARTICIPATING LOCATION.

I went through the clothes department, and everything was on the floor. It seriously looked worse than when I went to the Astor Place Kmart on the morning of 9/11 and every secretary in lower Manhattan was trying to buy tennis shoes so they could walk home without the subway running. I picked around for any jeans that might fit, and they had no Wranglers left; they had a knockoff brand called “Rustlers” or something. The smallest size was a 50-inch waist.

I took some pictures, and hurried out. Honestly, the whole thing threw me. The entire dead mall, death of retail thing is really getting to me. So many things are shuttering, so many pieces of my childhood are vanishing. And so much of the history will be lost, because it’s only being instagrammed, and in five years, instagram will be cratered and unarchived. It really bugs me, and makes me want to archive more, see more, take more pictures. But the more I do it, the more it depresses me.

The other thing is that the more I dig around in these online dead retail communities, the more I realize I hate 90% of the people in them. Nostalgia groups are the worst. I sometimes creep in this Elkhart group, and it’s nothing but borderline illiterate people bitching about Amazon and technology, and waxing nostalgic about garbage food that will kill them. And maybe I shouldn’t say that. But there’s part of me that thinks that being obsessed about this stuff is only like a degree removed from hoping that coal mining jobs come back, which isn’t going to happen.

There needs to be progress, and there needs to be a future. And in looking back, I feel like we built too many malls because they were a convenient tax dodge, and we bought too much junk that’s now filling our landfills because we were told we needed to buy more plastic from China. And I’m torn, because I can waste so much time looking at pictures of old stores and reading about old malls. It scratches an itch that will always need to be scratched. But it prevents me from doing anything creative, or moving forward with my life.

I’ve had this stupid idea in my head for years, about doing a combination glossary, wiki, and blog about the Nineties, about my experiences and the places I worked and shopped and visited. And I feel some need to do this, before I forget all of it entirely. But I’ve written books that took place in the Nineties, and I did that glossary book, and they were my worst-selling books, and not in my voice. (Not that any of my books are selling anymore. Jesus christ my book sales are morbid these days. Another topic.) So I know I could burn a lot of cycles on this, but I feel it would be wasted time. But here I am, still writing about it.

Also, it hasn’t started raining yet, but when it does, that means lots more time in malls. I’m also going to be in Elkhart in December, so I’ll get one long, last look at Concord before they tear it down. Anyway.

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New/Old Camera

So, in the “buying old crap I had twenty-five years ago and threw out at some point,” I found another Vivitar camera that is (almost) the same as the one I had from 1993 to about 2000.

I talked a bit about my history with analog film a few years ago, when I last fell down the analog film k-hole. I bought this Vivitar camera during the summer of 1993, after not having a camera at all for about three or four years. I was working at Montgomery Ward that summer (in addition to another full-time factory job) and had an employee discount, so I picked up the most camera I could get for about $100 at the photo counter in their Electric Avenue department at the Concord Mall.

That hundred bucks bought a 35mm point-and-shoot. It had a plastic body, but a decent Series 1 glass auto-focus lens. It was a power zoom, so it could zip from 38 to 70mm focal length with motorized control. The film load/wind was also motorized; you dropped in a film cartridge, closed the door, and the camera automatically sucked the film into the takeup reel. When you hit the end, it automatically rolled it back into the canister. The camera also had blue-teal accents to it, which was Nineties as fuck.

I bought this camera with the intention of documenting shows. It was the height of death metal and the zine scene, and I wanted something I could sneak into concerts. I was going to a lot of shows with Ray, and getting free passes to stuff to interview bands. In practice, I never got to take pictures at shows, because security was always really shitty about it, even when a record label gave me a photo pass. And this was a fairly worthless camera for taking pictures of bands, except maybe candid, backstage stuff at a close range with a lot of light.

Ultimately, I didn’t take that many pictures with this camera. I think maybe two dozen rolls went through it during those seven years. I took a trip across the country in 1995 and shot maybe six pictures total. A Disney trip in 1997 was about two rolls. The 1999 cross-country trip was another three, maybe. Getting a camcorder in 1996 reduced the amount of film I shot. Getting a digital camera at the end of 2000 relegated this thing to the back of the closet. I don’t know when I got rid of it; maybe when I moved in 2005.

Ironically, the most-seen photo from this camera is one you may be familiar with.

I was hunting for this camera online, and found this 5500PZ on eBay for seven bucks, including postage. When I got it, I realized it’s not exactly what I had. Mine was slightly thinner, with the zoom controls on the back, not the front. I’m sure it’s optically the same. But it bugs me that it’s not identical, and scanning through other eBay auctions, I can’t find the model that is exactly like mine. Maybe Vivitar sold some oddball model exclusively to Wards. Anyway, for seven bucks, close enough.

I put a battery in this one to test it. It uses a small lithium battery that was hard to find online. The zoom motor is much louder than I’d expected, and the zoom itself is not smooth and very slow. It’s not exactly the auto-focus that my new Canon has. I didn’t have any film in the house, so I ordered a few rolls, and we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve also gone back and started scanning some of the old photos I didn’t have scanned from this era 25 years ago. It’s a reminder how much of a pain in the ass film was. It also makes me think too much about exactly when and where photos were taken, since EXIF wouldn’t be invented for another half-decade. Trying to not get into too much of a nostalgia backslide, which leads to the regret that I didn’t take more pictures back then. But it’s understandable when I go to pay for film developing. Anyway.

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Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.

First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.

Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.

One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.

Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.

And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.

I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?

It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.

I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.

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The Amazon Store

We’ve had unreasonably nice weather all weekend, sunny and in the seventies, perfect for walking. I went to Walnut Creek yesterday to get in the daily miles, and eat at Veggie Grill, this overly bright and cheery vegan place, which I thought was only in LA, and I used to eat all the time at the one in El Segundo. The weather, and the fact that the ten-year anniversary of the move from Denver to Playa Del Rey is coming up has given me a strong sense-memory nostalgia for my brief time in Los Angeles, and I always try to find different places to walk that remind me of Southern California.

Walnut Creek is a point of scorn for a lot of people in the Bay Area, because it’s not “real” and most of the housing is either those same three-story townhouse apartments they build everywhere, or is multi-million dollar stuff hidden in the hills. There’s no ghetto or dead people in the street or graffiti, and that’s a little too Disney for people. I don’t know if this would have bothered me when I was younger, but it’s fine by me now, whatever.

There’s also a weirdness to Walnut Creek in that a lot of neighborhoods can be defined by the businesses they have that would not survive in any other neighborhood. Like if your neighborhood has multiple computer repair shops, it sets the demographic. In my neighborhood, if your computer is broken, you throw it in a pile of garbage on the street, and break into someone else’s house and steal a new one. West Oakland also doesn’t have multiple piano stores. When you mention that a neighborhood has a Steinway showroom, you don’t need to say much else to describe it.

After lunch, I wandered through Broadway Plaza, which is an outdoor mall anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus. It’s very upscale, very clean. There’s a Tesla store. You could probably perform surgery on the ground, it is so clean. Everyone looks like a yoga model. It’s a very strange place. And as I was walking, I passed by… an Amazon store.

An Amazon store?

Yep. An Amazon Books brick-and-mortar store.

I’d heard a bit about this experiment. In a strange twist of fate, the University Village shopping center in Seattle got one of these, the first one, right after the Barnes and Noble there closed. I haven’t been back to Seattle in almost twenty years now, but back when I was single, broke, and had no TV, I went to this B&N pretty much every week. It was a massive two-story thing, with a big cafe, a full record store, lots of fiction, open late, the whole nine yards. That outdoor mall was doing well, but B&N had lease troubles in 2011, so it went. (Oddly enough, Veggie Grill took over part of their space. Or maybe it’s the next building – the area has been so overdeveloped, I can’t recognize it anymore.)

I had to go inside. And… it was weird. It is a real book store – paperbacks, hardcovers, a magazine stand. There’s a Peet’s coffee bar, and a ton of space dedicated to the Amazon electronics ecosystem: Kindles and Fires and Alexas and whatnot. There was an Amazon Basics section, in case you needed a cheap HDMI cable or battery. And… books. Actual books. Like, the smell of brand new books, something I barely see anymore, especially since most of Barnes and Noble these days is filled with calendars and Lego and dusty Nook displays.

Not only was this a time machine to a different place when book stores were a big thing, but it was a specific time machine, because this place looked like a bizarro Borders. There are differences – Amazon has polished concrete floors, and a slightly darker look, while Borders had the light gray carpet and more light wooden shelving. But I’d imagine if Borders was alive now, their stores would have moved from the early 00s look to this new style.

What really threw me is that the signage is really similar. Maybe it’s mandala effect, but Borders had these black signs hung from the ceiling, with their distinctive sans font laying out the book sections, music, etc. Amazon has similar dark signs with white letters, in their familiar serif font. It’s strange, because the font and design is burned into my head from using the Amazon site for years, but it’s on the signs in a physical store. It’s like waking up in an alternate dimension where the Nazis had won the war, walking into a McDonald’s and seeing the familiar menu in all German.

The store isn’t big – maybe 5,000 square feet of retail space. It didn’t have tons of couches and chairs like a late-90s lifestyle book store. But something about the layout, the look of so many books on shelves, and just the smell of fresh paper, made it seem inviting. The staff was overly helpful and nice, and they had some discount system for Prime members, although I’m not sure how it worked. Granted, this is like a flagship store in a very upscale mall; by the time it filtered down to where they had an Amazon store in Kalamazoo or something, it may be a whole other experience. But it was interesting.

It is a can of worms, though. On one side, there’s the strong fear that Amazon is Walmart-izing the current landscape, dropping in stores to kill off the last of the brick-and-mortar. (Side note: it is Walmart now, officially; they finally killed off the hyphenated spelling of the parent company. Copy-editors rejoice.) On the other hand, it seems like Amazon has grasped onto the fact that book buying has a tactile or community experience that people miss. I don’t go to Walnut Creek often enough to shop at the store regularly, and I wouldn’t have minded if it was twice as big with a bit more elbow room. But I could definitely see popping into one to pick up a charging cable on the cheap, and maybe a top ten book.

The Borders thing really gets me, though. I was just thinking about this because Anita Dalton’s book TL;DR closes with a long thing about the death of Borders. (Buyer beware: it also contains a review of Sleep Has No Master.) Like her, I have many specific memories of Borders. I had a friend who worked at one in New York, and we used to go and get steep discounts on armfuls of books. They had a good location in the WTC, which of course is now gone. Another friend who was a manager at a location in Indiana got my first book into their store, probably one of the few times you could buy my stuff in a brick-and-mortar. And I spent a lot of 2007 going to the one in Stapleton in Denver, looking at computer books, baseball books. The last book I bought at Borders, at the one here in Emeryville, is the Philip K. Dick collection of five novels from the 60s and 70s, which is a mindfuck on its own.

But yeah, it is strange for me to think of Borders being gone. And then more strange to walk into this alternate reality Borders, run by the company that is at least partly responsible for their downfall (among many other things, of course…) and see actual books for sale again. Just bizarre.

 

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The Awl

So it looks like The Awl is no more. Another blog bites the dust.

The Awl started in 2009, originally some folks who left The Gawker and decided to do their own thing from their apartment in Brooklyn or whatever. It was a general culture blog, with emphasis on New York City, and a bit more about new media, comedy, and technology or online life, with a wry and sarcastic sense of humor, and less of an emphasis on the usual celebrity stuff that drags down a lifestyle blog.

I don’t remember how I got hooked on it — maybe some cross-posting from Boing-Boing or Wired or something. But I started following it religiously in 2010 or 2011, reading every day, commenting frequently, sometimes deep-drilling on research when I read a story that interested me. And I always kept it on my distant radar that I’d try to write something to publish there, some nonfiction or memoir piece, maybe a smarmy cultural analysis thing, I don’t know.

I think one thing that did come out of that was that in that 2011, 2012 timeframe, I blogged a lot more here, and was probably influenced by The Awl to write more article-like things. That always happens, through osmosis or kleptomania, maybe a mix of both. I was writing a lot in general then, trying to find a way to restart a mostly-dormant writing career that hadn’t released a real book since 2002. I didn’t want to be a journalist, didn’t want to fall into that “new media” category or anything, but it shows in a lot of my writing here that I was influenced heavily by that. (Go read an old post like The Death of Death and tell me I wasn’t reading The Awl when I wrote that.)

Another big takeaway for me as I think back over the last ten years of The Awl is how it fed some need to be a New York expatriate, in a weird way. I left Manhattan four or five years before that, which is six lifetimes in New York time, but I had some distant nostalgia for the city then. Magnify this even further by the fact that I started remotely working for a New York company in 2010, and would occasionally find myself in town again, but would also virtually be in the city every day. Reading stories about the hyper-gentrification and strange politics and book gossip and the struggles of living on The Big Smear partly satisfied that need for me, at least a little.

Like all online properties, The Awl got stupid at one point a few years ago, either flipped ownership or editors or something, and the ensuing reboot just wasn’t as interesting to me. I stuck with it when I could, but it no longer became a daily read. Some of this was just the way blogs changed over time: long reads became one-page reads; articles became listicles; opinion pieces became link-bait topics. Things slowly morphed as ads dominated page layout, comment sections vanished, and it went from being a bunch of cool kids exchanging smarmy jokes to a… well, whatever it became. Not really a blog anymore.

I’ve been in my head a lot lately about what’s going to happen when Facebook dies – that’s another article I’ve been meaning to write for a bit. And it makes me think a lot about the cycle of life of these web properties, like SomethingAwful or Fark or Digg or whatever. I know there are things that I used to use daily and then somehow abandoned, and I always wonder why they lost critical mass with me, and with everybody. When did everyone make a conscious decision to stop using MySpace? Was it because Facebook was so much better, or was it because everyone else stopped using it?

And it makes me think a lot about what the next thing will be. I am trying to make more of a conscious effort to blog here, because I will always have this blog, and can always keep going. But I’m shouting into the darkness here, and there’s no network around this, no way for me to follow others, draw in new readers, find like minds, or whatever. This is a single silo, connected to nothing. That’s fine by me, but it’s not the solution for others. Other people won’t blog. They aren’t idiots like me.

And I don’t know shit about how to make money on this, and I never run ads here or strategize some grand scheme, like picking focused topics and trending keywords and how to flip these posts into a book proposal that will get me a deal, blah blah blah. This also is not a way for me to sell books — my writing here is much different than the writing in my books, and I’m a horrible marketer, so who knows what works. So I can’t pull the “I made a million dollars blogging and you can too!” scheme to get the rest of you creative and interesting folks to entertain me by writing your own blogs.

But yeah — the death of a blog like The Awl makes me think the trend is going in the wrong direction, and that’s frustrating. I feel like I have the lifelong dream of opening an indoor shopping mall in the Midwest, then getting in the car and cruising around the dying remains of the malls of Indiana and Ohio and Pennsylvania. It’s depressing. It makes me wonder what is next.

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Sears

Yeah, so that Sears in Marin I posted about? It’s on the new closing list. I think it has until April. I should probably go take more pictures, but the last trip was so depressing, it’s probably not worth it.

One of the other Sears store on the new closing list is the one in Shoreline, WA. I have a specific history with that one. In 1996, I was talking to this woman who lived in Southwest Washington, and she was going to be in Seattle to stay with some friends, in Shoreline. We agreed to meet for lunch, and for some reason, the meeting place was that Sears. I think it was the only public landmark I could think of in that area. Anyway, yada yada, and I ended up dating her for the next year and a half.

I really shopped at that store — it was sort of dumpy, and in a weird part of town. The part of Shoreline that is on the water is very affluent, with a golf course and lots of multimillion dollar houses looking out at the water. But the row of stores on Aurora — I think there used to be an outdoor mall in the area, and it was gone, and sort of isolated. The one thing I remember is that the inside of that store vaguely reminded me of the Sears in University Park Mall, in Mishawaka, Indiana.

The UP Sears is not closing. The thing I remember about that one — in my senior year of high school, someone called in a bomb threat right before first hour. When I was driving into the parking lot, firemen were waving people away, telling us to go home. So I drove to the mall in South Bend. It wasn’t open, so I slept in my car for a few hours, and then cut through Sears to go to the record store, because the Joe Satriani EP Dreaming #11 came out that day, and I had to buy it. I don’t know why I so clearly remember walking through that Sears, or why it looked different to me, but it’s a very vivid memory, thirty years later.

The Sears I would have compared that one to would be the one in Pierre Moran mall, in Elkhart, which closed last year. The entire mall was de-malled a dozen years ago, but the Sears remained. Ray’s girlfriend (now wife) worked there forever. I was also friends with someone who worked in the design department there, and used to go visit her, so I was somewhat familiar with the insides of the store, although it was enemy territory for me, being a Wards employee.

The Sears in Bloomington is completely gone, which is weird. The mall lives on, but the Sears was completely leveled, and a grocery store is going in there. That would be a sad thing for me to see, because I always parked in front of that Sears when I went to the mall. I think I parked in front of it the first time I went there, in the summer of 1989. I remember going there with a then-girlfriend in a cab so she could pick up one of those Brother word processors she ordered from their catalog, which really dates me.

Another closing last year was the Sears in Lynwood, WA, at the Alderwood mall. That was a frequent stop for me, because the aforementioned girlfriend moved to an apartment not too far away. I had a car at her place once that needed some work done, and it was a long weekend of wrenching on it, then realizing I didn’t have a good breaker bar or a metric socket, driving to that Sears, buying tools, going back and breaking a socket, returning to Sears to exchange it on that wonderful Craftsman unlimited warranty, repeat a few more times.

Also, Alderwood has strange memories for me because I used to shop there all the time, and the day before I left Seattle, I went there in my one-way rental car to buy some last-minute stuff, and ate one of my last Seattle meals there at the Uno pizza in the food court, which is so revolting and horrible and last-minute, but there you go. (The Uno is now gone, too. Probably a good thing.)

I feel dumb for obsessing over dead malls and retail, and nostalgia in general is such a high-carb k-hole for me to stumble down, with little reward and a lot of depression. But I keep doing it. I’m looking forward to the weather improving so I don’t have to walk indoors anymore.

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WordPerfect for Mac

A stupid memory… I was thinking about how I used to love WordPerfect on the Classic Mac OS. It wasn’t a port of DOS WP 5.1; a different dev team wrote their own program, and the company called it WordPerfect, so it worked much faster. I always found it better than Word on the old Sys6/7 Mac.

Anyway, found this page: http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/wpdos/mac-intel.html – Someone has set up the SheepSaver PowerPC emulator to run MacOS 8.6, along with a few versions of WordPerfect. So you can download one image file, and with almost no fuss (aside from the big download) you can then run WordPerfect on a modern Intel Mac.

I was messing with this and realized I have a Stuffit archive of the Mac machine I had at my first job, 22 years ago. I’ve never been able to un-stuff it, because of the weirdness of Mac resource forks or whatever. I brought it into this emulated machine, and it instantly opened it. So I had the same set of files I had back on my Centris 660 AV in Seattle in 1996.

There wasn’t much there: the 1984 commercial in QuickTime; a bunch of QuickHelp source for the Spry Mosaic browser; some other assorted utilities, like DropPS and GraphicConverter. The fun find was I had a Sounds folder, which had a few hundred short clips of audio from Beavis and Butthead and Pulp Fiction. They were all sampled at like 10kHz; the whole folder is like 38 MB.

It reminds me of a time when Windows audio was almost nonexistent, unless you paid hundreds of bucks for a SoundBlaster, but every Mac had pretty decent audio, standard. There was a big culture of hoarding these little ten-second samples of Star Wars and RoboCop movie quotes. Like I remember hanging out with my Calculus teacher at IUSB – this must have been in late 1990. There were almost no Macs at the South Bend campus, but for some reason, he had a brand new SE/30. I went to check it out one time, and he spent half an hour playing me every sound file he had downloaded from the internet, these little clips from science fiction films, all hooked in so it would play Darth Vader when he started up or shut down his machine.

I don’t even know how to play these audio files outside of the emulator, but it works in the program. I guess now I can just go to YouTube and play the entire TV show if I want, but it’s interesting to see a snapshot of how it used to work back then. Also, the old Mac interface looks so blocky and weird now, which is hilarious.

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Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

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This site is now twenty years old.

What were you doing twenty years ago?

I was living in Seattle. Working on the west shore of Lake Union. Working on two different books, but years from finishing either. I’d done a paper zine that had petered out after a half-dozen issues, and had a personal web site I’d been running for three or four years, but it was mostly just links and had no real content.

That was one of my gripes in the early days of the web: there were very few sites with actual content. Most personal web sites were just a list of links elsewhere, and maybe a person’s resume. There were a few sites focused on content, but there were no real go-to places for people generating their own content. This was obviously long before Facebook or Twitter, but it was also before Blogger or LiveJournal. It was years before the concept of blogs was even born.

In that mid/late-90s time, there were online diaries. People would hack together their own diaries online, on services like GeoCities or Angelfire, and write daily about their life. It was very much the wild west, and you had to do the heavy lifting yourself, getting an index to work, links and other things. This was before CSS was practical, before PHP was really used (PHP 2.0 wouldn’t ship for another six months) and when tables and frames had just become standardized enough to use regularly across all browsers. But, some people did it. Just to give you an idea of volume: Open Pages ran a web ring for diarists, and was by far the most popular. In 1998, they had 537 members. In 1997, there were just over a million web pages on the entire web, with about 120 million users. Now, there are about 1.2 billion web pages, and 3.2 billion users. The web was a much smaller place then.

I kept a paper diary every day, and had for a few years. I didn’t want to put this online, but I did want to have a place to talk about whatever. I did this a bit with my zine, but it took some work to put out each issue. I figured I could do something where I could write every day, and immediately put it live. I ate lunch in my office by myself every day, and I wanted something to do besides work on these books which would not see the light of day for years.

At the time, I had a site running from my account at the Speakeasy internet cafe, which was at speakeasy.org/~jkonrath. With the help of my friend Bill Perry, I wrote a little scrap of emacs code so I could fire up the emacs editor, hit Control-X Control-J, and be dumped into a new file with today’s date plus .html as the filename. I could then write in it, save it, and it would be live on the web site. I then wrote a little C program that would crawl through the files and create an HTML index, which I put in a left-side frame. (Yes, frames. Does anyone even remember that evil shit?)

I wrote for a few years, with a few breaks here and there, and the idea was just a simple diary, of day-to-day stuff. There was no central theme, and maybe this was lack of ambition, or that I already had these books as my main project, and all I was doing was documenting my thought process. Some people started larger projects, like writing a series of essays and stories so their diary was more of a lit journal, or keeping on a theme and creating something that was more akin to a TV show or a “real” web site, like actual journalism. I didn’t want to do that.

This reminded me of the zine world, and how it got huge and then fell apart in the Nineties. A lot of people made zines because it was all they could do in their pre-internet small town: go to the photocopy shop and xerox a bunch of stuff to mail to people. But some people wanted to compete with the larger publications, and tried to make their zines look more like the glossy mags. So they spent thousands of dollars on offset printing, and getting office space, and getting distribution into book stores, and it went from becoming a zine to becoming a business. It killed the spirit of DIY zines.

This is what happened when the word “blog” was invented, and some heat was applied to the market. People went from this DIY ethic to doing it for the money. Blog-to-book deals happened. People started political blogs to compete with (or be ahead of) sites like CNN. Movie rights were sold. People became celebrities. Ads were everywhere. Blogs became A Thing.

And, I kept puttering away. I moved to New York. I started publishing books. And my entries became longer and more focused, but they were still about memories and nostalgia and gripes and travel and whatever else.

LiveJournal was invented. And Blogger, and Blogspot, and WordPress, and Friendster, and MySpace, and Facebook, and Twitter. A flood of new content happened, but the bar was greatly lowered. It went from long essay writing to short update writing to very short link sharing to 140 characters to nothing but a picture or an emoji. Writing writing vanished.

I kept plugging away, although my other projects took up more and more of my time. I should look up the exact metrics – there are just over 1200 published posts now, which over 20 years, is something like once every six days. But, it’s going a bit slower now – I think we’re going on 100 days in 2017, and I’ve only got 17 entries so far. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I never know what to write here anymore. I feel like writing about the day-to-day seems dumb, and people don’t want to hear about it. There’s some heavy self-censorship going on there, because of the general change in what we do online, and that feeling of futility that nobody is reading this anyway. But, I’ve kept going.

The rumored.com web domain started late in 1998. This was moved to Pair.com around then. I slowly made improvements to my duct tape infrastructure, but in 2009, gave up and moved everything to WordPress. Originally, the site was just called my journal, no real name. Then it got the name Tell Me a Story About the Devil. Then, around the beginning of 2011, I started calling it The Wrath of Kon. And here we are.

As I mentioned, there’s about 1200 entries, for a word count of just over a million, something like War and Peace plus Infinite Jest.

So, twenty years. There’s no reason for me to stop at this point, so let’s see what happens in the future.

BTW: if you want to read my favorite entries from over the years, go here: http://rumored.com/tag/favorites/

 

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