Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Remember when Best Buy sold CDs?

I go out for lunch maybe once a week, usually on the day of a day game when I want to catch a few innings in the car on my iPhone.  There aren’t many lunch places near work, but there’s a cluster of big-box stores, a sort of mini-mall that was plopped in place a few years ago, and when I’m done eating, I’ll sometimes wander the stores a bit.  One of the stores is a Best Buy, and the other day, I decided I was sick of all my music and I needed a new album. That typically involves going to iTunes and clicking away, but for whatever reason, I decided to go old-school and actually browse the racks at the big blue box store.

I was surprised to see there’s not really a CD section in Best Buy anymore. I mean, there is a token three or four racks, but it used to be that each of the bins would have maybe a row of 30-40 CDs, and there would be side-to-side bins for dozens of feet, and maybe a dozen aisles like that. Now, there were maybe three aisles, and each rack held exactly one CD. We’re talking about maybe as many CDs as the average Flying J truck stop holds, between the CB radios and coolers of pre-made sandwiches and beef jerky. And the selection – we’re talking about only the most popular of the most popular music; the most obscure thing they had there was maybe Guns N’ Roses.  Almost all of the titles were more expensive, although there was a token section of $6.99 albums.  But the selection part is what killed me. It seemed like overnight, they completely collapsed.  It’s like if the Strand went from 18 miles of books to a layout like one of those airport book stores.

I used to spend a lot of time at Best Buy.  In Seattle, I was hooked on Silver Platters, and used to go there twice a week for my CD addiction. In New York, I never fully found an indie place that met my needs like they did. I worked above a Virgin Megastore for almost two years, and while their prices were sometimes spendy, you could sometimes pick up good deals there, and they did have some slightly obscure death metal stuff.  And there was always Tower.  But I somehow always gravitated to Best Buy, maybe because I could also grab DVDs, video games, and ogle the new home theater stuff.

There wasn’t a Best Buy close to my place in Astoria, but there was one maybe a mile and a half south of me.  The subway didn’t run down there, so my Saturday ritual involved a walk down Steinway to Northern, headphones on, to go blow through part of a paycheck and stock up on digital media.  I’d usually have no shopping list, and would just run through the A-Z, picking out a couple of albums that looked interesting.  I’d do the same with movies, trying to think of a couple of titles that would hold my interest and give me something to do that night.  I’d have to deal with the crowds loitering around on Steinway, and push myself past a bunch of people or take a side street, but the walk gave me a routine.  And halfway between the two places was a Papaya King, so I could get some of their grilled hotdogs and a fruit drink.  (There’s one thing I do miss about New York.)

When the weather wasn’t as good and I didn’t feel like braving the walk, I’d get on a train and head to Chelsea, where they opened a big Best Buy there.  I guess it wasn’t any faster, and maybe the walk on either side of that trip almost added up to the distance from my apartment to Northern, but it got me out of the house and into Manhattan.  And I got a couple of hours of time to read and listen to music on headphones. Plus the subway is heated, and half the damn time my apartment wasn’t, thanks to my shithead landlord.

But here’s the thing: I eventually figured out this wasn’t a routine, it was a psychological problem.  I had this gaping hole in my life, and I tried to fill it by collecting stuff.  And my poison was a 12-centimeter disc of plastic and aluminum.  And I didn’t think anything of it, but I spent a lot of my time and money collecting DVDs and CDs.  And I know, what’s the harm in CDs?  It’s not like I was smoking crack or shooting heroin.  But there is a certain psychic impact on getting locked into a collection like that, and it’s hard to see how nuts you are until you go a couple of years without dropping hundreds of bucks a week on music, or having an entire apartment that’s wall-to-wall CD racks.  I guess a big part of it is you’re always running toward a goal you can never catch.  You’re always buying more music, thinking you’ll get to some mystical state where you have “enough” music, where you’ll always have something to listen to.  But you get to a stage where you have enough CDs that if you actually listened to them all end-to-end, 24 hours a day, it would take you months to finish, yet you are perpetually in a state where you have “nothing” to listen to, and it takes you 20 minutes to leave the house because you can’t pick out a couple of albums to take with you.  (This was pre-iPod, when I did not carry around my entire music collection in my pocket.)

I don’t remember the last DVD I actually bought.  With movies, it’s much more of  a moot point – we have a NetFlix account and a Roku box and a DVR and on demand, so any time I want to watch something, I watch it once, and then that’s it.  I don’t spend $40 on it, watch it once, and then lose that amount of storage space in my apartment forever.  It makes no sense for me to ever buy a DVD.  Even if I really love a movie, I’m not going to watch it more than once or twice a year, so why give up the storage space and money to keep a copy on hand?  I still have a few DVDs, but I put them in binders, which is also a big collector no-no.  Part of the fetish is to have the original packaging, the entire article, and not throw out the cases and keep only the booklets in a binder.  That’s a cardinal sin, but it’s not like I’m going to resell my DVDs, so I don’t care.  In the shelf area that used to hold maybe a dozen DVD boxes, I have three binders that hold maybe a hundred titles.

As far as CDs go, I use iTunes a lot, and the instant gratification there sort of kills going to the store, especially when a $16.99 CD at Best Buy costs you ten bucks online.  Sure, I don’t get the physical case, the printed book, but that’s more collector-ism for you.  There was a time where I thought I NEEDED the physical disc in a rack on the wall, but do I?  I buy songs and albums to listen to them; I don’t buy they to pay some allegiance to a band, to have their entire collection, even if I don’t like some of the songs or albums.

So I went through the racks at the Best Buy, and found a Peter Gabriel album I didn’t have, a collection of covers he did.  I felt bad about buying nothing and leaving, but I also felt bad about buying something.  It felt like dieting for years and then ending up at a McDonald’s and getting the old meal you used to eat five times a week, and then getting sick off of it.  I don’t even have a place to put CDs anymore, and as I opened up the plastic, I realized I’ve probably only listened to a CD in my car maybe twice.  I was firmly in the iTunes camp by the time I got this car in 07, and I’ve only used the iPod connector, and the occasional AM radio scan for traffic or a local ball game.  So it felt weird to listen to the CD, and didn’t compel me to return and buy a hundred more.  Always weird when you realize an era has ended for you.