Wednesday Walk: When Goliath Becomes David
Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter, a companion to my podcast of the same name, which explores creativity, art, and big ideas as we continue to live through this pandemic.
Every Wednesday, I share random thoughts and tidbits with links to let you do some exploring. I call these Wednesday Walks, as it’s the type of conversation we might have walking down a path in the woods- the topics are free flowing, sometimes related, sometimes not.
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Happy Wednesday! It was nice to take this past weekend off to have some quality family time. I hope you all had a chance to relax and recharge over the holiday weekend and are back to making awesomeness this week!
When Goliath Becomes David
It seems that the Black Friday deals, lines, and brawls are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Still, my family and I couldn’t resist doing a little shopping on the day after Thanksgiving this year.
We wound up spending a fair amount of time unexpectedly browsing a Barnes and Noble in Fairness Hills, Pennsylvania. I used to love shopping in big box book stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, but it’s been quite a while since I had really been inside of one for a meaningful visit.
The store that we visited happened to be a major throwback to the 1990s and I immediately found myself snapping photos of the interior. It felt like a strange relic of a bygone era, like stumbling into an operating Planet Hollywood restaurant (there’s still a few) or finding an in-tact Howard Johnson’s hotel building from the 1960s in the wild. It was both familiar and yet also felt like a memory. Real and surreal all at once.
The shopping experience was largely as I remember it. The smell of paper and roasting Starbucks. The covers of classic books blown up and hung on the walls. The kids’ book section adorned with favorite characters from literature and even a little stage.
A store like this, with its two levels jammed with books, used to blow my mind as a teenager. Now, it felt oddly quaint in the era of Amazon. I wanted to root for this bookstore to survive, even if it seemed of a very different era.
As I shared these observations with my wife, she reminded me that it wasn’t very long ago that Barnes and Noble was the Goliath of book sellers, putting locally owned bookshops and smaller mall stores like Waldenbooks out of business. They were the Wal-Mart or Amazon of their day, at least in the book category. Now, they feel more like David than Goliath. Even with more than 600 stores, Barnes and Noble just doesn’t feel as “big” as it once did.
It’s funny how our perspectives shift with time and context. This particular Barnes and Noble feels exactly like what I remember it to be. It has barely changed inside, yet the world around it is completely different. Amazon makes Barnes and Noble look nostalgic, sweet, and accessible, when it once felt ostentatious and maybe even a bit foreboding.
Alexandra Lange published an interesting piece in Bloomberg that explores our nostalgia for these big book stores and the role they played in our society at the time. Lange cites them as a classic “third place” (outside of work or home) where people could hang out:
“The chain stores were pick-up joints without the alcohol, teen hangouts without the style pressures of the mall, opportunities to explore identity both socially and via reading material out from under the thumb of parents and teachers. As with the malls and shopping centers that often support a bookstore, these private enterprises offered accommodation to a broad range of people, in terms of class, race and age.
‘Nowadays you look at a Best Buy, a Ross, and you shop and you get out,’ says Daniel Gerber, regional director for Barnes & Noble in the south. ‘But with the cafes, people would go in there and spend five and six hours.’”
(Lange also wrote the book Meet Me by the Fountain about mall history. I haven’t read it yet, but it is very much on my list.)
While my impression is that they are on the decline, Barnes and Noble opened 16 new stores this year (including converting two vacated Amazon Books brick and mortar stores in Massachusetts) and has another 30 in development for 2023.
Looking at photos from a recent store opening on Long Island, the store feels almost unfinished, more like a holiday pop up than a permanent location. The architectural flourishes and decorations that once made Barnes and Noble feel hefty are almost completely absent.
It was fun to revisit a Barnes and Noble that’s still classically 1990s inside and to consider when a store is a David, when it’s a Goliath, when that shift happens, and if a store can switch those roles multiple times.
After returning from Pennsylvania, we spent Sunday afternoon back in Massachusetts at a local tree farm, cutting a fresh Fraser fir tree to adorn our house for the next month or so. I love having a fresh Christmas tree and also like that I’m able to support local farmers by buying a tree not far from home.
This story was originally shot for Ask This Old House at the test lab for Underwriters’ Laboratories outside of Chicago in 2017. I definitely directed the shoot and possibly produced the story as well, although I can’t remember for sure.
At any rate, it had been years since I had seen this segment and I decided to rewatch it after seeing it posted to Twitter. I hope you’ll take a moment to view it too, as it contains really good information about the dangers of fire during the holiday season.
I remember wanting to give the audience a clear visual of just how scary a fire can be that would hopefully stick with them. UL was willing to assist and they built us several small, furnished rooms in one of their labs that is specifically equipped for fire demonstrations. The entire shoot was supervised by their fire department, and all of the smoke was sucked into giant filters mounted in the ceiling.
The goal was to show the difference between how a well-watered tree, an unwatered tree, and an artificial tree burn. Frankly, all of the trees caught fire quickly and spread fast. The artificial tree is designed to suppress fire, which it did for a time, although it also let out some really nasty black smoke.
I hope the messages were clear in this segment and that they still resonate: keep trees well-watered, be safe with electrical lighting, don’t place trees near heat sources (like vents and radiators), and be very cautious with candles.
For those interested in a few behind the scenes tidbits, this shoot was fast moving and was really an all hands on deck effort for our tiny team. We had one camera capturing everything in real time, another camera capturing everything in slow motion, and several additional GoPros hidden on the set. We purposely used some of our older GoPro models because we expected that they might not make it through the shoot, and that ended up being a good call. We were able to salvage all of the footage, but the cameras definitely sustained some damage from all of the heat.
If you’re interested in viewing the original full episode with the fire safety segment (and some other holiday themed segments), it’s streaming on YouTube:
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Other Wednesday Walks
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If you’ve missed past issues of this newsletter, they are available to read here.