take the world apart, figure out how it works (a modest proposal)

I am what one might call, if they liked the word as much as I do, a worrywart.

One of my favorite things to worry about of late – in between worrying when I’m going to get a job, or even an interview for a job, that is better than the one that I’ve had the last two years, and whether there is something seriously wrong with my digestive system (due to a deficiency of iron, or vitamin, or calcium, or potassium, or fiber, or genetics), and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher, and whether I have offended anyone, anywhere, in any situation, in my entire life – has been whether we Americans (disambiguation:  U.S.) are ever going to pull ourselves out of this god-forsaken recession, and, subsequently, what is going to happen to us if and when we don’t, and that Sarah Palin really has a chance of becoming president in two years, and that I won’t like living in Canada, either, because snow.

It makes sense to me why we’ll never get out of this recession.  In the post-war boom, we created a monster.  Today, we call it “consumer culture”.  We were so happy to be in peacetime and have money to spend that nobody stopped to worry about what would happen when we ran out of money to spend again.

And we made babies.  Lots of ‘em.  Cause why not?

Ten years into the boom, the government taught us to be afraid of the Communists, and we responded by becoming even bigger Capitalist pigs just to show those Commies who was boss, that we could have as large of properties as we wanted, wherever we damn well pleased, and that it was ours, all ours.

Shopping malls and chain stores sprung up, and we filled them with people who needed jobs, and they sold us crap we didn’t need.  And we built neighborhoods around these shopping malls and chain stores, and we surrounded ourselves with their crap, and we called it culture.

And we were scared, and we were sad, and we were bored, but we were happy.

I was born into one of those neighborhoods.  I only go back for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I used to have so many friends there.

People are born into these types of neighborhoods all of the time.  So are their future friends and spouses, and all kinds of people who will be content to live there for the rest of their lives, because they were popular in high school or whatever, and because Applebee’s isn’t that bad, and because Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t that bad.  Here, as elsewhere, sixty-something years later, the consumer culture lives on.

The problem this country has, being what it is, and trying to recover from the state it is in, is that we have to spend our way out of the recession.  To paraphrase a proverb, money makes the United States of America go round.

At the individual level, it makes perfect sense, in an economic crunch, to become more frugal with your earnings, and to surround yourself with less crap.  Personally, I support this mode of living, no matter the income, no matter the economy. Maybe that’s because crap doesn’t make me happy (see also:  paragraph two).

The problem is, as a consumer culture increasingly practices frugality, the number of employees needed to sell us crap, and the number of stores needed to sell us crap, and the number of malls needed to sell us crap, becomes fewer. Enough people need to continue buying crap so that the people who are selling us crap can keep their jobs.

Crap.

Recently, my library’s Friends group implemented a full-time used bookstore into the library, comprising of books that had been donated to the library, but were not in good enough shape to be incorporated into circulation.  It is an experiment in fundraising with which I have very few arguments.  But here they are:

These books are sold completely on the honor system.  Presumably, patrons abide by a sign sitting atop a shelf that tells them each book type’s price, and they put the correct amount of money into a coin box sitting on a different shelf, and they go on their merry ways, and we don’t ask any questions.  The store sits in a blind spot of an alcove, immediately behind the circulation desk.

My doubt of uniform bookstore patron honesty notwithstanding (which isn’t too far removed from my doubt of uniformlibrary patron honesty), I think it is a good idea, and that it will prove successful in the long run.  It’s a good way to utilize donations.  Prior to the bookstore, the donated books that did not make it into circulation were sorted, boxed up, and put into storage, and weren’t thought about again until the semiannual book sale.  While the book sales were, and are, a hit, they were still only semiannual.  A perpetual book sale means a perpetual, albeit modest, source of funds being raised solely towards the well being of the library.  If this hurts the semiannual book sales, it will be but marginally, and the difference should be more than made up for by the funds from the perpetual sale.

So, how does this get us out of the recession?  It doesn’t.  Despite the notion that libraries may very well be the new cupcake, and despite my own personal awareness, as an aspiring librarian, of both the shifting dynamic and immense staying power of libraries, there will always be folks who question their importance, who think city governments are just wasting their tax dollars.  And anyway, an increased dependency on libraries amid an economic crisis causes the same dilemma as before:  the more people utilize the resources of a library – which, by the way, is often chock-full of music and movies, new releases and classics – the fewer people we will need to sell us those resources at retail price.

So how do we practice frugality without further hurting a hurt economy?  I would like to propose the following:  Instead of bringing consumer culture to libraries, what if we brought libraries to consumer culture?

Take, for instance, a store like, oh I don’t know, Barnes & Noble.  What if Barnes & Noble, while still primarily, and even overwhelmingly, a bookstore, introduced a member-based rental system and, subsequently, a used bookstore within that bookstore?

Barnes & Noble already offers a membership service, where people who become members are offered incentives for using a Barnes & Noble-exclusive credit card.  What if material rental was one of those incentives?  What if that credit card doubled as a library card?

Think about it.  Its implementation wouldn’t be all that difficult.

To begin, you would have a bookstore, like Barnes & Noble, filled with nothing but new books.  You put up some signs, send out some emails, set up some Facebook events, get folks to fill out some sort of application, yadda yadda yadda, you have members who begin to have the option of using the facility as a library.

By having a two-in-one library/credit card, there is a guarantee that the material will either be paid for or returned.  If an item that’s been rented out hasn’t been returned in an acceptable condition after the allotted amount of rental time, a late fee could begin to accumulate until it is returned, again, in an acceptable condition, wherein that fee would be charged to the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  Once the item is a certain number of days late, the patron could automatically be charged for the retail price of the material on the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  (Why don’t libraries do this?  Do libraries do this?)

Assuming at least some members utilize the rental privilege appropriately, there will be items coming back that are used. Slap a used price tag on those babies and return them to the collection, where they too can either be rented or bought. Hey, presto, you’ve got yourself a bookstore/library on your hands.

Some folks may prefer to rent used items because there would be less money at stake should they decide to keep them.  Incidentally, a used bookstore like Half-Price Books could easily introduce a similar service, and it would be awesome.  But Half-Price Books isn’t the problem.  They get it.  It’s the folks who insist on selling us shiny new things that are the problem.

I’m no computer scientist or anything, but it seems like an automation system that can differentiate rentals from purchases isn’t that tough of a program to write.  Anyone remember Blockbuster Video?

I’ll leave it to the store to write this, as well as to decide how many items a member may rent at a time, how long and which items are allowed to be rented, whether there is a rental fee, and how much the per item daily late fee will be.  But may my made up answers for my imaginary bookstore/library (called Barnes & Noble & Grawlsy) serve as suggestions: four; everything uniformly checks out for seventeen days; no; eighty-four cents.  Why not?

Obviously, a number of hoops would need to be jumped through to get there – namely, convincing a successful pan-American conglomerate to reconstruct their business plan for no particular reason other than that it might help save the American economy in the long run.  And I can see why publishing companies may want to protest.  But I think it’s a possibility, and that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that it may even help both sides net even more of a profit.

By putting materials in members’ homes before actually having to buy them, it offers choice, and in turn what one may call, if they liked the phrase as much as I do, the illusion of frugality.  At the same time, it offers a greater range of people an incentive to become members, and a greater rationale for returning, and with greater frequency.

This type of rental system, that uses the library (and the used bookstore within the library) as a prototype, and that introduces thrift and frugality into mainstream consumer culture, could hypothetically be implemented into all kinds of retail stores.  The line from library to bookstore was simply the easiest line to draw.

It’s too bad ideas don’t pay the rent, because I think this one is worth well over five hundred and eighty American dollars. So I’ll sit around in the dark, with the thermostat hovering around eighty, because, really, who needs to wear clothes in their own apartment, and worry about how this is received on the Internet, which will inevitably be, “Hardly at all,” and whether this was even a decent idea in the first place, and why I wasted so much time thinking about it when I could have been applying for jobs that I won’t get, and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher.

Cheers.

(Epilogue:)

The day after I had initially finished writing this essay, I found this article about the fall and subsequent sale of Barnes & Noble, glaring at me from the Yahoo! homepage.  On numerous occasions in the last couple of weeks – and partially due, I’m sure, to the sizeable amount of LOST re-watching that has occurred in my private life of late – I have considered that Eko/Lockean debate over whether I am mistaking coincidence for fate, or whether I am mistaking fate for coincidence. Either way, I’ve decided that this is about as much effort as I am going to put into it.  I’ve got better stuff to do than save Barnes & Noble.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)
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