Brief chapters in the story of the end of paper

You’re probably not reading this on paper.  I didn’t write it on paper.  At some point in the future, paper will probably be as outmoded as real parchment – the kind made from split animal skin – is today, used mainly for antique forgeries, art projects and torah scrolls.  Not that I would equate this document with any of those three, but I’m certain that paper is on its way out, and that if I live long enough, I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Just like Kodachrome.

Borders Books

We all know that Chapter 11 is far from the end for a business, much less for an industry (see: airlines), but the immediate closing of 30% of Borders bookstores is a big deal.  The discussion on Boston Bibliophile shows that not everybody will miss them, but many will lose their closest (if not bestest) bookstore.   When I dropped in at the expansive Washington street location, which is not (yet) slated to close, I think I saw part of why the chain is in trouble, and also why even I hope they pull through.

The first thing you see coming in is a big e-reader display.  Borders is pushing e-readers hard, but not the familiar Nook or Kindle.  They’ve got some Sony models and another brand I never heard of, starting price $99.  No color displays, no instant delivery over 3G networks. No name-brand online bookstore or magazine subscriptions. The demo unit I picked up had no books loaded on it.  Telling.

What else is there at Borders besides disappointing e-readers?  There’s a cafe.  There’s a magazine section.  The combination of those two probably means it’s a de-facto library, and safe and well-lit meeting place for online dates and low-budget business meetings.

But I bury the lede.  There are books.  You can smell them.  Literally tons of them.   You can touch them.  And there are people looking at them, reading them, judging them by their covers, buying them.   And I’ll be sad to see all that go.

Bob Slate

Bob Slate Stationers, a 3-store family-owned chain, is closing in about a month after 75 years in business.  The owners wanted to sell it but could not find a suitable buyer.  This hits closer to home. There’s nothing like a stationery store.  Staples and Office Max, likely the proximate causes of Slate’s condition, are not stationery stores.

Stationery stores have hundreds of pens with little pads mounted beneath the display where you can try them out.  Stationery stores are where you find hang tags, index cards with actual index tabs on them, rubber finger cots for shuffling paper without licking your finger, raffle tickets, metal chalk holders, green ledgers, interoffice envelopes.  Stationery stores don’t look at you like you’re insane when you ask about 6 squares to the inch graph paper and 3mm lead. Or so I hear.

There’s no ebook version of stationery or office supplies.  You can buy them online but you either need them in the flesh as it were or not at all. If you’ve replaced your file cabinet with a hard drive, you don’t need pendaflex tabs anymore.  If you’ve replaced your paper with silicon, you don’t need carbon paper anymore.  Everyone is saddened that Slate is closing, but everyone is also surprised to hear it, and that means they haven’t been there recently.  Telling.

Stores like Slate kept hobbyists like me happy for a long time, but with big and small businesses needling less of what they sell  and others selling it faster and cheaper, it’s the end of the line for small stationers.  It’s a plain as the QR code on the back of a Moleskine notebook package, and I will miss them.

Boston Printing Office

The City of Boston’s Printing Office, which includes a full-on printing plant, closed recently and I stopped in at the preview for an auction to dispose of all manner of printing equipment.  I thought I might score a cheap oddity or funky bit of kit of some kind, but what I found was a workshop that looked like it had been abandoned suddenly in the middle of a workday, as if a bomb threat had been called in.

They had linotype machines that in their day kept pots of molten lead cooking to be molded into type which would be printed, then melted down again.  They had a Vandercook press, a larger version of one I used in college, closer to Gutenberg than to Google.  There were racks of cold type.  They had a wooden phone booth, wallpapered inside with women cut from decades of swimsuit magazines.  These are from the days when it took strong men and heavy machines to forcibly stamp letters into (not onto) paper.

A typesetter’s bench with a partly competed deed registry form.  Ten foot long blades for cutting machines.  Drawers full of proofs.  Stacks of forms.   Incongruously hand-lettered prayer cards tacked up.  The detritus of good union jobs and Irish-Italian Boston.  May the wind be always at your back.

I don’t know what killed the Boston Printing Office.  Maybe it was outsourced or just moved across town to more modern digs.  Government might be among the last to give up on paper, but they will do it some day.  When I handle an official document and it’s smooth, ink intangible, engraved only in name, that will be a sad day too.

What’s next?

What’s closing next?  Maybe card stores.  What’s going away next?  Maybe wedding and birth announcements, maybe business cards.  What’s next after paper?  Hard to say.  I bet it will be better in every practical way, but never the same.  Progress marches on and I welcome it, but I won’t forget paper, either.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Last purchases from Bob Slate | limeduck
  2. Pingback: Without bookshelves, how will we judge people? | limeduck

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