Mobile UPC Scanner Dude

In the spirit of the Philip K. Dick future that awaits us all, I would like to confess to a murder that I have not yet committed but, statistically speaking, am probably due for any day now.  The person I am slated to kill is not someone I know personally, but is rather a “type” of individual that has emerged from the technosphere over the past decade and who seems hell-bent on destroying one of the last remaining pleasures of the pre-digital browser, and by “browser” I mean s/he who browses and not the latest compulsory update of Firefox.   

The person I will kill is the A-hole who shows up at Goodwill, Oxfam, or any other thrift store with that groovy iPhone App that allows him to scan the UPC barcodes on the backs of books, CDs, and DVDs, all in a quest to pillage the store of any and all valuable titles so that he might take them back home to sell online.  I hate these people so much it’s all I can do not to kick them in the trachea and throw their cell phones into the great black hole at the center of all thrift emporiums—the used underwear bin.  In fact, they produce such a boiling rage at the very core of my being that I’ve had to take time, for purposes of emotional prophylaxis if nothing else, to consider why they push my buttons even more than tailgaters, birthers, or Yankee fans.

A little back story first.  In the days before Amazon cookies began telling us all what cultural artifacts we wanted to consume before we even knew we wanted to consume them, there existed a proud tradition of un-digital browsing in second-hand book and record stores.  The point of such browsing was not so much to find Item “X,” but was instead to find Item “?”—an odd novel or record that so far had eluded your taste formation’s vast radar array.  Thus, you dipped into the used bookstore to see if you could find a cheap copy of the most recent James Ellroy novel, and emerged instead with a strange ‘70s thriller about a psychotic mime killing people in Central Park.  Or, in your quest for a decent Dick Dale retrospective, you were unexpectedly and delightfully derailed by the discovery of a Turkish funk anthology.  I suppose Amazon’s algorithms will one day be sophisticated enough to posit a link between My Dark Places and The Mime (a day, I might add, when the final illusion of any unique “core” to one’s self will be so thoroughly compromised that a Roman bath will be the last remaining option; but then again, Amazon will probably predict that as well and have recommendations ready for ‘final exit’ razors and scented candles.  Thinking about exsanguinating in a bathtub?—you might also enjoy jasmine bubblebath from The Body Shop and Joy Division’s Closer).  For now, anyway, such discoveries remain primarily a product of happy accident. 

The last decade has been a real bummer for those of us who actually enjoy “wasting” an hour or two wandering through physical piles of paper, cardboard, and vinyl in search of petit objet WTF.    Used book and record stores are going out of business left and right.  Second-order substitutes like Borders, Tower, and Virgin—all dead.   In the future, the only people who will have access to the simple pleasure of “browsing” for books will be the forklift operators in the Amazon warehouse as they organize incoming pallets of teenage vampire fiction.  And then the book itself, like vinyl and the CD, will finally shed its mortal coil and exist purely as data on the web.  Perhaps at that point we will begin burning old books and records for fuel, creating campfires of obsolescent culture to dot a hellscape where we all walk around with our PDA’s finally and irrevocably sutured into our belly fat.  Wait, doesn’t Amazon call their e-reader the “kindle?”  Truly, we are doomed.    

Given this sad state of affairs, we browsing dinosaurs have increasingly had to depend on the thrift store/charity shop as the last bastion for the unstructured contemplation of physical media.  Back behind the beat-up couches and racks of discarded clothing, there is usually a corner featuring old books, records, and CDs (for now, most places still keep their DVDs under lock and key, testament to the format’s lingering value in the hierarchy of donated detritus—once the current Blu-Ray hegemony is complete, however, the DVD will no doubt join its brethren in the dead media section).  Here is the one place where the easily distracted can spend some time relaxing by digging through piles of discarded culture in search of…well, again, who knows what? 

Not that the ongoing devaluation of physical media hasn’t had an effect here as well.  Most thrift stores used to keep fairly tidy book/record sections, displaying the donated items on appropriate shelving and in custom bins.  While some thrift shops still have at least one volunteer who cares enough about these items to make sure they are easy to access, many more are simply dumping books, records, and CDs on the floor like the abject shit they have become.  A Salvation Army near me no longer even bothers to shelve book donations, but simply wheels them out in institutional-sized laundry bins that require customers to dig, like pigs in search of truffles, through layers and layers of Tom Clancy paperbacks in the hope of finding something more rare, exotic, and/or interesting. 

Records are even worse.  I think there is now an unspoken agreement among all used-record folk that every valuable piece of vinyl from the album’s heyday has finally been tracked down, priced, and collected—all that remains in the thrift stores are infinitely printed and infinitely disposable Barbra Streisand, Janis Ian, and 101 Strings albums (for a while I considered covering an entire wall with Elton John “Caribou” album covers because: (a) it’s an amazing artifact of 70s post-glam bubblegum weirdness and (b) you could find 20 of them for a dime apiece each time you were at Goodwill).  Now many thrift stores practically dare you to browse the vinyl section, piling them to the ceiling in a deadly game of Jenga that both warps the records and threatens to bury you under the collected works of the Longines Symphonette.  CDs, oddly enough, still rate a few actual shelves in most thrift stores, even though that medium is arguably even more dead than vinyl.

Which brings us back, finally, to the jerks with the mobile UPC scanning Apps.  Their very presence disrupts the entire vibe of the thrift experience, transforming what should be a relaxing journey of exploration into a bloodsport of bitter competition and contestation.  While you are trying to leisurely sort through a shelf of books or CDs in search of nothing in particular, cyberdude is systematically scanning each and every item to see how much it goes for on Amazon.  In earlier iterations of this App, the user had to actually read each price on the screen, but with even more annoying software updates, the user can now set a “price point” and wait for his phone to “ding” when it gets a hit.  Anything under, say $5 bucks, and the App ignores it; anything over and the phone dings, rings, barks, or zaps to let the entire store know that Mr. Wizard has made a real find and you, alas, have not.    

Now, obviously, people have cruised thrift stores for years in search of hidden bargains that they can then re-sell, either at their own store or to a more specialized vendor trading in rare books and records.   I don’t begrudge that; in fact, I will sometimes even buy a record for a buck that I know I can sell for five, not because I need the money necessarily, but because I feel that record should ultimately end up with a person who really, really wants it and will take care of it.  I don’t listen to a lot of jazz, but if I see a "near mint" Thelonious Monk elpee sitting on the floor waiting to be eaten by silverfish or reduced to moldy pulp the next time the store’s toilet floods, I feel an almost moral imperative to rescue it for future generations.  Similarly, if I find an early twentieth-century novel at a garage sale for a buck or two, I will usually buy it to donate to the Newberry Library (which specializes in such things).  I relate these stories, partly to parade my own awesome taste and generosity, but also in solidarity with the many others out there who I’m sure share a similar complex about protecting rare ephemera from neglect and destruction. 

And this is why the growing army of mobile UPC-scanners irks me so.  With one simple download, they now enjoy an ability to convert cultural capital into economic reward with little to no effort, in effect electro-poaching the collective expertise of pop literati like myself who learned to separate sublime wheat from pedestrian chaff the “old-fashioned” way--perhaps even by once working in a book or record store.   If given a test identifying minor label icons from Factory to Asthmatic Kitty, I think I’d score at least a B+, and with a little squinting, I can still distinguish a “Book Club Edition” from an original imprint at about ten yards, usually based only on the color saturation of the book's dust jacket.  But while I spent years immersed in marginalized music and marginal authors, acquiring “knowledge” that allows me to recognize a boutique label, a limited pressing, or a rare paperback, Calculon can now mindlessly put phone to barcode and “discover” a long OOP Japanese import Traveling Wilburys promo that will fetch $50 on eBay.  

It’s not fair and it’s not right.  Scanner-boy hasn’t earned it. 

Granted, the real prey of UPC scanner guy is typically the recent bestseller and not the obscure collectible.  Most vinyl, after all, doesn’t have a UPC marker in the first place, nor do older books.  But even in the pitiful world of the useless CD, these guys will occasionally beat you to a genuine oddity, not because they know or want the item, but because the collective hive of digitized taste-valuation has set off their freakin’ dinger.  Recently one of these pests beat me to a Bobby Sherman “2-Albums on 1 CD” disc, and based on his age, insouciance, and woolen cap, I am certain he didn’t have a clue as to what or who a Bobby Sherman might be.    

And it just gets worse.  Recently I went to a local thrift and discovered not one, but two of these budding young cyber-capitalists scanning opposite sides of the CD rack. At first I thought there might at least be some amusement in seeing them pitted against one another, racing down their respective aisles in an effort to score all the big finds before the other guy –-but after a few moments, I realized that one of them was actually being paid by the other to make this thrift raid more efficient!  They even took breaks! 

Annoying, yes, but enraging?  Again, I do not necessarily begrudge folks converting thrift stock into cash, and I guess I could even live with having the arcane esoterica of my synapses downloaded into the WWW.  But the impact these idiots have in the physical space of the store itself drives me to the brink of homicide.  Collectors have always competed against one another in these situations.  Even twenty years ago, you could easily recognize by shirt and haircut alone who else in the store was also looking to load up on old pulps and forgotten new wave singles.  Still, there remained at least some modicum of camaraderie among those afflicted with the collecting disease.  Occasionally thrift divers would even discuss what they typically collected, and when it didn’t overlap with one’s own taste, might even pull titles for each another.  And if someone found a Loretta Lynn record you already had, politeness dictated you say “thanks,” put it in your stack, and then quietly pass on it at the checkout counter.  It was the thought that counted—a small gesture that said, “I understand and share the thrills and disappointments that come with plowing through a stack of Kansas and Foreigner albums to unearth a miraculously placed Moby Grape record still in shrink wrap." 

You will not have such conversations with the mobile UPC-scanner dude as there is a good chance he neither reads books nor listens to music; or if he does, it has little or nothing to do with why he’s in the store with you.  As he meticulously and mercilessly proceeds down the aisle—scanning books and CDs without even bothering to look at the titles—he inevitably makes you hurry your own search lest he finds first that rare gem for a quarter that he hopes to later sell back to you for twenty bucks at his e-store.  As an emblem of a certain technogenerational formation, “he” has already for the most part ended theatrical exhibition, book browsing, and the record store—and now he’s prowling the last remaining sanctuary of the culturally damned (i.e. those over 40) looking to leverage your own nostalgia and taste—born of brick-and-mortar bookstores and record shops, no less-- into profits gleaned from the antiseptic exchanges of the Internet. 

He is, in short, a ruthless cyborg—one that has melded a scanner-wielding meat-frame with a Gibsonian knowledge-chip programmed to "ding" at all your old analog desires, all so "he" can buy a new and more powerful computer to help make the future suck even faster.   

God help me, if “he” gets between me and some rare item I really want, I’m going to be doing twenty to life in the State pen.    

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