Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Moving Finger Writes, and Having Written

... As noted, I'm now in a position to end my career working for a newspaper in a department store. Life was too busy to post in the runup to moving to 801 Market St.

We;re on the third floor all the way from the bridge over Ninth Street (at the left) to Eighth Street on the right. That's the whole company; the newsroom is on the third floor of the main building, The Inquirer to the front. Where the two-story added height at the center of the building is, is where the elevators are; the Daily News is to the rear of that.

All in all, it's a very nice office space, and bless them for adaptive reuse of a building; Philadelphia still has three of its old department store buildings (one of which is still a Macy's) plus parts of two others, the Chestnut Street additions to Gimbel Bros. and N. Snellenburg & Co. Compare with Detroit (no Hudson's, no Crowley's, no Kern's) or most smaller cities. But also, in today's terms, look at that building (with the smaller one to its left) and imagine -- this was just one store. And there were five others like it. Compare this with even your largest big-box store or mall department store.

Our old building at 400 N. Broad was pretty decrepit by the time we left. The collapse of the newspaper business had left us unable to do most maintenance, the downsizing had meant large areas were abandoned. But it was in looking at that building in our last days there that I realized part of why the history of old department stores (and what, it is becoming increasingly clear, will soon be the history of old daily newspapers) interests me in ways that don't appeal to others.

The movers taking our belongings down the freight elevators had no idea that those were there to move the chases with lines of lead type and engravings from the composing room to the stereotyping room where the mat was made to form the printing plate. The odd steps leading from the lobby to the Daily News newsroom indicated that it wasn't public access, it was simply a way into the mailroom where the papers were bundled for distribution. Along the sidewalk on 15th Street is a long rail bolted into the concrete; that was to keep the  trucks from backing over the sidewalk as they pulled out with the papers. One of the last things to go was what we always called the "APS room," where, when I started, union printers controlled the output of film from the typesetters. It was still being used for what now is known as prepress until a couple of months ago, even though the printing plant moved away almost two decades ago.

When my wife and son and I were shopping at the Herald Square Macy's last winter, I came across a place on one of the higher floors where I remember my father saying in 1964, after riding the wooden-slat escalators: "This place is a dump." It's an entryway into the bowels of the store, and the fact that it is still there in 2012 means there's nothing they can do about it. Like the painted-over rotunda in the old John Shillito & Co. store in Cincinnati, or the odd, narrow entryway into Gilmore Bros. in Kalamazoo, it was just one of those things, a mark of the improvised, quirky, adaptive uses that institutions such as department stores (and newspapers) had to make back when technology was heavy and our expectations were less determined by set design and virtual backdrops. Weird, sure. Best we can do. Deal with it.

The Macy's store in Cherry Hill Mall, the oldest enclosed mall on the East Coast, is 51 years old. A 10-year-old shopping there with her mother is in a store built 41 years before she was born. For me, that would have been 1911, just around the time that the William H. Block Co. store at Illinois and Market Streets in Indianapolis was being built. Yet the Cherry Hill Macy's (built as a branch of Bamberger's from Newark) is clearly simply a cousin to the Macy's at Moorestown Mall that was built about 10 years ago after the old Wanamaker's branch was pulled down. It's a suburban box, three floors, escalators built in the middle, no nooks or crannnies to speak of. Whereas when I was young, it was clear that the downtown stores of Ayres, Wasson's and Block's were already from another era. Part of Wasson's was built before the Civil War and had ceiling fans because it was not air-conditioned. At both Ayres and Wasson's, alleys ran through the center of the stores and you had to watch for traffic as you went from part of the main floor to the other part. This was just seen as normal -- teach your kids to watch for trucks in the middle of a department store -- and then it became irrelevant when Ayres at Glendale didn't have an alley in the middle.

The merchants wanted to build modern, air-conditioned stores at which space could be utilized more economically, because, as Jan Whitaker's books on department store make clear, owners came to realize that an architecturally interesting building drew attention away from the merchandise, and every square foot needed to pull its weight. Shoppers, for the most part, didn't care because they were there to shop, not wonder why there were steps in the middle of the third floor at Pogue's or why the escalators above the third floor were in a different part of the store from those on the main floor. And then there were the people like myself for whom that created a personality, that made an Ayres an Ayres and made Indianapolis Indianapolis. But clearly we were in the minority.

And so it was with newspapers as they increasingly fade into that dark night. Those who grew up in St. Louis may remember when the makeup of the Post-Dispatch was so chaotic that the page folios were used to fill space by the printers; the page number floated around each page at random. This made the Post-Dispatch very different from the regimented look of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and made it clear you were in St. Louis and not Louisville. But, it turns out, just like the shopper at Famous-Barr didn't really care how it was different from Stewart's but was there to buy shoes, the readers who looked at newspapers didn't really care about the endearing quirks of their paper. They read the articles and ads regardless of how they were presented, and once someone gave them a new way to read them, one that didn't involve ink on your hands and bad jumps, they were happy to move on.

Two years ago I would have said that daily newspapers, despite their problems, would always survive because newspapers weren't like film. Film was just a medium on which pictures were taken; the picture was the point to the viewer, not the medium, and thus digital media made Kodak irrelevant. But a newspaper, to me, was a way of organizing and presenting information that was more than the sum of its parts. The printed page was not just film; it had value in and of itself. It's clear from the growth of replica editions and tablets that this is true to some degree. But it's also clear that the many positive attributes of print advertising simply can't overcome the combination of low price and targeted delivery found online, and thus newspapers, like any high fixed-cost industry, simply can't cope. And so the film question is irrelevant. The "this is my newspaper" question becomes so as well. Some people will miss daily newspapers the same way they miss downtown department stores, but those who never used them, or who simply found them irritating, overly complex warehouses with no free parking and lines for the elevator, will of course see nothing to miss. In the end, the big stores and the daily papers were not essential. They just were lovable.