Part of Amazing Week 2012
During my teenage years I developed a taste for electronic music, of the kind that generally didn’t go anywhere near the charts — except for a few years in the early 80s. Several times a year I would travel up to London and trawl around all the big record stores. The Virgin Megastore, the HMV Store, Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus, sometimes more. I’d go through the racks from A to Z, looking for anything on my list of obscure wants.
Every time I visited a new town I’d try and hit a few record shops; every now and again I’d get lucky. I still remember with amazement finding a copy of “Anywhere” by New Musik in the £2 discount bin in a record shop in Beaconsfield. I remember visiting Torquay once, partly because it’s where I found a CD of “Total Devo”.
Many albums were only available as imports. These were often extremely expensive. But then in the late 80s, I found myself with e-mail and access to Usenet. I made friends with a couple of guys in the US, and we would trade CDs — I’d send them things that were only available in the UK, and they’d send me things that were only available in the USA.
I realized that things had changed completely in 1995. I’d been looking for the albums of a band called Data, founded by Norwegian Georg Kajanus. I learned from Usenet that a compilation of two of the albums been released on CD — but it was being put out by a tiny Swedish record label.
Suddenly this was no problem. I went onto the web, found a record store in Sweden that would accept Internet orders, and sent them my order. I think I faxed them the actual credit card number; in those days not everyone had SSL, and it was quite common to send the credit card details separately for security.
Mail order existed before the Internet, of course. What makes Internet shopping so amazing is that you can search the equivalent of millions of catalogs and find almost anything.
Part of me misses the challenge of it all. Where’s the fun in hunting for a copy of the Human League’s early demo tapes if you can just click a few buttons and download them in 320kbps MP3s? Now music is so instantly accessible that the problem is deciding what to listen to next.
It’s not just music, of course. That book on blissymbolics I had searched every library for was on Amazon. The Israeli natural deodorant that works really well for me is readily available from sellers online. I can get really good, sharp razor blades from Japan for a fraction of the price of Gillette razor cartridges.
In fact, the problem now is that increasingly I find I want things that are only available online. For example, a couple of weeks ago I went out in search of a decent multimeter. Maybe I tried the wrong stores, but it was either Fluke — industrial strength and built to last but too expensive for my trivial usage — or it was no-name Chinese meters that I wouldn’t want to trust to test batteries. In the end I went to Amazon and ordered a midrange meter from Amprobe. I’m glad I had that option.
So next time you’re ordering something online, think about how amazing it is that you have access to millions of stores around the world, in one giant marketplace, without even leaving your house.