I was early for an appointment this morning to get my hair cut and killed some time by popping into the local newsagent.
I used to love newsagents. I could spend a half-hour browsing very easily. It’s the magazines that draw me. I remember being a kid and away at some seaside village over the summer holidays and I’d pedal up to the local shops for a bit of diversion. I’d end up at the newsagents where I’d check out the magazines and might walk out with a cheap paperback as well.
I’d buy a magazine occasionally, though it was constrained by how much pocket money I had. I’d get the latest edition of Inside Footy in the winter months, or maybe it’s cricket equivalent come the summer. Or else I’d buy one of the automotive magazines, which were always popular with teenage boys.
That’d be a random purchase, depending on the cover or if inside there was something on the latest Porsche or some extravagant sportscar I’d dream about owning once I got out of school. Generally, it’d be Wheels I bought, though sometimes Motor magazine. I don’t reckon I’ve bought either one of them since I left school.
Back in those days, and for many years to come, newsagents were treasure troves of magazines and information. There was something on every subject and from every corner of the earth. For a literate, curious young man I was, I couldn’t get enough. McGills, a newsagent in Elizabeth Street, was probably the pinnacle of that for many years and a Melbourne institution. It closed a few years back.
All grown and with money in my pocket I’d buy a magazine or two every week. I’d subscribe to a few, generally overseas publications – Esquire for a while, the Atlantic for a bit, and Rolling Stone for years.
I’d buy all sorts of magazines – Men’s Health, GQ, Outside, The New Yorker occasionally, cooking magazines of every stripe regularly, The Bulletin while it was still around and The Monthly more recently, as well as various PC and technology magazines, and even something like Commentary occasionally – a conservative magazine I’d read for contrast, and for some of their writers, like Robert Kagan (whose dad is a writer worth reading).
If there was something that interested me I’d pick up a copy of Harpers or Wired or Fast Company or Travel + Leisure, and so on. The point being, there was a shitload of choice and I was fully immersed in it. There was delight opening up the letterbox to find a new magazine nestling there, or settling down on the couch with a cup of coffee to spend an hour or two to read intelligent, well-written articles of interest.
Here’s the thing: I felt a part of it. You have your own personal culture, and this was unmistakably a part of mine. I liked being informed, but then I felt informed, too. I walked about with information in my head gleaned from the glossy magazines on my coffee table. It was important to me because I was a part of this world, and these were the things that made this world tick. I felt relevant.
McGills has been closed for over five years now. I still read magazines, but a fraction of what I did before. Like everyone else, I get much of my information from the internet – though often from the same sources as before. I’ll read an Atlantic article online rather than in print, or something from Mother Jones, or Esquire, or The New Yorker, though not nearly as much. And I’ll gather information from a multitude of other sources, many more so than before – and it’s possible I’m better informed now than I ever was before (though mindful of the fake news).
It’s different, though. Do others feel that? It feels more…disposable. I read, and then I click on another screen. Because raw information has become so saturated, the value of it has diminished, not to mention the quality.
I don’t get a sense of being inside the information as I had before, though maybe that’s the times, and where I am in my life. I’m probably better informed than 95% of people, but I don’t feel it – and it doesn’t feel like it matters, either. It’s like collecting stamps, nice but irrelevant. It’s not a part of my culture anymore because information these days is like white noise, everywhere and unfiltered. And none of it feels special anymore, or exclusive.
I spent 7-8 minutes in the newsagent today, and it was enough. The selection these days is much less than it was before, but it was an exercise in trivial nostalgia. Newsagents aren’t what they were, but nor are the times. Still, I nearly bought a magazine – the latest edition of Dish. But I didn’t.