WILL UNWOUND #144: “Big Box Libraries” by Will ManleyJune 16, 2010
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I am intrigued with generational differences, and from your comments I can tell that many of you agree with me that we are all, to some extent, shaped by the time in which we grew up.
The conventional wisdom is that since X Gen and Net Gen kids grew up with cell phones, laptops, and videogames that they are much more technologically oriented than the generations of people who preceded them. That may or may not be true, but I think it’s important to explore some other areas of generational differences that may have a huge impact on the future of libraries.
Specifically, let’s talk about service. I was born in 1949 and lived in the cutest and friendliest town in the universe, Pitman, NJ, a half hour from Philly and an hour and a half from the Jersey Shore. One of Pitman’s charms has always been its 4 block picturesque downtown. In my day, it was filled with Mom and Pop stores, which included a bakery, a pizzeria, a family restaurant, an art deco movie theater, a news and tobacco store, a stationery store, an apothecary, a furniture store (which sold black and white television sets), a hobby store, a baby store, a Woolworths with a lunch counter, a shoe store, a men’s apparel store, a sporting goods store, several insurance agencies, two 3 chair barber shops, two banks with Greek pillars, a florist, a hardware store, a little grocery store, a candy store, and a toy store. There was also a classically designed post office, a public library, a train station that provided service to Philly and Atlantic City, a little park, three churches, and the Borough Hall. Pitman’s population is somewhere around 8,500.
Between 1955 and 1967 (when I left town to go to college), I could pretty much go into any one of those Mom and Pop stores and hear the words “Hi, Will.” Compared to today, the selection of products offered by those stores was quite limited and yet I can’t ever remember missing out on anything. On the other hand, the service was absolutely phenomenal. Not only did the merchants know your name, they knew your needs, desires, tastes, and moods. They took the time to make everything right because, hey, they lived in the same little town that you did.
I think it was in the early 60s that the first big box store in South Jersey appeared. It was called E.J. Korvette’s and it was located twenty miles away in Camden. It sold big durable goods. Life would never be the same. A few years later a large regional shopping mall opened in nearby Cherry Hill. Then the retail strip centers began to pop up on Pitman’s outskirts. Today, the town still has a viable downtown but the basic service stores are mostly gone. They have been replaced by coffee shops and little specialty stores.
Here’s my point: I grew up in a time and a place when the customer was king from a personal relations standpoint. That era is long gone. As a culture we have traded personal service for cheaper prices and a wider selection of goods. The era of the basic service Mom and Pop store is over, but members of my generation still remember those days and we still value good person to person service.
When I was in library school, we were required each week to visit a private retail store or service outlet, observe the quality of service given, and draw conclusions about what good service techniques that we saw in the private sector could be applied to libraries. Next to intellectual freedom, personal service was the strongest value drummed into us at library school.
Finally, I throw out my question: Do the younger generations of America even know what great personal service is in light of the fact that they have grown up in an era of fast food restaurants, strip retail centers, big box stores, and large impersonal regional shopping malls?
I throw this question out for discussion because it seems very important to the issue of the downsizing of the quality and quantity of library staffs. I hate. .. I absolutely hate wandering around in the many wide aisles of Home Depot looking for an employee who can tell me where I can find a metrically sized screw that will fit into the busy box that I bought for my grandchildren. I feel lost, lonely, and alienated, but then again I grew up in a little town in the 1950s.
Given the fact that the Wal Marketing of America is pretty much complete and two generations of Americans have grown up with the Wal Marts and the Home Depots, does anyone really care whether libraries are properly staffed from a quality and/or quantity standpoint anymore? Do our patrons and taxpayers even know what good personal service is? If we can’t afford good personal service in our private retail stores, is it unrealistic to expect it in publicly supported libraries?
Do you see where I’m going with this line of thought? Does service even matter anymore? When is the last time you called a business or government office and a human being answered the phone?
REMEMBER…THIS BLOG IS A GROUP EFFORT. THANKS FOR YOUR HELP. IF YOU AGREED WITH THIS POST, PRESS 1; IF YOU DISAGREED PRESS 2; IF YOU DON’T CARE PRESS 3; IF YOU HAVE A ROTARY PHONE DESTROY IT IMMEDIATELY!