May 26th saw the broadcast of the very last episode of The Office, an American “workplace comedy” set in Scranton, Pennsylvania. NBC aired one final nostalgic episode that looked back at how things changed for the characters over their eight years together — and it reminded me of an odd episode back in 2011 that had something to say about the Kindle! Later that year, Amazon would release the Kindle Fire, so it was actually possible to watch episodes of The Office on your Kindle. But in January, an episode aired with a discussion about New Year’s resolutions that leads to a plot that’s all about ebooks!
Creepy Dwight Schrute would eventually marry the office’s conservative accountant, Angela, in the show’s final episode. But just two years earlier the couple had broken up, and Dwight was insisting loudly that his goal for 2011 was to “Meet a loose woman”. (And his co-worker Andy agreed…) “You know what you guys should do?” suggests Darryl from the warehouse. “Go to the bookstore at lunch. There’s tons of cuties and it’s easy to talk to them. ‘Hey, what book is that? Cool, let’s hang out tonight. Sex already? Whoa…!'”
Suddenly this strange sitcom was veering towards a visit to the bookstore, and I’ve always suspected that the show’s producers had a “product placement” deal. (it was the first and only episode of the show that featured a digital reader this prominently in the plot.) The episode flashed to a private interview with Darryl, who revealed that he wasn’t really going to the bookstore because he wanted to pick up women. Darryl’s New Year’s resolution was to read more books — and he’d just wanted a ride to the store!
And that’s when the digital reader appears…
“Well, if you read a lot, you should check out our ereaders,” a sweet, middle-aged cashier tells Darryl at the register, adding…
“They’re really neat.”
“I work at a paper company. Those things terrify me. They could put us out of business. I heard those things hold like 10 books at once.”
“Actually, it’s 10,000.”
“Holy ####! What? Let me see it…”
Darryl is impressed. (“It’s so light. Like a croissant.”) But his co-workers are having no luck picking up women, and Dwight announces “This place is kind of tapped out, so let’s roll.” But as they’re leaving the store, it turns out that Darryl is carrying a bag that he doesn’t want his co-workers to see. He claims it contains “A book about oceans,” then later tries to claim that it’s pornography. But later in the episode — as the men somehow end up at a roller-skating rink — Darryl is seen slipping away, to read on his brand new digital reader.
It’s only been two years since it was broadcast, but it’s almost like a time capsule from a far-away past. The store that they’d visited was a
Borders bookstore, the episode makes clear — and just weeks later, Borders went bankrupt. The chain wasn’t even able to find a buyer in the months that followed, according to Wikipedia, and by July it began liquidating its last 399 remaining stores. The reader that Darryl buys in the episode is a Kobo — and in the end, the Kobo has lasted longer than the bookstore where he purchased it! (Maybe the person who should’ve been terrified of it was the bookstore employee who sold it to him!)
Interestingly, all the remaining Borders stores were purchased by Barnes and Noble, who offer their own competitor to the Kindle –the Nook. And judging by today’s headlines, it’s the Nook’s turn to confront the possibility of its own extinction.. (“Is Barnes & Noble Killing the Nook to Save the Stores?” asks a headline at Yahoo! Finance…) USA Today even bluntly asked a publishing industry source if the same fate was ultimately waiting for Barnes and Noble, America’s last national bookstore chain. His answer came in two parts: “Imminently, no…” and “Ultimately, yes.”
Our world is changing fast, and the signs are everywhere. In 2011 I was just delighted to see a digital reader in a television sitcom, and within two years later, we’re watching hundreds of retail bookstores start closing their doors. Sometimes I feel a little like those
workers at The Office — wondering if the people in charge really know what they’re doing. I’ve always said that popular culture is more of a “broken mirror”, reflecting part of the changes in the world, sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly.
But it does give us one more way to look back at how much things have changed over the years — and not just for people at The Office!