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The Permanence of Print

Vinyl to digital

I’m what most would consider a fairly serious fan of music. I will listen to some classical, but my deepest appreciation begins around 1946 with bebop and comes to an abrupt halt, with very few exceptions, around 1990. I had spent most of the Eighties listening to one “alternative” form of music or another, but when Alternative became permanently capitalized, that pretty much spelled the end for me, and I have been in a sort of musical suspended animation ever since.   

I’ve got a Victrola in the living room, and one in the basement. I’ve got an authentic 1970s “Pioneer and Advents” stereo setup upstairs for listening to most things, but I also have a little tube portable phonograph for playing 78 rpm originals. You get the idea—I’m a nerd. Anyway, last weekend I accidentally overwrote my iTunes library. (Don’t worry, that will never happen to your graphics files at Metzgers.)  After re-importing 26,000+ songs, I found that I was missing several hundred album art images.  This got me to thinking about the long-term fragility of digital files (whether audio or visual), and eventually led me to a deeper consideration of the permanence and stability of print.

I’d like to think that either the MP3 format will be around longer than I will or that I will adapt in timely fashion whatever the next format happens to be. But, having previously divested myself of physical media containing most of the music I enjoy, I’m a little concerned that the day will come when I’ll want to hear something and I just won’t be able to play it because the intangible format will have become obsolete. I’m confident that if I go home tonight—or twenty years from now—and want to play one of my Charlie Parker 78s, I’ll be able to do so. But what about playing my “files” twenty years from now? And, to return to last weekend, what about those pesky missing album art files? Should I let iTunes retrieve art and get about 50% of the more obscure titles wrong? If I had the original LP covers, or even the CD inserts, I could scan them... The irony was becoming apparent.

I paused to consider the wealth of readily accessible printed matter surrounding me at home, and all of the information, entertainment and memories physically contained therein. How much was nostalgia influencing my attachment to these printed materials, and how much of their current aesthetic value is a direct result of print’s enduring combination of visual appeal, practicality and durability?

vintage printing

Our main stereo is located in our dining room, which had been embellished with plentiful bookshelves sometime in the 1960s, so now it is as much library as dining room. My wife Cami and I enjoy reading and rereading the books from time to time, but the myriad different printed bindings and dust jackets themselves present a nice visual display. Framed offset prints hang on either side of an archway leading to the living room. There on a coffee table can be found, among other items, Toledo Town Topics “nite club scene” booklets from the late ‘Forties, printed matchbooks from the Stork Club and Onyx Club in New York, and a 1954 Stan Kenton tour program I asked Kenton saxophonist Lee Konitz to sign in Philadelphia some 47 years later (he was amused). On one side of the fireplace hangs Cami’s original 1940s movie poster with a title that that asks Are Husbands Necessary? On the other side, my original ‘40s poster with the titular reply, Bring On The Girls. Above the Victrola is a Deco-framed ad for the identical phonograph model, clipped from a 1920s issue of National Geographic. Even the 85-year-old Whittall woolen rug in the center of the room retains its ornately-illustrated paper label on the back.

In the kitchen, Cami usually refers to good old-fashioned printed cookbooks, although she has been spied consulting the internet on occasion. Part of the décor in the kitchen consists of old and never used 1940s kitchen utensils on display shelves, still in their colorful original printed packaging bearing “Lasalle’s” price stickers. There is usually at least one “save the date” card or wedding invitation displayed on the refrigerator door as a reminder, and we still use a printed calendar on the opposite wall for keeping track of any social events. Recently, Cami was inspired to sort through the many and varied cards we received from friends when we married five years ago.

On the second floor, in a spare bedroom, I keep two crates filled with organized issues of Circus, Creem, Rock Scene, Trouser Press, Down Beat, Guitar Player, Popular Hot Rodding and MAD magazines from the 1960s through the early ‘80s, to which I sometimes turn for reference and for entertainment. On one wall is a framed original “Misfits Fiend Club” mailing envelope; on another, a framed original poster announces the debut LP by The Runaways.  Elsewhere are stored extremely rare issues 1-40 of Kerrang!, a British magazine devoted entirely to heavy metal music and published well before the music’s heyday here in the U.S., along with more Down Beat and Metronome (jazz) magazines spanning the years from 1940 to the late ‘60s.

mapsAlso located throughout the house are items like a 1939 Montgomery Ward catalog and a 1964 Sears catalog (incredibly evocative historical documents covering nearly every aspect of daily life), a traditional printed address book, user guides and warranties for household appliances, a stack of Food & Wine magazines used for reference, Cami’s growing collection of Edith Wharton first editions, a 1954 RCA tube radio with its original printed price hangtag ($79.50, which, adjusted for inflation, is a lot!), our college diplomas, stored stacks of retail DVDs featuring old movies from the ‘20s-‘70s (nearly all with informative, printed inserts), etc.

Most of my old jazz 78 rpm records have the band personnel printed right on the label. The liner notes printed on the backs of older LPs are extremely detailed and almost universally well-written.  A collection of concert ticket stubs tucked away in a drawer reads like a who’s who of late ‘70s and early ‘80s hard rock:  AC/DC opening for Aerosmith at the Toledo Sports Arena for seven dollars; Def Leppard, Scorpions and Judas Priest all on one bill at the same venue for well under ten bucks. And in another sequestered stack of reading materials, an S&H Green Stamp redemption catalog invites the reader to select a Mediterranean-style “wrought iron” swag lamp with amber shade that complements a pair of octagonal, latticed end tables in suitably dark veneer....

Are most people surrounded by as wide a variety of “old printed things” as Cami and I choose to retain? Certainly not.  Neither are we living in a museum; we also utilize an assortment of modern furnishings along with whole-house DVR, Netflix, wireless music sharing, etc.  But take a moment, if you will, to glance around your home one day soon and identify some of the ubiquitous printed materials you utilize on a regular basis. You might be surprised to find just how much of print’s value lies in its permanence and timeless familiarity relative to our ever-accelerating digital age.

In fact, this very familiarity is being used to the benefit of our customers as I type. While digitally-transmitted offers and incentives remain effective, the novelty advantage just isn’t there anymore.  An e-mailed response to an inquiry carries some weight, but a well-planned, print-on-demand piece tailored to a very specific “audience of one” has the potential to leave a more personal and lasting impact when it makes its way—not “virtually,” but in real 3-D—into the home, hands and human consciousness for which it was prepared and printed.

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