Sunday, January 11, 2009

Changing technologies & curiosity shops

One of the biggest companies that you've probably never heard of quietly closed most of its doors and went away at the end of last month. It was a victim not of the economy, but of changes in technologies and consumer preferences.

Qualex, Inc. was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, not that was in itself evil (nor, frankly, much of a recommendation for sanctity). The organization came into being in 1988 when Kodak merged its photofinishing operations with those of Fuqua Industries. Kodak had been buying many independent wholesale labs for several years at that point. It had already acquired such outfits as Fox Photo and American Photo Group (the #2 and #3 in national sales volume) among others and, of course, they had their own Kodak labs (#4 in sales volume). Fuqua Industries owned Colorcraft Corporation (the #1 in sales volume).

On paper it made good sense. This new organization that had been formed by the merger developed the film that folks took to their neighborhood drugstores or supermarkets. The labs operated by Qualex (93 at the high-water mark) did most of this work throughout the country. There were a few other photofinishers (York had one in fact: Simon Photo on South Pine Street), but nationally, Qualex did the lion share.

With these labs, Qualex had annual sales of somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.3-billion. That's an awful lot of snapshots.

Well, the last of the Qualex labs that were providing service to the United States and Canada--all 3 of them--have closed. There wasn't enough film being shot in North America to justify keeping even those labs open. That business; pretty much that entire industry, has gone. People are now taking pictures with digital cameras or with their phones. If prints are made at all, they are made right at home. There is no longer a demand for film or film developing. It took about 17 years to go from 93 labs to 0 labs.

Kodak actually saw it coming and tried to hold it off for a bit with its PhotoCD© products. Introduced in 1992, the product allowed consumers to place their images onto a special CD-ROM. You had to start with film, but you wound up with a digital file. And that was the beginning of the end for film because once people saw how flexible digital files were, and how inexpensive they were to produce and save, there wasn't a lot of incentive to keep buying cans of film and storing negatives and beat-up photographs in old shoe boxes.

I got to thinking about all this yesterday when a customer came in and told me about a new machine he had seen online. It would do print-on-demand books, spitting out finished product from an assembled digital file. Download a file, push a button and 15-minutes later you've got a finished book sitting there. You might have to wait a little bit for the glue to dry on the binding but that was about it.

The machine costs about $125,000. It is big and it is clunky and it is ugly so not a lot of people are going to want one in their living room.


The first PhotoCD machines cost about the same amount of money. It too was big and clunky and no one wanted one in the living room. On the other hand, a lot of one-hour photo labs wanted one in their shops in the malls. (Cue the spooky music now). Before long, you didn't need the full set-up and before long people wanted to play the home version of the game.

All of this begs the question: Will books go the way of film?

Of course, there is something to be said for holding a book in your hands. (That's the same something that Kodak used to say about holding pictures, by the way.) On the other hand, you are reading this on your computer and you are becoming accustomed to looking at your pictures on a monitor. And there is a whole generation now that has no idea of how to load film in a camera since, chances are, they've never seen it done (they're the same ones who do not know what a vinyl record is).

How long will it be before books are seen as the ugly, clunky things that need to be schlepped from place to place and then stored until/if they are ever needed again? Are we talking about 10 years? 15 years? Certainly not as long as 50 years.

Books as we know them now will most certainly go away. Publishers are already producing digital books ("ebooks"). And Google is working with libraries to digitize rare and out-of-print titles to make them available online (do a Google search right now for "ebooks" and you will find more than 58-million results!). The right device for reading this wealth of material hasn't yet caught the public's fancy. There is no iPod for books right now. But one, no doubt, is coming. And when that happens, the big specialty chains and a lot of the mom-and-pop shops will disappear, just as the record shops did; just as Qualex did. You (or your children or your grandchildren) will buy your books online and download them (sounds a bit like iTunes to me) to some special device. They will be stored for awhile; maybe deleted after a bit. A few might be printed and then discarded when no longer needed.

But the good news is that just as you can, today, find a little shop that will still have records or typewriters for sale, in another 10 or 15 years, you will find curiosity shops that still have used books.

My guess is that The York Emporium used book and curiosity shop will still be here. And you (or your children or your grandchildren) will stop by, in another 50 years or so...and I may still be behind the counter offering Tootsie-Rolls and stupid jokes and explaining the difference between a paperback and a hardcover and saying things like, "No, you don't need to plug it in."


  1. unfortunately I may have been born in to this evolved techy generation but I can't agree more... there's nothing like a great book or record, but what's even better are the people who have the stories so go with them. I still listen to all of my Dad's Bing Crosby Christmas music on vinyl even though I have it all on cd! Keep up the good work, love the blog!

  2. The Kindle and the Sony Reader are well trying to be the book iPod.