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Steam-Powered Entertainment

Nostalgia is never far from those of us at the Book Fair. From “Oh, I read that in college!” to “I remember when we’d get that donated every week!” (Yeah, another copy of Think and Grow Rich came in), we encounter memories in just about every box.

But this week, there’s been a hearty whiff of the twentieth century everywhere we turn. Someone dropped off a few of their college souvenirs, including a pair of ashtrays. We now have a total of four ashtrays to sell, and I’m still working on how to explain to our younger customers what they were. (“In those days, see, we had to plug all our remote controls into the electrical outlet, and those grooves kept the cords out of our way.”)

Now, here we have a book of sermons from what was not yet called a televangelist. He has included a page listing all the local stations where you could hear him preach in 1954. It’s a “Television Log”, and I especially like that the letters T and V are in a different color than the rest of the word. (See, kids, we used to call television TV, and there might have been people who didn’t know the longer word.)

And here is a small paperback of Sherlock Holmes stories, rewritten for children, which was available in 1956 to anyone who bought two pounds of Nestle’s Quik. It’s a strange shape and size, about the height of a box of Nestle’s Quik (what you now call Nesquik, children).

But here is something that will resonate with a slightly younger generation, a memory for those of you…those of us who are too young to remember the Fifties. Small children may need to leave the room, for some of the concepts discussed here will be too difficult to fathom.

See, once upon a time there was the videocassette. For the first time in human history, you could get movies and watch them whenever you wanted, without having to thread film through sprockets, replace projector bulbs…it made old movies widely accessible. This was so exciting that there were actually magazines dedicated simply to telling you what movies were suddenly available. One of these was a Chicago journal called Video Times.

This flourished around 1985, the year it released a twelve-volume guide to the movies available on tape. We have been given one of these volumes, the Science Fiction/Fantasy volume. If you can believe it, at a rate of two reviews or so per page, this book could barely fill 126 pages (and THAT is only because it also reviews the episodes of Star Trek, The Prisoner, and other TV…television shows that had been issued.)

It is a trip to a bygone era. Each entry lists whether you can get the movie on Beta, VHS, Laser, or CED. (Laser is a reference to Laserdisc, a 12-inch predecessor of the DVD, Beta is an alternate format of videocassette, and CED was a needle-and-disc system invented by RCA around 1961 and then forgotten until it was too late to get in on the trend in the eighties. VHS is what most people bought.) The average videocassette cost seventy to eighty dollars: this was why prophets said the craze would never last, as it was too expensive. The number of movies available was, as noted, limited: here and there, the reviewer notes that another, better, movie by a director is simply not to be found. (Remember, kids, this was before Netflix, YouTube, and other services, and if a movie was unavailable on tape, you had to buy a blank tape, put it in your VCR, and wait until it showed on late night TV…television. Then you taped it yourself, WITH all the car insurance commercials.)

The reviewer, Tim Lucas (who gets credit only in tiny print on the copyright page) was something of a pioneer in what he was doing, in that he did not review just the movie, but the tape itself. If the company issuing the tape made cuts, or left off the credits, or altered the picture (unavoidable, as TV screens and movie screens are different shapes) he said so, instead of just glorying in the fact that you could now watch King Kong any time you wanted. He still does this, but he does it online, rather than on printed pages.

In fact, by concentrating on printed pages, we at the Book Fair are purveyors of nostalgia in any case. This paperback chunk of nostalgia will cost you a buck, in the Show Biz category. Run over to our VHS shelves and get the movies he’s talking about for two bucks. I don’t have a VCR for sale yet, but if I have, I’ll sell it to you for five. If you threw away your TV…television, you’ll have to go elsewhere. The building can’t hold ALL your nostalgia.

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