Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

You’ve Got Mail


Here is Hollywood’s third take on the play Parfumerie by Miklós László, after The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summer Time. Brief recap: A man and a woman work together in a store, don’t like each other, but each is corresponding with an anonymous pen pal whom they adore. Turns out they are each other’s pen pal. They fall in love. The end.

This one works some major changes while leaving the basic concept alone. They meet in a chat room and write emails to each other. They don’t work together; she runs a nice little children’s book store called the Shop Around the Corner, he opens a mega-store Barnes & Noble … sorry, “Fox” books, around the corner. Deep discounts. Deep trouble. Loyal long-time customers promise to stick with her. Of course, they don’t, and she is run out of business, as so many small bookstores have been. They fall in love. The end.

Leaving aside for the moment whether or not you would fall in love with the prick who killed your life’s work, a shop that had been in your family for almost 50 years … this all works very well. In this version much more attention is paid to the messages themselves, and I think that was wise. In the center of all three movies is one pivotal scene that is practically identical. They are going to meet in a restaurant, he becomes aware of who she is, he plays a bit of a game with her. They both begin to have a bit of respect for the other. Honest, they pretty much pulled pages of dialogue from the original script for both re-makes, and it’s a lot of fun to see how the three different pairs play it. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are the equal of Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, and that’s high praise from me, indeed.

I was wondering about changes in technology after 11 years, which is a geological epoch in computer time. Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much. They both use laptops, thicker than today’s models and no doubt 1/100,000th the internal capacity, but most everything else could have been done today … with one exception. Remember AOL? (Remember the Stanley Steamer, the Wright Brothers Flyer, switchboard ladies, Pullman porters? Remember dial-up connections? Yeah, I know AOL is still around and some people must still use it, as every once in a while I get an email from someone with an address, and there must be hinterlands where dial-up still reigns, but I’ll bet a lot of young people today would have to have that whistling sound while the connection is made explained to them.) Like many of you (I’ll bet), I had AOL when I first got online, and I recall it with a bit of nostalgia … the same sort you have when you recall walking 10 miles to school each day through 6-foot snowdrifts. I was just wondering what AOL looks like today, so I googled it (a verb that didn’t exist in 1998) and got a screen across which some animated penguins promptly marched, trying to sell me something. That wouldn’t have happened with AOL Version 3.1—it took most of the day just to load the friggin’ home page—and that lack of aggressive advertising pop-over is something I do look back on fondly. Do any of you ever buy anything because of an online ad? If so, I’m ashamed of you. I make it a point of pride to find that little CLOSE X hidden away in a corner, never waiting for the page I wanted to load 15 seconds after this “welcome” screen, and never, never, never looking at whatever that welcome screen is selling. Never!

Now, something else I have to bring up, because it makes me uncomfortable. I can’t really say this romantic comedy has a happy ending. Her little bookstore does go under, and the corporate Goliath wins. Okay, she becomes an author of children’s books, but how many people can do that? Many of us have watched in alarm over the last decades as store after store closed, and the soulless—but very nicely appointed, complete with Starbucks inside—superstores spread like cancer. First it was Walden and Brentano’s (and I was happy to see them swallowed up by Borders; take that, you stinking mall stores, somebody outdid your old business model!), then it was Barnes & Noble and Borders. You can’t deny they are pleasant places, though just try to find somebody who actually knows something about books.

And here’s the thing. I shopped at all those stores. I’ll bet most of you did, and do, too. I’m no better than the Upper West Side people who assured Meg Ryan they’d stay faithful, and then walked by with big Fox Books shopping bags. What are you going to do? They’re cheap! I did my best to buy mysteries at Murder By the Book, and SF at various specialty stores, but I can’t claim I was consistent. Now where do I buy most of my books? At the most soulless place of all: Again, what are you going to do? I go to Amazon and maybe the book I need is selling for one cent (plus $3.99 S&H, but still). Plus—and this is even more important—they have the book. Just about anything you want, they have it, or one of their associates does. I have found books in 10 seconds that I’d been seeking for decades. When at all possible I buy from one of the associates … but still. But still. These corporate great white sharks have driven countless book-loving booksellers out of business, and I’ve never gotten the impression that Amazon loves books. On the contrary, they don’t give a shit about books. If there was more money in cheese, they’d sell cheese instead. Hell, they do sell cheese, and clothes and jewelry and shoes and toys. Once again, low price and convenience trumps soul and tradition. I hate it, and I participate in it. If you don’t, my hat is off to you.

The thing is, it’s a lot easier to spend in line with your emotions, your feelings, your preferences, your politics, if you don’t have to count your pennies. Even easier if you don’t have to count your dollars. We refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, knowing we could save money if we did shop there, but that’s about as far as we can afford to take it. It’s very sad, and it makes me angry and ashamed … but there it is.