Shoppers go retro this Christmas with 'tangible things' like cassettes and Polaroids

Sarvár Abdullaev and other young people scan retro shops in Analog Alley for "something tangible" to buy this holiday season. CBC's Kim Brunhuber reports on how this block in an unfashionable area of west L.A. proves Toronto author David Sax's Revenge of Analog theory — people are rediscovering museum-grade technology because digital is so easy.

L.A.'s Analog Alley attracts people looking for real things, backing Toronto author's Revenge of Analog theory

At the end of an unfashionable street in west L.A., there's a sanctuary of obsolescence known as Analog Alley.

You can rifle through records, buy VHS tapes, even watch the Big Sleep in the world's smallest movie theatre, on a screen sandwiched between books on a bookshelf. In shops in this block of the neighbourhood, you can also buy technology that faded from use before many customers were born.

"I guess I like their objecthood," says 20-year-old Drew Lucia as she scans rows of cassettes at Touch Vinyl, a record store in Analog Alley. "It's something I think about a lot."
In Analog Alley, a gold mine for retro things like VHS tapes and other technology from yesteryear, Sideshow Books has what it considers the world's smallest movie theatre, playing The Big Sleep on a loop 24/7. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Lucia is buying cassettes as a holiday gift for a friend. She says others her age are really getting into analog technology like cassettes and VHS tapes. It's all about the weight in the hand. The crackle and hiss.

"I feel like it's more unpredictable how a cassette's going to sound than a CD or online streaming," Lucia says. 

When asked if the imperfection is part of the allure, she says: "Totally. Totally."

Drew Lucia, 20, didn't grow up with videotapes, but has fallen in love with them for their 'objecthood.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's what seems to be at the heart of a growing trend, says Toronto author David Sax. In his book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, he argues that people — especially young people — are going old school, rediscovering museum-grade technology because digital is so easy, so efficient.
Lovers of analog say their infatuation stems from the fallibility, the imperfection, the unpredictability of the media. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Digital offer the ease of convenience," Sax says. "You can get it faster, you can get it cheaper, you can copy it endlessly and replicate it. And when you do that, it's fantastic and really great to have something instantaneously. But what do you lose? You lose the joy that comes with something that's hard to get, hard to find, that takes effort, that takes up space, that costs money, and the more effort you put into things, the more you sort of get out of it."

Sax lifts his Polaroid camera.

"You don't really know how that picture's going to turn out until you take it, and you can't take it again," he says. "The photo you're going to take in a Polaroid camera with today's film is going to be blurrier and slightly out of focus, and that's the thing about it that is good. Digital can offer that precise level of perfection. What it can't offer is serendipity. What it can't offer is something that's unique and surprising and fun, and that's what analog can." 
'Digital can offer that precise level of perfection. What it can't offer is serendipity,' says David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog. (John Lesavage/CBC)

That's exactly right, says 29-year-old Sarvár Abdullaev, who's in one of Analog Alley's two bookstores, perched on a ladder and leafing through a novel. In books — actual books — he finds an emotional connection with a real thing.

"I think we have too much technology around," Abdullaev says. "Certain things I want to keep the old-fashioned way. I want to have something tangible."

That's why Sax expects many stockings will be a lot heavier this year, weighted down with bulky analog gifts instead of insubstantial voucher codes and online credits. 
Sarvár Abdullaev, 29, says there's too much technology around. 'I want to have something tangible.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I think all sorts of different analog technologies, which were previously dismissed as obsolete, are now the types of things that we'll be giving each other over the holidays: watches, cameras, turntables, books, even subscriptions to magazines," Sax says. "When you look at the markets that are driving this — in consumers out there — largely it's people who are younger, who are in their twenties. Even their teens. People who have grown up almost exclusively with digital. So they're not going back to what they loved and remember. They almost see analog as something new."

However, some companies are becoming aware of the trend, and are starting to exploit it.
'You don't really know how that picture's going to turn out until you take it, and you can't take it again,' Sax says about his Polaroid camera. (John Lesavage/CBC)

"There's a little bit of a bait-and-switch going on with the major labels where they're saying, 'Yes we love vinyl, we love analog,' but they're treating it as if it's a digital product," says Sebastian Matthews, owner of Touch Vinyl.

Matthews says many major labels are just reverse-engineering analog records from digital versions in order to be on trend.

"They're happy to rip from CD and press that onto vinyl just so there's this sexy thing that the youngsters will pick up," Matthews says.

And then there's the ongoing battle of click versus brick. Despite the renaissance of analog, stores that only rely on old-fashioned in-store shopping still may eventually go the way of the gramophone and catapult. Just ask Tony Jacobs.
Sebastian Matthews, who owns Touch Vinyl and CineFile. says some music labels are starting to take advantage of the analog craze with a 'little bait-and-switch.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"We're in Los Angeles, so we'll start here with the film section," says Jacobs as he gives a 30-second tour of his small Analog Alley bookstore, SideShow Books. It's a shrine to all things analog: every inch not taken up by books is filled with old cameras, speakers and board games. He even sells photos tossed by newspaper companies as they converted their libraries to digital.

But here's the paradox: This bookstore doesn't make money. What actually pays the bills, Jacobs says, is selling books online.
SideShow Books is a shrine to all things analog, like found photos. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"The bookstore itself is like a public service," Jacobs says. "It's not like people aren't buying books, they're just not buying them in bookstores. They're buying them online. It's convenient, you can find what you want, and I agree with that."

So if a bookstore in Analog Alley at the height of the "revenge of analog" can't make it without digital, is the whole movement just a fad?

Sax says no. He argues analog's revival isn't driven solely by novelty or nostalgia — it's a natural reaction to our touch-screen lives.
Tony Jacobs, the owner of Sideshow Books, loves all things analog, but paradoxically can only keep his store open by selling books online. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Digital is going to remain the standard and it's going to keep growing," Sax says. "But as it does, analog is only going to become more attractive. Because it's really going to stand apart from the digital reality of the day-to-day of our lives." 

In other words, says Abdullaev as he stacks his purchases on the bookstore counter, "better isn't always better."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.