AT 36 YEARS of age, I’m now old enough to have seen some social phenomena slide from prominence to obscurity during the course of my lifetime.
One of the places where this hits me the hardest is in the checkout line at grocery stores.
I remember as a child marveling over the entire wall-length display cases dedicated to cigarettes. There were so many brands it made the head spin. From the most recognizable Marlboros and Camels (and their infinite variations therein), to the why-do-these-exist-and-who-thinks-to-smoke-them Mores and Tareytons, the presence of cigarettes in the average supermarket was staggering.
During those years of the late 1970s and all through the 1980s, though smoking was no longer the acceptable institution it’d been in previous decades, its detractors were still more at the fringes of society than they were in society’s mainstream.
So, back then, people puffed away in large numbers and with impunity: in restaurants, on airplanes, in shopping malls, and so forth. As a disclaimer, while I’m not a regular cigarette smoker myself, I do find smoking to be one of the most enjoyable things known to man, but even I understand that the toll cigarette smoking takes on public health justifiably eroded its acceptable nature by the end of the 1990s, and today the cigarette smoker lurks behind dumpsters and huddled around the back entrance of bars and pubs, oftentimes actively chided by passersby.
As a result, the once glorious cigarette section in most grocery stores has dwindled down to a sad shelf or two, forgotten alongside its equally sorry mate, the magazine section.
If cigarettes defined my youthful trips to supermarkets, magazines dominated them. When I was a kid it was common for a grocery store to have a couple of aisles dedicated entirely to magazines, as well as another wall near the checkout lines, and then racks along the checkout areas themselves.
These periodicals covered just about every aspect of American popular culture, with pictures of celebrities, automobiles, cartoon characters, women in swimsuits, athletes, wedding cakes, place settings, and manicured yards beckoning to potential readers of all walks and ages…so many magazines, and yet these only represented the most shallow tip of the periodical iceberg.
Indeed, magazines were still such an omnipresent institution in my childhood that they were capable of supporting brick and mortar retailers who specialized in nothing but periodicals, oftentimes selling cigarettes alongside the magazines, appropriately enough.
Here in Santa Rosa, CA we had a venerable magazine shop right in the heart of our downtown. I think it went back at least a few generations as a family business, though I don’t care enough about local business history to look it up. Either way, it was still owned and operated by its familial namesake when it closed for good a few years ago.
This store didn’t make as big an impact on me as it did for some of my peers, probably because I was more of a comic book kid than I was a magazine one, and I’d generally be shopping for those at comic book stores, but it was impossible to grow up in Santa Rosa in the 1980s and 90s without making one’s way through Sawyer’s News now and again.
I can’t remember if Sawyer’s News sold cigarettes, but I do vividly recall that they sold magazines. Lots of them. And candy, also.
My main occasion to hit the place up was when I wanted to buy Mamba fruit chews. Sawyer’s might not have been the only store in Santa Rosa to stock them, but it was a reliable source, and while Mamba wasn’t at the top of my childhood candy list, it was a candy I liked to have in the rotation.
The only problem with Sawyer’s News was that, at least during some incarnations of the store’s layout, the candy section was on the other side of the semi-enclosed “adult” area.
For reasons that may be examined in a future post, Mr. Sensational’s upbringing led him as a youth to equate anything sexual with serial killing or similar activities, so the presence of shifty looking middle-aged men thumbing through the latest issue of Club in broad, public daylight freaked me out. You know what they say, “thumbing through the latest issue of Club one minute, slashing your throat the next!” Worse, in addition to whatever menace the men represented, I’d surely be condemned by an all-knowing, omnipotent, secular, left wing, non-deity to unending shame and damnation just for standing in proximity to the “adult” section.
But I digress into the world of TMI. Let’s just say, my Mamba expeditions involved running into Sawyer’s News, head down, then running out as fast as possible, scared and ashamed, but with Mamba fruit chews in hand. Score.
Since then the media landscape has changed dramatically, with much of print material being made obsolete by its digital counterparts. Some among my age peers have accepted this full-throat, abandoning anything print and analog for everything electronic and digital. Others–usually spurred by a nostalgia-based aesthetic sense–distrust the shift and have resisted it as much as possible. I guess I’m somewhere in the middle.
The advent of the mp3 file, for example, caused me to walk away from vinyl, cassettes, and CDs and never look back. The mp3’s convenience of storage and portability overrode any sentiment I may have had for previous mediums. Not that I really listen to music anymore, anyway.
On the other hand, I can’t stand reading books or comics on tablet devices and the like. I’m too set in my ways of wanting to put down a physical, printed copy of a text open to a certain section and be able to pick it back up unconcerned about battery life. In this case, sentiment overrides practicality for me, or maybe sentiment becomes practicality.
Still, while novels and comic books don’t make my digital cut, magazines certainly do. The advent of “the internet” and its evolution to its current state has made print periodicals irrelevant in my daily life. I can’t remember that last time I flipped through a printed magazine, though I scan articles found “online” constantly.
I don’t think I’m in the minority on this, and so it’s no surprise that dedicated periodical stores like Sawyer’s News have found it hard to stay in business. As mentioned, Sawyer’s News did indeed close a few years back, something that would have been unthinkable in my childhood.
While this was an unfortunate turn for the store’s owner and its employees, and I certainly have sympathy there, such closures are also an inevitability of social evolution and the nature of business. A product and its means of delivery that seem so rock solid one moment can evaporate into thin air the next. Keeping this in mind, and as I mentioned earlier, I tend to be on guard then when it comes to romanticizing that which has become socially outmoded.
Still, there’s a part of me that misses the cigarettes-and-magazines era I grew up in. The end of that era may have been inevitable, and there are certainly progressive benefits to the world we find ourselves in today, yet at the same time there was a mystique in those pre-internet days that’s irreplaceable.
Where today almost any nagging informational question can be answered within seconds through a simple internet search, in the days of cigarettes and magazines information was much more elusive, typically parceled out in bits and pieces.
Passing through Sawyer’s news to buy Mamba fruit chews, for instance, a magazine cover might catch my eye. Maybe it was a music magazine with a cover story on the band The Cramps. Piqued by images of what appeared to be the the result of a Graceland grave robbery, the most I could glean about the band was whatever limited information the magazine yielded, plus whatever lore I might be able to dig up at school the next day. Therefore, in my mind, these people really were rockabilliy zombies, subsisting off of the blood of their victims in a space age mansion somewhere in the Hollywood hills.
That kind of mystique afforded by my pre-digital childhood was particularly important–and directly tied to my memories of Sawyer’s News–when it comes to my interest in professional wrestling. Prior to the internet, pro wrestling thrived on elusiveness of information, as the business is a con at its core, and while everyone, even children, knew deep down that pro wrestling matches were “worked” (or scripted) long before the business publicly embraced its scripting, we kids of the 1980s hit a brick wall when it came to information that admitted it. There was no way these mammoth collisions between larger than life personalities could possibly be real, other than the fact that no readily available information explicitly proved otherwise.
Further, with information being limited to what was available in print or on one’s television screen, there were entire worlds of professional wrestling that remained shrouded in mystery and secrecy depending on where you lived.
Here in Santa Rosa, when it came to national wrestling exposure, we were mostly limited to Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. By the mid-1980s when I became a wrestling fan, Vince had already established a strangehold on the industry, and it was his promotion and vision of the medium that was beamed into my home via NBC, MTV, and Saturday morning cartoons. Aimed at children, the WWF of the 1980s was relatively sanitized, rudimentary, and cast in primary colors.
One primary color however that wasn’t as common in the WWF as it was elsewhere in pro wrestling was the color red.
In its hope to appeal to children and families via Hulkamania and Cyndi Lauper, instances of “blading” (purposely cutting oneself in order to create a bloody spectacle during a scripted wrestling match) were few and far between in the WWF. In fact this was a main point I used when trying to work out for myself whether or not wrestling was “real.” If these guys were truly punishing each other as much as the announcers claimed, where was all the blood?
And then one weekend afternoon I wandered into Sawyer’s News in search of Mamba fruit chews, and something on one of the magazine shelves jumped out at me.
There was an area in the store where pro wrestling magazines were grouped together. Among these magazines, the most noticeable and flashy were the glossy volumes published by and dedicated to the WWF. Safe, familiar images of Hulk Hogan smiled and flexed from their perch on the shelf.
However, next to the WWF magazines sat a collection of grittier, pulpier rags, also dedicated to wrestling, but featuring the likenesses of brawlers and grapplers who were largely unfamiliar to me. Largely unfamiliar, and also largely covered in buckets of blood.
Yes, adorning the covers of Pro Wrestling Illustrated and its non-WWF peers were the images of lesser known (to me) National Wrestling Alliance stars like Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes. In contrast to the WWF’s Saturday morning cartoon characters, these guys were more like Marvel or DC comic book heroes. They also tended to be purveyors of the “crimson mask,” that dramatic effect in pro wrestling where the copious blood from a self-inflicted blade-job streams down and masks a performer’s entire face.
“My God!” I thought to myself while flipping frantically through the pages of these magazines, taking in image after bloody image, “THIS is the wrestling that’s real! This secret, hidden wrestling known only to the chosen few who’ve stumbled across these mysterious tomes!”
Adding to the mystique that oozed from the newsprint pages was the fact that, among the bloodied faces of stars I didn’t recognize, were the occasional pictures of wrestlers I DID know from the WWF, though wrestling for different promotions here and looking decidedly grittier and more real.
And then I began to put together the pieces of a dark and shadowy puzzle. Every once in a while, so infrequently that it seemed like a dream, in between the long-form infomercials for WWF events that I’d watch on television, I’d come across shorter, grainier commercials for other wrestling events. Most of these commercials were centered around a crazed looking man with a sparkly robe and a shock of platinum blonde hair. And now, this very same man was front and center in these strange non-WWF magazines I’d found at Sawyer’s!
Similarly, if I stayed up late enough at night, I’d sometimes catch an elusive, non-WWF wrestling show on TV, something purporting to be “World Class,” and here in the pages of these magazines were pictures of the wrestlers from that show, wrestlers who I hadn’t been sure existed as anything other than late-night hallucinations.
Again, with a scarcity of available information, the line between dream and reality was much more blurred in my childhood, and the propensity for stark gaps of darkness in the spaces between the light cast the world in a chiaroscuro, a contrast that is itself a contrast to the neon state characterizing our world today.
And so I vividly remember the thrill I felt when I realized I’d found a portal into a secret and hidden world. From my perspective at the time, the images I’d come across represented an obscure alternate reality that had only been witnessed by handful of lucky initiates. Of course I was clueless to the fact that the wrestlers of the NWA were huge stars in their own right, with lucrative endorsement deals and the whole nine yards, I just lived in the wrong part of the United States to know about it.
Today, with the breadth and wealth of information available on even the most banal of topics, this kind of experience is unthinkable. First of all, region-specific celebrity no longer exists, as cable and satellite television have made fame a global phenomenon. Second, if I were a child fan of wrestling in the year 2012, I’d likely be reading meta-articles about the meta-ness of meta-takes on the pro wrestling industry from a tablet at the kitchen table rather than un-ironic newsprint articles purporting the obviously farcical art form to be “real.”
However, in keeping true to my own guarding against romanticizing that which has been socially outmoded, I have to say this is neither good, nor bad, it simply is. Things have changed, as they always change. But that doesn’t stop me from shedding a reminiscent tear now and then for the days when cigarettes, magazines, and newsprint pictures of men with bloody faces loomed over me like enigmatic monoliths in a dreamy, shadowy land. Things are much brighter now, for sure, but sometimes, under the starkness of that light, everything looks just a bit more dull.
1. my grandfather who died in his early 60s from heart disease was an avid Tareyton smoker and the only one I’ve ever known personally, while Elvis Presley–who from what I understand wasn’t a regular smoker?–allegedly smoked Tareytons when he chose to partake.