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Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 1999 /23 Kislev, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Human 'search engines' -- TWO SEEMINGLY UNRELATED newspaper stories in recent days touched on the different ways in which we may or may not carry out our daily lives in the next century.

The first story -- a business-page article -- was about how on-line shopping seems to be the future of the music business. If someone wants a certain CD, there's no need to go to a store -- just click a button and it will be delivered to you. You can even custom-build your own CDs, featuring your favorite songs.

The second story was a brief item in the Tribune's Inc. column. It was a birthday item: Bob Koester had turned 67 years old.

When I first came to Chicago, Bob Koester was one of my planned destinations. Not the man -- he didn't know me and I didn't know him. But his store -- the Jazz Record Mart -- was famous all over the country. It wasn't widely advertised or smoothly promoted, but the word spread among people who loved music: If you ever get to Chicago, you have to go to the Jazz Record Mart.

Even the directions were told from one person to the next, like a secret code (at least it seemed like secret code if you lived in a small town far from Chicago): Get off the subway at State and Grand, climb up the stairs, and you're there.

I followed the directions -- and there it was. The Jazz Record Mart (it was at 7. W. Grand then, moved later to 11 W. Grand, and is now at 444 N. Wabash) was the definition of ramshackle -- but what a place for music. You didn't go in there with any specific purchase in mind -- you just went in to immerse yourself in the store. Koester was usually there (he seemed like a legendary old music man full of the wisdom of the ages the day I first walked in; the way I figure it now, he was all of 33), and he would answer your questions and give you suggestions. He knew everything -- he was the founder of the Delmark record label, he produced music as well as sold it, and you could stay for hours in that store, just taking it all in.

Which brings us to today. On-line shopping is without question convenient -- log on, point, click, and the UPS driver will bring you what you wanted.

But what if you didn't know what you wanted? What if you thought you wanted a particular record -- but would have been made happier by a record you didn't even know existed?

That's the difference between a computer screen and a place like the Jazz Record Mart. A screen in your home will never make you feel like a store with textures and idiosyncrasies of its own -- and on your screen you are much less likely to find something better than what you thought you desired.

This is true not just in shopping. You can see it in the new, heavily advertised on-line version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which finally seems to be up and running after initial demand overloaded its circuits.

I've tried it -- and I'm underwhelmed. You type the subject in which you're interested, and the on-line Britannica puts the information on your screen. It's free, supported by advertising -- Britannica had to go this route because there was no longer much of a market for big, expensive, multivolume encyclopedias.

But the hardcover encyclopedias that filled long bookshelves -- the ones that allegedly are anachronisms now -- were very much like the Jazz Record Mart: What made them so enriching was not just that they had what you were looking for, but that they had what you weren't looking for. You could open up the "L" volume of the encyclopedia, looking for, say, information about the Louvre, and end up fascinated by something else you happened upon while on your way to the Louvre's page. It was the journey through the encyclopedia that could be so great, not the final destination.

The parallels here are not exact -- you can, of course, find unexpected delights on your computer screen, too. But in the computer age, everything is designed to be search-engine-driven -- type what you desire into the search engine, hit the button, and have just what you want delivered in an instant or two.

What makes life the most fun, though, is when you are your own search engine -- when you wander through the world in search of pleasures you don't even know are there. Whether they are in Bob Koester's record store or in a dusty volume on a bookshelf, those pleasures encountered almost by mistake are often the ones that change your life for the better.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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