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Authenticity can't be purchased by the foot

Salena Zito on

PITTSBURGH -- Years ago, there was an urban arcade called The Bank located here within a series of five old buildings that once housed financial offices in the Gilded Age. Connected internally by a savvy developer, 145,000 square feet of abandoned former grandeur was turned into a series of high-end shops, bars, a bookstore located in a former bank vault and a disco simply called The Library.

It was the late 1970s, and discos were everywhere. This one attempted to set itself apart with a little pretense, a proper dress code: jackets, ties and no jeans for the men; women mostly wore suits during the week; and the high-end fashion came out on the weekend.

The books that lined the place and the more sophisticated music selection were an attempt to imply this was a more intellectual crowd than the one attending the 2001 disco across the river, or the Rusty Scupper and Bahama Mama located in the lower level. Those were places for jeans, shot-and-beer combos and a blue-collar crowd wanting to dance the night away.

But no matter where you came from, people knew the pretense or lack thereof was just that: pretense. There was no trickery, because no one really thought the books that lined the elegant decor of The Library meant that the people there were any smarter than the people listening to music one floor lower at the Rusty Scupper.

Where you went was who you were, aspired to be or connected with. You went to these places to perhaps meet someone or hang out with friends, dance and mostly find a way to escape from your daily grind.

Whether you worked the line at Jones and Laughlin Steel on Second Avenue a couple of miles away or climbed your way up in the white-collar world of Mellon Bank or PPG Industries a couple of blocks away, you knew that when you entered The Library, those books were a prop and meant nothing.

 

Last week, a Politico Magazine story revealed that some of the intellectuals and/or experts we see on cable television or speaking at Zoom events have adopted using books as a prop, 2020 style. People are buying books by the foot -- not for reading, just to make them look smart.

Even before the pandemic, there has been a service run by Maryland bookseller Wonder Book called Books by the Foot, which provides books for decor in offices, hotels and movie sets. But since the pandemic began, the service has seen a 20% surge in residential orders, presumably to accent the credibility experts are trying to project.

The story says the Wonder Books team rarely knows the real identity of the people whose home office they've staged, especially if the customer has some degree of fame or is trying to achieve fame, as they often order under a code name.

Back in the 1970s at The Library disco, when you walked in, you knew the books were a vanity prop. Maybe people had more street sense or common sense, but you knew exactly what the deal was and you were fine with it.

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