When Best Buy was king

How the big box store captured my imagination when I was young

The Saturday newspaper of my youth was pillow-sized and overstuffed with circulars and meaningless news sections—at least to a middle schooler.

I woke up early every weekend to haul it off our driveway and spread it out across the kitchen table, covering every inch of it. Sometimes the circular I was looking for appeared instantly. Sometimes I had to search for it. When I saw the royal and gold of its cover, I snatched it and buried my nose.

My eyes scanned the pages. DVD players, fully loaded PCs and the newest music releases were scattered throughout.

The appeal of the Best Buy circular stayed with me until the end of high school, when I purchased a laptop and a DSLR camera, and learned to download music. None of these purchases were from Best Buy.

I walked into Best Buy a few weeks ago to help pick out an iPhone armband for my girlfriend Heather. It was the first time I’d been to the big box store in about two years. The two guys at the register in front of us were buying CDs.

“Did you see those guys in front of us?” I said to Heather. “They were buying CDs. Isn’t that weird?” They couldn’t have been much younger than me.

Heather didn’t say much, but gave me a look. “You’re in your bubble again.”

She says this to me often. Living and working downtown in Lincoln, allows me to become trapped in my own ways. I bike to work. I shop at the local boutiques close to home and I do my electronics shopping online. It’s easy living. So when I venture outside the downtown bubble, I have to tell myself that buying CDs at Best Buy isn’t weird.

It seemed like Best Buy was always there to tweak my imagination. I remember one day in the early 2000s, walking into the store and seeing all the VHS tapes replaced with DVDs. I couldn’t afford a Playstation 2 or an Xbox, but I could get a taste of them at the in-store demo.

When I got older, I hung out in the car stereo department and then in the camera alcove. Eventually, I became so educated with cameras that the employees in charge of the camera section told me to scram.

But I never actually bought anything big in my youth. I think the most money I’ve ever spent at the store was when I purchased a Nintendo DS bundle, a gift from myself for my 19th birthday. To me, the store existed much like its in-store video game demos: somewhere I was able to escape to for a few minutes, forever dreaming about it later.

When I started shopping on the Internet, I began realizing the items Best Buy carried weren’t as advanced. The higher quality camera gear, like full-frame digital cameras and top-tier lenses, were absent from the store. Most of that merchandise isn’t as appealing to the everyday consumer; it’s expensive and takes more skill to use. So instead of salivating over it at the store’s display case, I’d stare at a computer screen in the comfort of home.

“I’ll never be able to afford this,” I keep telling myself. Holding it for a second would at least let me escape for a few moments and pretend I have it. I could hold the camera to my face and take a photo. But when I’d look at the photo on the screen, I’d be brought back to reality, as the screen would show a blue and yellow-accented warehouse with florescent lighting. Then I’d remember that the camera wasn’t mine, and would be most likely tethered to the display counter.

Earlier this year, Best Buy announced it was closing nearly 50 of its big box stores. The store I grew up with in New Jersey is safe, but the one in West Omaha has been axed. The store in Lincoln is also safe for now.

So maybe I am living in a bubble. As a photographer, I buy a lot of my gear secondhand on Ebay or through friends. I buy my computer supplies from NewEgg and Amazon (and Apple too). There just isn’t a reason to go to Best Buy anymore.

Best Buy was rated America’s best company in 2004 by Forbes. It’s funny, because that’s right around the time I stopped going there regularly. Everything seemed to come up roses for Best Buy. It outlasted Circuit City, which closed its doors in 2009. It pioneered services like “store pick-up,” where a consumer could order an item online and then pick it up at their nearest Best Buy store.

The store’s biggest claim to fame is Black Friday. I’ve never experienced a Black Friday Best Buy run firsthand, but I have been there the night before just to see the people lined up. Hundreds of people, some eating their Thanksgiving dinner in line, waiting to buy electronics at amazing discounted prices. It’s absurd, but I’ll give those people credit.

I was recently in Best Buy again to pick up extra hard drives for my ever-growing photo library. I decided to do a couple of laps around the store to see what it’s like now. I was surprised to see it has an Apple computer display. There are low-grade musical instruments in the back. Full kitchen appliances take up a whole section, which didn’t seem like the case in my Best Buy heydays.

The music and movies section seemed to have shrunk, with much of it being surrendered to Smart Phone sales and accessories. The camera section is twice as large as I remembered, probably due to the increased availability and decreased cost of DSLRs.

The computers are still set up in all their glory, though now the big push is laptops and tablets. The home theatre and stereo section is also gigantic.

Before heading up to the register, I stopped at the video game section. There was a few kids playing a demo of Uncharted 3, the third-person adventure game for Playstation 3. The kids were taking turns playing, each going on and on about how cool the game is and how awesome the graphics are. I watched them play for awhile. It reminded me of when I was there age and how special visits to the store used to be.

Eventually their mom called them over and they left. I picked up the controller and played a little, remembering the days when Best Buy was king.

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CD's are still cool

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