Buying presents is hard. A good gift must be personal, but not too personal; affordable, but not cheap; useful, but not utilitarian. Ideally, it’s a physical object large enough to be worth wrapping, but not so large that you can’t carry it home. And, crucially, if you’re like me, it must be readily available at the nearest retail center when you rush out to do the 11th-hour shopping you should have done weeks ago, before the store shelves ran bare and the Amazon shipping window slammed shut.
This confounding set of parameters has given rise to an unspoken annual tradition in my immediate family, whose members unanimously suffer from a congenital inability to begin our holiday shopping more than three days before said holiday. Every year, come midafternoon on Dec. 23, we find ourselves converging from strip malls, chocolate shops, and liquor stores far and wide on a single destination: the bookstore. Typically, it’s the Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky, which specializes in the holy trinity of goods that one seeks when the hours grow short and the shopping list remains long: books, CDs, and DVDs.
The chain bookstore is the pole star of the easy gift. I have yet to meet the friend or relative, dear or distant, whose tastes run so esoteric as to be unquenchable by anything on offer at the nearest Barnes & Noble. Lucinda Williams for my aunt; John McWhorter for my brother-in-law; Monty Python for my nephew; the latest copy of, and a year’s subscription to, Southern Living for my grandmother. Make sure their backs are all turned, slink through the Joseph-Beth checkout line, and book it on home for a triumphant mug of eggnog.
In recent years, however, an ominous confluence of technological trends has begun to threaten this quaint ritual. The snowball started rolling down the hill about a decade ago, when e-books and MP3s emerged as an attractively priced, instantly downloadable, yet stubbornly unwrappable alternative to their respective physical incarnations. Fortunately, the blows wrought by the digitization of media were not fatal to the easy gift. At $9.99, an album purchased on iTunes might be slightly cheaper than the hard copy, but it was easy enough to rationalize the extra few bucks for a snazzier-looking disc and liner notes. Admittedly it got a little harder once a certain leading gadget-maker stopped putting disc drives in its computers.
For lazy gift-givers, the latest evolution in digital content delivery is the most ominous yet. Like the Grinch disrupting Christmas for the denizens of Whoville, streaming media threatens to spoil the era of the easy present.
It’s one thing to drop $16 on a hardcover of the new Michael Lewis book for someone who has a Kindle. It’s quite another to buy it for someone who has Kindle Unlimited—and has thus, in a real sense, already paid for on-demand access to the very text you’re gifting him.
Granted, book-subscription services like Kindle Unlimited and Oyster have a limited selection of top titles at any given time, as does Netflix for movies. In theory, it only takes an extra step to make sure that the title you’re buying isn’t currently available on those services. But even then, it’s hard to get around the feeling that you’re wasting hard-earned cash on a book or a movie for someone who has already spent her own hard-earned cash to ensure she has ready access to more books and movies than she could get through in a lifetime.
It’s even worse with music. Top streaming services like Spotify boast such comprehensive collections that you’d be hard-pressed to find an album they don’t have. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Beatles and, well, Taylor Swift. No doubt there are other holdouts, but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule. No wonder U.S. album sales have plunged some 65 percent since 2000. Now even digital album sales on iTunes are plummeting. To buy an album for a Spotify subscriber is to invite the grimace of a gift recipient whose face can’t hide the fact that she already owns the very thing you just gave her.
Books, music, and movies were once the simplest answer to the question, “What do you get the person who has everything?” The new question is, “What do you get the person who streams everything?”
A quick, unscientific survey of co-workers and Twitter followers confirmed my suspicion that at this point CDs and DVDs are a poor bet: Most would be more annoyed than excited to unwrap one. Those who own Blu-ray players are still excited about Blu-rays, but most don’t.
But that doesn't mean we're doomed to wake up Christmas morning to nothing on the walls but hooks and some wire.
One piece of good news is that books, at least, seem to be retaining their broad appeal. Compared to Netflix and Spotify, the unlimited-books services have gained only a niche audience. Conveniently, that niche comprises mostly the sort of bookworms who’d always welcome any addition to their hardback collections. “Hard to share an e-book with friends and classmates,” one respondent noted. “Print is still tactile and special,” cooed another.
That, I think, is the key to understanding what still works, gift-wise, in the streaming age. CDs and DVDs are bound for obsolescence, but few will mourn them, because they were already digitized versions of earlier technologies. Books are special because they’re genuinely analog. They feel good, they smell good, and they look smart on a shelf.
The musical equivalent of the book, in this sense, is not the CD but the LP. Granted, an LP won’t do much good for someone who lacks a record player. But for those who do, vinyl makes a better last-minute gift than a CD ever did—and it’s getting better all the time. It’s collectible, it’s aesthetically pleasing, and it carries a whiff of nostalgia that feels less pretentious and more vital the more digitized our lives become. And, like a book, it offers an opportunity for the gift-giver to express her own tastes and values while recognizing those of the recipient, as the best gifts do.
Vinyl record sales, by the way, are up a remarkable 500 percent in the past seven years, albeit from a small base. They’re the only format in which album sales are still growing.
I’m not sure there’s a direct analog analogue when it comes to audiovisual media. For what it’s worth, though, the streaming-movie services are a little different from Spotify or Oyster, in that they rarely include the new releases, blockbusters, and all-time classics that movie-lovers crave. Even if they do feature one of your favorites for a time, they’re likely to rotate it out of their library eventually. They also don’t make it easy to download a movie for offline viewing.
The upshot is that buying someone a digital movie that she can store on her computer or tablet and watch anytime makes for a surprisingly worthwhile gift. It may not stuff a stocking, but it satisfies another important criterion for presents: In most cases, it’s something most people would appreciate having, but can’t quite justify buying for themselves.
Which brings us to one final easy-gift opportunity that the streaming era has created: a gift subscription to a streaming service. For all the hype about Netflix and its ilk, odds are you have some family members who still don’t have any premium subscriptions, or who have a half-hearted one like Amazon Prime. (Glorious for free shipping, mediocre for TV and movies.) Quick: Give them Netflix or Spotify before someone else does! Granted, a year’s subscription can be pricey, but think of it this way: You’re giving them a gift whose value is so great that no one will ever buy them a DVD again.