I stopped into Toronto record store Sonic Boom on my way home this afternoon. It’s a significant place for me personally – I’ve lived within about 2-5 blocks from the store in the entirety of the time I’ve lived in the city, and even before then, it was an essential pre-concert stop when making the trek into Toronto to see concerts at Lee’s Palace. I’ve spent a fair amount of time and money there – I’ve spent perhaps embarrassingly too many evenings stopping in just as an excuse to get out of the house, when I wasn’t up to hanging out with actual people for whatever reason (to quote The Smiths, it’s “where there’s music, and there’s people, and they’re young and alive”).
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll recognize that this post is a bit different. But bear with me – I do have a point.
Reflecting on the role Sonic Boom has played in the last several years of my life has led me to think about the relationship we have to physical space in general, and to specific places. While it’s generally recognized in the social sciences that physical space shapes our behaviour, it occurred to me that at least on this blog, I’ve tended to ignore the role certain kinds of spaces play in shaping (non/)interactions, in favour of focusing on how individuals interpret their own experiences.
At Sonic Boom, for example, certain features of the space that make particular types of interactions more likely than others. For the unacquainted (how sorry I am for you!), the store is much deeper than it is wide, with long aisles of racks of cd’s and dvd’s. The racks themselves are low enough that you can easily see over them, and look across the store. There’s also a downstairs level, housing vinyl, that’s been the venue for many in-store performances, also captured in Missed Connections.
Let’s imagine you’re perusing the cd aisles for a particular album. The aisles aren’t too wide, so you would probably need to say “excuse me” when passing someone. That offers an opportunity to say something, although it’s a bit awkward. You might briefly make eye contact. If you happen to catch a glance of what another person is looking at, you could presumably strike up a conversation, given enough courage. If not, you can probably get a decent, though shallow, sense of someone’s musical interests, and pick up on other cues from their appearance and behaviour. Good fodder for conversation, better fodder for Missed Connections?
How does a space like Sonic Boom differ from, let’s say, a streetcar, and how does it affect the types of interactions or Missed Connections that might arise? I think the differences probably play out in a few relevant ways:
1. Institutions like record stores, libraries, or art galleries can act as a “foci” (Feld 1981) in which people conceivably come together around a common interest – music, books, art. Feld applies the definition of a foci a bit more tightly to organized activities (work, social groups, etc.), but I think the key is that you’re likely to have something in common with the other people, which may spark your interest in them, or act as an icebreaker.
1b. On the other hand, certain foci may appeal to particular types of people. While I try not to generalize too much, music nerds (a term of endearment, I assure you) aren’t necessarily the most gregarious bunch, at least when solo in their record store element. Record shopping tends towards being a relatively solitary activity (at least in my observation), though if someone has company, you wouldn’t want to interrupt them, either. I’ve always felt like people are doing their own thing, and while I’m perhaps just more shy than I’d like to believe, I imagine I’m not the only one who would be reluctant to start a conversation.
2. Activities like record shopping are usually engaged in during discretionary time. While you might urgently need to pick up a cd for some reason, you typically have a bit more time available to linger – and potentially to strike up a conversation, or just quietly notice the other person. This is less true on transit, in which there’s essentially a predetermined time of departure.
3. The density of the space matters. On transit, people keep to themselves mentally, because they’re limited in their ability to do so physically. Ignoring – or pretending to ignore – others is a way of dealing with the sometimes overwhelming number people that surround us (Goffman 1963). In less dense spaces, it’s possible that this tacit restriction could be relaxed a bit.
I think it’s worth looking into further, but I’m convinced (until I see enough evidence to the contrary) that physical space affects the manner in which Missed Connections develop, and are written about. Can you think of any specific ways that the public spaces through which you pass shape your interactions, or lack thereof, with strangers?
While I’m sad to see the Bloor Street location of Sonic Boom close (they’re relocating to space within Honest Ed’s, another favourite place of mine), it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all differently, the new space structures interactions and Missed Connections.
Feld, Scott L. 1981. “The Focused Organization of Social Ties.” The American Journal of Sociology 86(5):1015-1035.
Goffman, Erving. 1963. Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press.