Thursday, April 26, 2012

Attack of the Killer Bookstores!

The empty business space at 2964 Bloor Street W is awaiting its next occupant, whoever that that may be, there’s no sign as of yet, both literally and figuratively speaking, only row after row of dingy, yellowed pages of old newspapers taped up on the insides of the windows to block any sight into the unit. Old news covering up an empty present. Taped in front of the newspapers are a few single sheet’s with a goodbye message written in large font and multiple exclamation points. Something like, “Thanks for the memories!!!” A brief goodbye to all and no one in particular.

Once this limbo period is over and a new tenant sets up shop, my scorn will be directed to a tangible enemy, my anger focused, because you and me both know it will be a nail salon or a Tim Horton’s, or a Second Cup, or a Starbuck’s. Surely nothing of much substance…a wicker basket store, or a mattress emporium; or a novelty store like Hell Toupee, or Bong Voyage. Fuck me sideways.

The place I’m referring to is, of course, The Book Mark; Toronto’s oldest independent bookstore. In the black since 1965 and now an empty unit. Already old news, too, but what else would you expect? There’s record breaking temperatures and daily instalments of trial porn to take up ink and web space, (in the GTA, it was the Shafia trial, currently it is the Tori Stafford trial, to give you a frame of reference).

Give us beans! Give us cell-phones! Give us the ability to summarize our current thoughts in 140 characters or less and electronically transfer them, in pixelated codes onto screens, accessible to the masses at the touch of a button. Yes! Nothing but Yeses! We’re making a connection here. I can feel it!

According to an article I read in The Star, the Book Mark ultimately had to shut their doors because of a crushing rent increase--around 25% for the bean counters out there. I also spoke with who I presumed was the owner shortly before they closed for good and she confirmed as much. Now it’s gone. Thanks for the memories. The rent increases are a common theme. Aside from The Book Mark, the other independent store up the street in the Bloor West Village, Book City, is now in the process of closing. A rent increase is also cited. The For Lease sign is up as well as signs offering 40% off most books. The out of business sale has been going on for over a month now and there’s not much left except receding shelves with bargain bin 1980’s hardcover books about 16th century Italian castles. In Italian. Obviously, the book business has been in a precarious state for many years and it appears as though the rent increases proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That damn camel couldn’t take all the extra $20 bills stacked upon his hump.

There’s something sad about a store that you’ve frequented for years closing down. Any future memories knocked off the table by the careless swipe of a God’s hand. No one’s ever happy about it, and we all collectively sigh, accord the tragedy a moment of thoughtful remorse, and resolve to get on with things. “Such a shame, really,”… or…”I wish I bought more books,”…they say. It’s true. I heard two strangers conversing as I walked by. But what can you do, really? One person is so powerless to obstruct powerful business forces, we just get swept up with the wave and our attention is buoyed by another distraction. Life goes on, as it always seems to do.

When an ethereal magical place like a bookstore closes down, a little piece of your soul dies along with it. All of these wonderful stories and facts that self-reflect the human experience back at us. We gaze into the mirror of our collective selves dumbfounded with astonishment. Is this what we’re really like? A frame of reference develops from which we can form sound judgements. I’m not in Afghanistan or Iraq but I can be taken there and learn more about the conflict by reading an embedded journalists account than I would by reading the scroll at the bottom of CNN. A bookstore radiates and glows, a pulsating plasma orb, breathing life and illuminating the dank crevices burrowed deep within each of us. A good book informs us, gives us a chance to glean an understanding out of the madness and fury of the noise of modern existence. It’s the closest thing we have to magic, to time travel. Hell, it is time travel. And now time travel is going out of business? Now it has to diversify to stay in the game?

Chapters now gives over a sizeable chunk of it’s floor space to knick-knacky type stuff, an array of auxiliary crap like coffee, and decorative picture frames. I don’t blame the Chapters brass, they gotta do what they gotta do to survive. If staying in business means selling canned soup, then so be it. But still, it’s strange to go to the pet store and buy a case of beer; it’s a desperate move.

If it’s done properly, the written word can be the most electrifying and important cultural artifact we have. All those TV shows, those movies you love, from blockbuster Hollywood schlock like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, The Notebook, Harry Potter, down to scantly viewed indie gems, originate in book form. That’s where it all fucking comes from, man. Oh, you like the movie American Psycho--Book! Oh, you like Brokeback Mountain--Book! Oh, you like The Shining--Book! Oh, you like Trainspotting--Book!

Books are the endless well from which we draw inspiration as a culture. The human imagination will always be the most valuable, truly renewable resource and it‘s being taken for granted. Do you understand the words coming out of my mouth!?

A common complaint in the death of independent stores is that all the leftover business and local culture is funnelled into the evil corporations and they’re able to further monopolize the business and mould it into devious shapes. But how can you hate Chapters with a burning passion? The book business is so fragile that one imagines Chapters could be next in line to shackle up their doors. It’s just a BIG independent store. It’s not like I can’t get any book I’ve wanted to, no matter what the subject matter (and as you can imagine, my literary interests do not lean towards Danielle Steele). In fact, I’ve had to go to Chapters to order certain books because the independent stores can’t even order them from their suppliers, never mind actually having them in stock. I used to take that hit like a champ. For example: the book I really want is in stock at Chapters but I’ll still order it from the independent store and wait 1-2 weeks to, in my own little way, support the team. In the last year, I’ve simply started going over to Chapters to order my books because it is, and I hate to say it…more fun…in a sad way…a sad humans-are-useless-in-a-high-tech-world kind of way. The people at Book City and The Book Mark had antiquated computers and it took them forever to find the book I was looking for. If there was, by chance, a nice looking woman behind the counter then I would go back, but the retail book world is full of Hayden Planetarium’s for the most part.

Chapters has multiple docking stations with computers so that you can type up the book you want to buy and see if any copies are in the store. If the book isn’t in stock you can order it by following the few easy steps until finally a green slip is printed out which you take to the cash register and prepay or pay at the kiosk with a credit card. 1-2 weeks later you get your option of a call or an email notifying the book’s safe arrival. Humans are erased from the equation. But, one thing that annoys the ever-living shit out of me at Chapters is how prevalent the staff is. It’s like vacationing in Mexico. They’re always wandering around without seemingly much to do except engage customers in queries. “Did you find what you were looking for?” Clearly, I’m walking towards one of the computers to find what I’m looking for. I don’t need you! As soon as I get ten feet into enemy territory and dart off in the direction of the first available computer, without fail a peppy employee approaches and asks if I need help. The question is just plain weirdly ambiguous. I can’t help but think they’re asking me something deeply philosophical, or at the very least, medically inquisitive… “Do you need help with something?” Lady, do you have a few hours?

It would seem obvious that if I’m plopping down my bag at the docking station to search for a book, then I don’t need to be asked if I need help. Miss, the computer is going to help me. Why do businesses insist on approaching the customer (especially when there are computers to do helping?) Let us come to you. I’ll ask you when I need help. It’s very condescending when you get down to it. We, the customers, are so forlorn and incompetent, like that as soon as we enter a store we must immediately be offered professional help.

It will be interesting to see how the profits are divided when they figure out the eside of things. This is a crucial time in the fledgling ebook industry, the pieces are falling but it’s tough to make out just what kind of puzzle it will be. The book world, for the most part, has always had an all access code for unlimited downloading: the library card. The maelstrom of the book world must adapt like any other business. Business evolution is such a relentlessly turbulent beast, but it’s always moving forward, incapable of pithy human considerations, onward to conquer all that is feasible, gobble it all up, even as the troops come out of the trenches and are mowed down. Human life is the collateral damage of progress. It’s a capitalist clusterfuck. If you want to play around the pool you’re going to get wet. So instead of trying to save the independent bookstores, why don’t they adapt? Small bookstores should think creatively to stay afloat: hold readings, art events--switch it up. Here’s an idea for the struggling independent bookstores: One night a week hire attractive young women to work cash and stock shelves--and here’s the kicker--they must dress like librarians…in a porno. Miniskirt, glasses, cleavage--turning sin into sales!

These shops should participate more in the community. I mean, why do people even go to independent stores in the first place? In past generations people would flock to the independent stores because of the refined selection they offered that was unavailable at the mass market locations. But there has been no book I’ve ordered in the last five years that Book City had that Chapters didn’t. The populace will not support independent stores just for the sake of supporting independent stores. They have to offer up something different, some other angle. At this point, most are just small scale Chapter’s--of course they’re destined to the wastelands. When small companies clone the big boys it doesn’t usually work. It’s a dog shit eat dog shit world. If you’re not offering up something the bigger guys aren’t than prepare to be squashed like a bug in the ground. A little shop can’t compete with multiple docking hubs!

One day, in the not so distant future, our parents will upload all of the necessary written information to be a successful adult from into their newborns’ fragile egg-shell brains, like synching an ipod (technologists still have to conduct further research because they don‘t quite know where the usb cables will connect to in humans, but one can narrow it down to a few ports).

Parents won’t have to even bother reading to their children at night (raising kids is sooo boring, I know) or even encouraging them to read on their own. Consider the benefits of the free time: More laundry can get done. More status updates to be posted while the infant sleeps peacefully in it’s crib, dreaming baby babble dreams of nanotechnology and dematerialization and iHELMETS and iFAMILIES.

Our individual lives are passing comets in the night sky; spotlights faintly illuminating a vacuous spaceland for a handful of awestruck spectators to bear witness to all of it’s ragged glory, but the cold hard destiny is that life passes as soon as it is created. Your life is a lighter without any juice. A useless spark and then hello darkness. It’s Chapter’s Eleven. So why are you reading this?

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