I recently read distubing news: The Toronto Women's Bookstore is on the verge of closing, and is begging for help from its supporters. Just across the street (on the edge of the University of Toronto's downtown campus) a long-running scholarly used bookstore has closed its doors. This summer, our city's cultural community was stunned to hear that one of its best independent bookstores -- Pages, a haven for hard-to-find titles from small presses and uncoventional books on design, art, literature, culture -- was going out of business because it could no longer afford its rapidly-increasing lease.
I greatly fear that the retail book trade is becoming all about moving product, regardless of quality. In Canada, one chain -- Chapters Indigo -- controls something like 70% of the in-store retail book market. That kind of monopolistic concentration, plus the healthy discounts for consumers who use on-line bookretailers like Amazon.ca, appear to be driving the independent booksellers out of business. It's not that these new services don't offer some good books; it's more that they don't help readers distinguish between the diamonds and the rhinestones (other than offering "reviews" from readers, some of who may work for the publishers). Also, there's little distinction betwen the creative products (books, CDs, and DVDs) and the plethora ofassociated merchandise that's there to wring more money out of your wallet. Can't afford the time to read the book? Just wear the T-shirt!
For me, the independent bookstore was a kind of haven of the mind. It seemed a respectable occupation to take up in retirement from more demanding pursuits. I had little daydreams of a rambling, somewhat disordered storefront I could stock with poetry, fiction and biographies I actually liked myself. I could play old jazz and blues albums on the stereo, invest in a couple of cats, and have interesting conversations with other people who, for example, had actually read and could remember stories by Borges, passages of Les Chants de Maldoror, or moments from The Tale of Genji, identify which Kerouac character was based on Gary Snyder, or why The Story of O had the best literary style in sado-masochistic fiction.They'd read the complete works of Walter Mosley and Emily Dickinson too.
Now that place is vanishing in my fantasies of the future, along with the real places that are going under. Each independent bookstore gone bust is a loss to the community of readers and writers, because they were generally staffed by quirky people who had bought, borrowed or stolen books all their lives, who could tell you the ideal title or series to buy for your maiden aunt who only liked detective stores featuring pets, or could recommend Kathy Acker for your rebellious neo-punk niece who thought all fiction was, like, so boring.
I'll miss them.
Causes John Oughton Supports
PEN International, Amnesty International, League of Canadian Poets, POR AMOR, Greenpeace