Saturday, October 13, 2012

Closing the book on my favourite bookstore

Appropriately for the times, I learned last week on Facebook that my favourite book store Greenwoods (I would post a link to the site but it will soon also be coming down so what's the point) is closing at the end of this week. According the owner, this is due to the sudden death of her co-owner brother but in some ways is due to the economics of the independent book store.

20 years ago when I moved here, I quickly discovered this bookstore.  At that time it anchored "The Avenue".  It was situated in a early 20th century brick building occupying the main floor and the basement.  It had a huge selection of books.  I like history and I usually headed straight down to the basement where the history section rarely leaving without buying something.  In the 1990s, it was usually packed on the Saturdays or Sundays where we usually visited.  It was at one point voted the best bookstore in Canada.

Time was not kind to Greenwoods.  In the late 1990s multiple Chapters outlets opened in the city including one down the street from them.  In 2001, their lease expired and they moved two blocks off the avenue into a smaller store in a strip mall.  Their old site was unable to find a tenant for at least two years after sitting empty like a missing tooth on The Avenue.  (This demonstrates the stupidity of the commercial real estate industry which would rather allow a building to sit empty than charge tenants a rent they can afford.)  In it's new location we visited much less frequently but still bought most of our books there.  Sometimes when I saw book I wanted based on a book review, I would order it from them.  A few times I even found a book in Chapters that I liked and got them to order it for me.

About a year ago, Greenwoods moved back to The Avenue into an old building albeit one smaller than their original building.  It seemed as if the universe had been restored.  Sadly the last time we were in, we noticed that there were hardly any books on the shelves.  My wife asked why and an employee said that one of the owners had died and everything was in limbo for a while.  And this week the other shoe dropped.

There are of course a number of reasons why the independent book stores are now going out of business.  These include the big box bookstores like Chapters (now Chapters-Indigo having merged with another big box bookstore).  I have never liked Chapters; I feel that they regard books as a commodity rather than as something worthy of reverence.  On-line sellers like Amazon have played a role and I am guilty of ordering books from Amazon or Chapters-Indigo on-line, something I justify because I usually use gift cards I get for completing on-line marketing surveys.  I even buy books from Costco.  E-books have been blamed and there may be some truth to this.  E-books of course can't safely be taken to the beach or read in the bath (something I have never done), plus of course a book doesn't need batteries or adapters when travelling, plus you can sit or step on a book without damaging it much.  It has been suggested on the other hand that things like cheap books from Big Box stores, on-line and e books may actually make books more accessible.  I certainly get the impression that people read less, there are 100 TV channels, movies for rent, video games and the internet  (where I am wasting time right now when I could be reading a book).

I have developed a relationship with books that may border on pathological.  I grew up in the 1960s in a 3 fuzzy black and white channel universe, and where it seemed to rain a lot which meant I remembered reading a lot.  My mother read to us every afternoon before I went to school but on completing Grade I, she told me that I now knew how to read and she would not longer read to me any more.  I embraced books enthusiastically.  A visit to the Public Library was a weekly event in our family.  I read through Enid Blyton and the Hardy Boys plus heavier fare.  My teachers always allowed us to read from the class library when we finished our classwork, this lead me to complete my work quickly so that I could have 10-15 minutes reading a book from the back of the classroom.  A good book has gotten me through many rainy days, waits and long journeys.

Our house was filled with books.  At that time if you joined the Book of the Month club, you got 4-5 free books if you agreed to buy a certain number.  My father had this scam figured out. If you bought the minimum number of books then quit, the average price per book would be quite low.  He would then rejoin either under his own name or under one of our names.  We acquired a considerable home library in that fashion, supplemented by paperbacks my parents bought a church rummage sales.  My father has, of course, never thrown away a book, although I notice every time I visit he is now trying to pawn 2-3 off on me.

I first learned the charm of book stores as a teenager visiting Munro's then located across the street from the Public Library.  I spent many hours browsing and not buying much there.  Munro's now sits in a magnificent restored bank building in the heart of the tourist district and I can never visit Victoria without visiting (and usually buying a book).  There is just the charm of seeing a book that might interest me, picking it up, flipping through the pages, looking at the illustrations, putting it down and moving on to the next book.  Something I can spend hours on.  Every city it seemed had it's own favourite book store like  Duthies in Vancouver (now gone for many years), and Greenwoods in Edmonton, newly deceased.  A visit to a book store is often one of the first things I do on visiting a new city.  Sometimes a book is a souvenir of where I have been like the History of Poland, I bought in the English language book store in Warsaw (and still haven't got around to reading yet).

Used book stores, I have never really gotten an appreciation for.  To me they appear sad places, almost orphanages of unwanted books, the hard covers bravely trying to look new in their wrinkled dust jackets.  I sometimes bring books I no longer want to our local used book store.  When going on a long journey I often buy used paper backs which I shed as I finish them.

So many things I had come to accept as being there have gone, favourite restaurants, stores and coffee shops.  I adapt, I go elsewhere develop new favourites, new interests.   We are fortunate to have another very good independent book store whose life may be prolonged by the death of its independent competitor. I will go there and after a few visits won't feel dirty or unfaithful.  

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