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Arts and Culture

A Book Lover's Lament

The pleasures of roaming a small bookshop, the joy of holding a bound tome. Fading fast?

By Rafe Mair 16 May 2011 |

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here.

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Mair's lair: The Ambleside Book Barn in West Vancouver.

Whither books?

Are they doomed to be curiosities on an antique table, along with coal oil lamps and ear trumpets?

They well might be, with the advent of the e-book accessing hundreds of thousands of books -- and cheaply. Most classics of yesteryear are in the public domain, and will all be available online.

The Gutenberg press arrived in 1450 and became a brilliant catalyst to the Renaissance and the Reformation, giving a boost for the former and being the principal catalyst of the latter. It was the biggest boon to communications in history prior to the arrival of the computer. Prior to it, communication in any real sense rested with those who could read and write, which meant the upper class and especially the church. (The phrase "benefit of clergy" meant someone who was a priest, thus able to read and write.)

No one would dare guess how much death and destruction resulted from the Reformation and the backlash against it. Indeed, it continues today, where the existing religion bans birth control methods, whether to limit families or avoid AIDS, or both.

Who would dare hazard a guess as to how many books have been published since 1450, and how many words have been read by how many people?

I grew up in a family of readers, especially my mother. Mom read to me and then with me, and whether by design or accident, she always had good reading material around the house. I became a reader, then buyer, of books, so that Wendy and I have over 2,000 books in our small townhouse.

I'm not well read, because my reading concentrates on personal passions, not on what would make me a well-rounded reader. I tend to history, politics, international affairs and biographies. Wendy does social issues and reads fiction, which I only do rarely. I should read more fiction, and I know it. I keep up on social issues by listening to her. We talk books a lot.

I love books for their own sake. I like the heft and feel. I love the look of them and rejoice in their possession, even if they remain unread for quite a time. In that respect, they're like a stamp collection -- you don't have to see them to revel in their ownership.

I worry for the bookseller. In that regard, I'm a Luddite wishing to destroy the big time publishers and the computer fiends that supply them. And I'll be no more successful than those who smashed the machines of the Industrial Revolution.

Era of the e-book

The e-book has much going for it. The supply of books is infinite. It is cheap, and everyday a little better looking. It's convenient, especially if you travel as we do.

The e-book is hurting publishers, hence booksellers. Why would writers go to a publisher when they can do it themselves? Self-publishing or publishing on the Internet gets easier every day. I myself am considering going online for a book on religion coming out of my TV series, The Search.

My tears -- and they are copious -- are for the small bookseller. I have two in mind -- Deb McVittie's 32 Books in Edgemont Village, North Vancouver (new books) and Scott Akin at the Ambleside Book Barn in Ambleside, West Vancouver (used).

My habit is to case Chapters Indigo and take my selections to 32 Books for ordering, if they're not in stock, which they often are.

The big sellers are in deep doo-doo. Borders is bust, which I saw coming as they closed down their London stores last year. Waterstones, the British giant that bought up so many other stores, including the sacred Hatchards on Piccadilly, over the past few years, has been closing many branches. Barnes and Noble is having huge sales and is into e-books.

What all this holds in store for and the locally owned remains to be seen. As we law students used to say when we didn't know the answer, "the situation is in a state of flux."

Bookstore as communal beacon

It does no good to gnash one's teeth and even less to pretend, as radio lovers did with television, that the crisis will go away. It won't, if only because there's a new generation out there that was born into the digital world and has no sense of nostalgia for days past. Moreover, they can read off a screen, something us old-timers have trouble with. I, for example, must print out my writings and edit hard copy. (Shush up -- I know that my editing still leaves much more to be done.)

Movie rentals are losing out to the Internet, as are compact discs. CD stores remain, but they're dying in the sea of bullets shot by iPods. My favourite CD shop in London, HMV on Oxford Street (the eastern one) offers less and less. Where I once bought several CDs each trip, I now audit what's there and download them at 99 cents each, after I get home, rather than pay $15-20 per album with songs I don't want or already have.

In all this pessimism, I hold out a ray of hope for the small bookstore, new and used, for they are more than just stores. In the same way that the technology has long been there to buy groceries online, people like markets. They love to congregate, window shop and have coffee and muffins. They go to many stores to meet friends and talk with the shopkeeper. That is especially so with bookstores.

I go to Deb at 32 Books and Scott at the Ambleside Book Barn as a matter of personal policy; I shop independent stores wherever I can and for whatever I want.

That's because I don't like any large business that has squeezed out the little guy, whether he/she be a butcher, baker, candlestick maker or small book vendor. One of the reasons is that I quickly get to know the owner and staff and can seek their advice or, as sometimes happens, I bring them up-to-date on books of my genre of choice. I don't give a rat's hindquarters for Chapters Indigo. I recall with great pleasure the late Bill Duthies place on Robson at Hornby, with his book of remainders a few blocks west. Sadly, the one on 4th Avenue has also fallen to the despicable Chapters Indigo and other cannibals.

Small bookstores feel good and look good. They have lots of places to sit down. Big stores fear that people sitting don't buy -- Deb and Scott don't feel that way, but know that for a customer to buy that which he'd never heard about, he must browse. He wants to feel the texture, and if it's a used book, see who used to own it and when -- and speculate why he parted with it. (If you want to see my kind on the silver screen, get 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judy Dench.)

An admitted addiction

Deb talks about her place in the community, her dealing with charities, and bringing authors in for chats with customers. She expects those who work with her read the latest books, so they can converse with customers from a knowledge base.

Scott and his family know their books, too. They have a large store, which is bright and breezy. (I must confess that of the hundreds of used books I've bought, only once I got a rare book at a cheap rate by mistake. Used book folks know their books, and what they're worth -- my only "victory" was a first edition Roderick Haig-Brown for NZ$10 in Auckland.)

There is usually an element of surprise at Deb's or Scott's store; you see a book you've forgotten, or perhaps a book that simply looks like a hell of a good read. I'm not a book buyer in that I go into a bookstore to simply browse -- I'm a bookaholic who rarely leaves without what I feel are damned good bargain(s) under my arm.

Customers in small bookstores are nicer than in the giant stores, or they certainly seem that way. Deb and Scott's places are fun to be in, as are the ones I know in Staffa and Mull (Inner Hebrides) Stromness (Orkney), Elliot Bay in Seattle, the matchless Strand in New York, and one in Budapest where somehow, with only 50 or so English language books, I managed to buy two.                

Recently, Wendy asked if I would drop by 32 Books, which was holding a book for her. "This doesn't mean you must buy a book just because you're there," she said.

And I didn't. I bought two!

Will the new digital age be the death knell of the small bookstore? It will be tough.

The small stores will have to make many adjustments and, indeed, carry e-books themselves. They will have to be innovative and find novel yet inexpensive ways to advertise their wares.

It's tough now, and will get a hell of a lot tougher.

Deb and Scott have something Chapters Indigo doesn't: a deep love for books, and for people that want them in places where a Labrador sleeps in one of the armchairs, as in 32 Books, or where there's a saddle and other country items to sit on, as in the Ambleside Book Barn.

Let me add this postscript. There are many small bookstores and/or used bookstores near you. Small town B.C. always has a "real" bookstore. I've told you about our places, but there is an abundance of like establishments in our province, and they will survive if you help them.

It will make both you and the proprietor much happier than either of you were before you came in.  [Tyee]

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