Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mourning The Book Store

I dreamed of the old book store last night. The scene was murky, ill-defined but soaked in a dark nostalgia. Some aspect of the building seemed to still be operating as the outfit I remembered, and I was meeting friends and former employees there. But the book store was a ravaged scrap, a pathetic remainder of its former comfort and authority.

These dreams are an annual occurrence. Eight years ago at around this time I got a phone call from a friend who still worked at the store. The owner had announced closure.

The news came as a shock but not a surprise. The shop was the oldest independent book store in the city. Although I had moved on, I had been an employee there for seven years and knew that, so far as book stores went, this one was doing quite well. The accounts were all in the black and it was turning a profit, but a number of thorny issues were bearing unwanted fruit. And there was no doubt the struggle to stay competitive was taking a very real toll on the owner.

I visited the shop a few weeks after the announcement. When I walked through the doors, I stopped and stared. I was stunned. The shelves were already stripped. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. The FM tuner was silent. What was left of the stock had been moved in toward the centre. The shop was shutting down the way the human body shuts down: extremities first, every system struggling then collapsing, until only the central nervous system remained. Then that too shut down, and we were left with a corpse.

That corpse is now inhabited by a coffee franchise which shall remain nameless. It's good coffee, I buy it all the time — just not at that location. I get too many dreams.

One of the women at the local cafe tells me she senses I once built or managed a library in a former life. Well ... I won't speak of that which I do not know, but I can attest that libraries of any and every stripe have been of immense importance to me for as long as I can remember. My father had his library surrounding his desk in his office. I pored through many, many books there. My mother subscribed to a Time-Life "Great Artists" series that eventually filled a wardrobe she'd converted to a bookcase. When our village got its first library, I'd head there after school and study the spines of the books in every single section, until my mother phoned and asked the librarian to send me home for supper.

Book stores were different only insofar as they reflected the ideas of the moment — museums of the present, or the recent past. When I moved to Toronto, I wasn't so much a pub-crawler as I was a book store crawler. A guy could start at the University of Toronto Book Store, work his way up to Bloor Street where he could peruse through two dozen stores, all with their individual buyers who had their individual quirks when it came to choosing stock. My God, the visions I exposed myself to in a single day! I was particularly light-headed the day I covered comic books, Robert Mapplethorpe and the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake. My eyes felt like they were on fire.

Within that six-block run there are now only three survivors from those former days (at the moment, I can recall the names of 12 stores that have closed; I'm confident I'm missing some). Before I get too maudlin about “a way of life now lost to the tides of history” I will acknowledge that just about everything I encountered in those book stores can be found, with a little diligence, on the Internet. A person is right to point out that the stores may be gone, but the information is even more accessible now than it was back in the day. This isn't a “loss” on the same scale as, say, blacksmithing.

Fair enough. But the way I trawl for information on the web is directly informed by the way I trawled for it when I was a pup in a library. I used to be able to physically relocate from one repository to the next. As I walked, I could prepare myself for the next location. Here might be the holy; across the street might be the profane. Those few steps afforded me the chance to prepare my heart. What do we miss when those steps between those sanctuaries and shrines — when the physical experiences of encountering information, knowledge and wisdom — are no longer available to us?

In passing: I see my favourite book store in San Francisco — A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Books — closed its doors last summer.


tpr said...

WP, thank you for this post.

I mourn the impersonalization of high-tech information delivery. And I mourn the independence granted by physical books.

One of my favourite paperback memories involves sitting in a laundromat with my buddies in a small northern bush town, washing two weeks worth of the Canadian wilderness out of my canvas work clothes. There was no need to connect to some expensive urban infrastructure, no need to keep a hawk eye lest someone swipe the "device" and no fear about dropping it.

I suppose the new Rome has its Alexandrias too.

DarkoV said...

As I walked, I could prepare myself for the next location. Here might be the holy; across the street might be the profane...

I don't know about you WP, but I can vouch that physically searching for books at bookstores as opposed to seating/keypunching for books on the Internet also was healthier for the heart and the stomach. I always attributed my slim 'n trim days to the fact that I was out there in the physical world hunting down books and records whereas now, due to the passing of so many eclectic places (your passages about the death of your bookstore brought back memories of the late great Third Street Jazz store in Philly run by an ex-attorney), physical exertion is minimal and the concept of discovery is merely self-delusional. Maybe I'm just getting old and cranky.

Scott said...

Ugh. I wish I hadn't read this. ;)

Yours is a skilled recollection of one of the darker chapters in my life. Those last three months at the bookstore were painful indeed, and I didn't even realize how much so until years later. In this case, time did not heal those wounds.

On the plus side, Nicholas Hoare is still a lovely (if sparse) environment and the Book City chain has thrived in recent years. Even Chapters became less odious once Indigo swallowed them up. There's still some hope.

DarkoV said...

WP, being a published author and all automatically makes you an expert in things of whcih you may not have been aware your are now expected to be an expert of.

As an example, in this post you wrote "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Books". I've noticed other writers also writing "Well-Lighted". Is Well-lit no longer appropriate (if it ever was)? Or is it a writing-by-qty-of-letters thing? The more letters one uses the weightier the tome.

Just wondering, as each time I see Well-Lighted, I pause in my reading to do a harumph! and wonder why the extra letters of Lighted v. Lit were needed. This harumph! stoppage hiccups the Flow of Reading. This obviously increases my reading time while decreasing my reading speed, thereby reducing the amount of books I'll be able to read in my ever-decreasing window of reading ooportunity.

Just wondering.

Whisky Prajer said...

"Well-Lighted" was appropriate in this case, because it is a direct reference to Ernest Hemingway's exemplary short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - I thought your comparison to an excellent record store was apt. I was *so* much more likely to discover new music in a quality record store than I am clicking through eMusic, or any other on-line store. Similarly, books. Not so many impulse purchases on-line, as when I'm browsing in an actual store.

Scott - there really was no way a person could prepare for the closure of that store. I'm still taken aback at how traumatic it was to witness its final days.

TPR - God love the paperback, my candidate for the best invention of the 20th Century. Well ... next to penicillin. Maybe.