Tuesday, February 24, 2009

David Mirvish Books

I usually find time once a month to check in on an independent book store and peruse its wares. For the last three months each establishment I've visited has informed me of its imminent closure. So far these places have all been mediocre shops where I had to dig deep to find something I cared to take home with me. But yesterday the shop in question was David Mirvish Books.

If I'd known, I would have steered clear of it: a closing book store is a thoroughly depressing experience, and I've lost the carrion-cleaning impulse of my youth.

When it was fully stocked David Mirvish Books was a gorgeous space to browse around in. It had three levels; the upper and lower floors were accessible and visible to the main floor, which had a towering ceiling and an abundance of natural light. The place was loaded with coffee-table books displayed with their faces out. The building's location was prime -- snug inside Toronto's Annex, next to Honest Ed's and an easy walk from Kensington Village. When I lived on Brunswick Avenue a typical Saturday or Sunday would start with a meet-and-browse at DM's, followed by an early lunch at one of the Annex cafes or bistros.

Book stores and libraries are sacred spaces to me. There have been times in my life when I walked into a library and wondered if what I was about to encounter would precipitate a nervous breakdown or the rediscovery of my soul -- or both. As we try to gauge the sea-change sweeping over the written word and its dispensers it's tempting to have a go at the Emersonian approach -- "Why shouldn't it be a library purely of light and mind?" Another more common temptation is to equate the approaching digital library with the historical change from horse-and-buggy to horseless carriage.

I am not immune to the appeal of that last metaphor. But speaking as a thoroughly digitized Mennonite, the generation that fully embraced the utility and pleasures of the horseless carriage sacrificed a hell of a lot more than simple locomotion up a grassy hill and through the big woods. So too the bookstore and, eventually, the library. It's fine to greet the era of easy access to volumes of information, aesthetics and thought. And it may well be that book stores and libraries will become as quaint a memory as the hot-stove and cracker-barrel. But for now they remain precious public spaces I hate to see shuttered and abandoned.

Photos cadged from here and here.


DarkoV said...

Truly a sad state of affairs, Mr. WP.
I was thinking about Amazon's Kindle II launch and initially being both repelled and "bling-bling" attracted by the thinness and the internal heft of their offering.
Will the Kindle II and Sony's and most probably Dell and Apple's launches of e-books be the death knell of bookstores or the wheat-chaff separator?

What with the economic melt-down that all but seems guaranteed to be with us for the next 18-24 months, who would spend money on books? But then, who would spend it on the Kindle II? An initial $359 to plunk down and then $10 or more for each book...that you never really "own" but really "borrow" from Amazon. What if Amazon tanks (it's not unthinkable, considering all the of the blue-chip companies that have)? What happens to your "books"? What happens if the Kindle II breaks down or needs a battery ..and Amazon tanks? Now, if you bought the Kindle II and only used it for books you want to read and then discard, I think the Kindle II sort of works. You buy the hard copy of books by your favorite authors that you want to actually possess and Kindle the ones that you simply want to read.
But, lending a Kindle-ized book to a friend means giving them the Kindle as well; you can't physically keep your Kindle and lend them a book on your Kindle. NO file-sharing is allowed. So, if you are not a solitary reader, how is Kindle cheaper? The only thing Kindle helps you with is decreasing your future book inventory, if you happen to be a book sharer.
This is why I think the David Mirvish type bookstore still has a chance if it is adequately funded now to get through these tough times. I'm optimistic that these types of bookstores will return once the current panic has dissapated. It's truly a shame that the David Mirvish Bookstores of this world can;t hang on for a bit longer...but I think they'll be back.

As far as the Kindle II? Boy, am I tempted (especially after talking to a friend who received one in December)...but my inventory of un-read books is still high and buying into a Kindle still means buying into a company that may not be around to feed and support that habit.

Your thoughts, sir.

Whisky Prajer said...

I have to admit my first glance at the K2 had me smitten. Thankfully, the CRTC's prudish approach to content-control (we can't get Kindle documents here) prompted me to take a closer look at the trusses that Amazon and Apple would fit for their eager, similarly tech-smitten customers. Amazon's conditions strike me as absurd, especially if the consumer considers how young the platform and technology are. Never mind vulnerability: as my techie brother has said from day one, "You can still read a book you dropped in a puddle."

My preferred digital format for reading material is the PDF. If Sony or Dell produced a light unit that allowed for some user interface (text search, text selection/highlighting, user footnotes, etc.) I'd bite. I would use a unit like that to store my old university textbooks, most of which fall into public domain anyway (Plato, Shakespeare, etc.). There are two shelves in our house that would be freed up to store more current stuff if this device were on offer. Since Amazon and Apple seem determined to control content I doubt we'll see such innovations coming from them.

PDFs are also useful for book previews, but then publishers probably shouldn't take too much stock in my consumption habits. When it comes to music, if I really like what I've downloaded from iTunes or eMusic I buy the CD, too. If I were the norm, the music biz would be experiencing a boom beyond anything they enjoyed during the 60s, 70s and 80s.

David Mirvish's closure really caught me off-guard, because I would think Mirvish has the money (from numerous other ventures) to keep it open. It has me wondering if books can be sold in any other venue besides the internet, or those huge "extreme-value" remainder barns. Remainders, of course, are publishers' final resort to get a few nickels for expired product. If most of the "units" publishers are selling these days are remainders, well ... they're obviously in big trouble. This is one of the more interesting accounts of book publishing's current malaise. The writer, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, more or less says that digital isn't the death-knell for publishing so much as the big corporate mergers of the 80s were. Suddenly publishers who had been pleased with a five-percent profit margin were required to bump that up to a more respectable double-digit -- preferably no lower than 25.

I'll be especially curious to see how content changes, with writing sliding rapidly into the not-for-profit sector. It would be a shame to see books -- or written content, period -- become a specialized ghetto.