Afternoon UPDATE — David replies to my reply here.
David Warren writes:
Steven Temple Books began a few blocks east, at street level. Four decades have suddenly passed. I think this has been his fourth location, as rising rents have pushed him westward ho, ever closer to the sunset. His specialties have long been Canadiana, and modern first editions. Neither is my bag, especially, but from his general stock in classics, philosophy, modern literature at large, travels and topography, I have always found prizes. One could spend hours making discoveries in any one section — at intervals dragged out on the sidewalk when Steve wants company for a smoking break.
He will retreat to Welland, Ontario, pension-free and laden with debt as all other retiring booksellers, and no doubt continue selling books through Abe & the Internet; but it will not be anything like the same. It will instead be “books for collectors.” (Spit.) It was that general stock — the presence of books for actual reading, including the obscure and the hard to find — that made second-hand bookstores what they were through the last many centuries. They were the meetingplaces of the literate — their agora, market and trading ground. In the strangest city, one would find such a bookstore, and it would be like an embassy from home.
I owe much of what passes for my education to one particular second hand bookstore in Hamilton.
My mother would try not to roll her eyes when I returned from yet another all-afternoon excursion with two or three white plastic shopping bags full of dusty, smelly paperbacks.
The closing of yet another independent Toronto bookstore never fails to prompt meditations such as David’s, although they are rarely as well written.
However, the sad fact is that most of these indie booksellers were well-meaning book lovers but terrible businessmen, with (as David notes in his piece) crusty, eccentric personalities who not-so-secretly didn’t like seeing their precious babies being carted off in your unworthy mitts.
At least 20 years ago now, one iconic bookstore just north of Yonge and Bloor shut its doors, at the start of the Chapters/Indigo invasion.
I think it was Kevin Connolly, but anyway, some such young whippersnapper dared to counter the generalized wailing and gnashing of the city’s self-appointed elites.
He pointed out the truth: that the staff had been petulant; the inventory uneven and pedestrian; the music that classical stuff which urban planners prescribe to keep hoodlums from crossing the threshold.
The owner’s so-called “expertise in Canadiana” didn’t extend to any authors (like us, then) under the age of 40.
I even think he might have written — or did I dream it? — something like: “If you can’t compete, then it’s time to go out of business.”
Now, my complaints about Chapters/Indigo are too numerous to list here.
However, I don’t share David’s very Catholic nostalgia (although strictly speaking, it isn’t “nostalgia” if you weren’t there…) for feudalism and guilds and the small and (occasionally, if you’re very lucky) charming.
I want what I want when I want it, at a reasonable price, with the least friction possible.
I don’t care to hear an audible “sniff” when I interrupt a shopkeeper’s fourth tea break of the day to ask a “stupid” question.
And failure gives me a rash, and is possibly contagious. I simply can’t bear to patronize shops of any sort that are so “authentic” and “organic” that the joint is falling apart or they keep having to move because they can’t afford the rent.
For all their snobbish sentimentality about Hemingway’s “clean, well lighted place,” too many indie bookshops are neither.
But Chapters is.So, in its way, is the internet — which is also the new second-hand-bookshop.
I’m as brokenhearted as anyone, sometimes more so, when one of my old haunts goes out of business.
But if any industry deserves to die, it’s traditional book publishing, which has been running on fumes of glamor and nostalgia for a few generations at least.