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Tuesday 15 May 2012

Culture: The Passing of Great Pleasures

(With apologies: The Dismal Science is supposed to be Economics. But we all need the occasional break from psychology too. This is one of mine.)
Goodbye old friend.

Several years ago my favourite bookstore in Vancouver, Duthie’s, went out of business. It had been shrinking for some time, shedding outlets until a single one remained on West Fourth. Then it was gone.

Book Warehouse stepped into the pole position. And now it too is selling off its stock and will shortly be gone. This leaves a few small struggling independents and the book megastore chain Chapters/Indigo, which is slowly but steadily morphing into what appears to be a candle-and-knickknack store. Given that its US equivalent Borders is now gone, one wonders how long Chapters has.

As the tide has receded, the once also-ran outlets at airports have become some of the best bookshops – not because they have improved, but because they still exist.

Everyone has their own passions. Some, inexplicably, can spend years of their lives watching major league sports on television. For me, wandering through bookstores has been a mainstay. A lazy urban walk seems incomplete without a side trip into the stacks.

The feeling of loss would be more pure if I wasn’t complicit in the execution of my old friends. I too have succumbed to Amazon, and have felt the illicit joy of receiving one of their shipments. I try to buy at real bookshops when I can, but it’s a losing battle. As the stores shrink, it gets harder and harder to find anything that I want, and Amazon has it all.

I imagine that many of us secretly view shopping on Amazon as second- or third-best. What we really want is to be set loose in one of their cavernous book distribution centres with a bag of sandwiches. Or a sleeping bag.

I mentioned the passing of bookstores to a client a few weeks ago and he said “It’s the record stores I miss.” He’s right. They provided another great thing to do on an afternoon. The Canadian Mint apparently offers tours, but why bother? Every dollar is like every other. In a book or record store you have real wealth – every cover encloses a different world, and you can have any of them if you want it.

The other day I was shopping for a birthday present and thought I’d buy a recently-released CD. I wondered if this was a good idea – who buys CDs any more? But I thought it would be likely a farewell experience; perhaps the last CD I would ever buy.

Then I discovered the problem. Where would I find it? The main record store downtown just closed. I checked the website of the mall a few subway stops away. It no longer has a record store. Then I remembered the Best Buy a few blocks away. Sometime when I wasn’t paying attention they stopped selling CDs. I stopped into London Drugs, our local pharmacy-and-everything-else chain. The guy in electronics had his red-sticker gun out discounting the last of their stock.

If London Drugs doesn’t sell CDs, they effectively no longer exist.

A few years ago The Economist wrote about a focus group that EMI in Britain had run, asking youth about their listening habits. As thanks for participating, the company had laid out a table with CDs; people were welcome to take as many as they wanted. No one took any. That taught the company more than anything else: the clock was definitely ticking on that end of the business.

So no more bookstores. No more record shops. What next? A friend reports that he buys his clothes online, which is just fine with me; I’ve never liked clothing stores. With the advent of Kobos, Kindles, and iPads, books themselves may be endangered – the look, the feel, the smell. They would be deeply missed.

The trees are still there, mostly. The oceans, and a few of the fish. The mountains that never contained coal or copper. But in an age of wealth and supposed advance, it seems ironic that many of the greatest pleasures are being phased out. Or is that a sign of codger-hood approaching? “Why son, I remember when passenger trains …”

I like passenger trains. And books. And record stores. And the outdoors. As I write this it is sunny outside. Time to get out in it.

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