Capitalism in Vancouver is an especially cruel mistress—by my last count there are only four business models left in this town that are guaranteed to turn a profit: sushi restaurant, grow-op, yoga gear supplier and being Bob Rennie.
So in a city where every day businesses (and individuals) fail and fall through the cracks, it’s not necessarily obvious why Vancouverites should care that their independent bookstores are dying. The story generally goes that there are a tiny handful of people for whom the need to save these stores is a given, an article of faith; the rest of the population doesn’t particularly care, reads only a book or two a year anyway and doesn’t mind picking them up at a big-chain ‘bookstore’ that specializes in aromatherapy and exercise balls.
I’ve never been fully convinced of this pessimistic scenario. I’m constantly hearing about how nobody reads anymore, and yet everywhere I go people are reading. Every day, newspapers paint the picture of book-reading as a fringe activity, while their business pages describe how the richest companies in the world are jockeying for position in a race to provide people the electronic books of the near and distant future. So I think books do matter to people—the question is whether bookstores do.
Well, they do—and not just on the level of civic pride, though that’s part of it. Seattle is a great book town not only because of its Koolhaas library, but because of Left Bank Books and the Elliot Bay Book Company. It’s hard to imagine Victoria without Munro’s, or San Francisco without City Lights. Fact is, cool cities have cool, non-chain bookstores.
But bookstores are also the places where the isolated act of reading becomes a social one; a spot where the hand-sell is more important than prime (purchased) display space. As a society, we’ve already traded in the raucous, hyper-cultural space of the record store (romanticized in films like High Fidelity, and books like… um, High Fidelity) for the sterile, solitary transactions of iTunes. But music still has the social space of live performances—book readings and literary festivals have never been as popular as concerts and, when they do happen, they tend to involve – you guessed it – bookstores.
So Vancouver, love your local booksellers. They need you now more than ever—and vice versa.
Charles Demers is an activist, author and comedian. He implores you to shop at local booksellers like Little Sisters, People's Co-Op, Blackberry Books, Pulp Fiction and Banyen.