Sunday, 16 December 2012

On early Christmases, and "Lifestyle Concept Shops"

Yesterday I went out and finished almost all of my Christmas shopping. This is pretty much irrelevant, except for the following two things:

Thing 1: In addition to the Christmas shopping, I bought myself a new computer. Finally. I've been saving pretty much this entire year, and now I am the proud, proud owner of a gorgeous new MacBook. I do recognize that Apple's as evil as the next corporation, possibly even more, and that at the end of the day it's pretty shallow to get excited over something that's basically just really shiny, but dammit all, I am in love, or at least the first throes of the puppy stage, and well nigh going to enjoy it. I'm also rather pleased and proud of myself for being able to pay for it all at once, as opposed to whipping out the credit card (not that I have credit cards now, mind you -- that's a hard lesson I learned all too well). It's inconsequential to everyone else except me, I know, but after a decade of riding the waves of student debt and poverty and struggling to get food every week, there's something so deliciously freeing about being able to save up and buy something. I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again in the future. But when one has played the struggling artist game, having means -- even if only for a while -- is awfully nice. The ability to get excited about shiny computers is nice. I am thankful for all of it. So there's that.

Thing 2: The last part of my Christmas shopping entailed a visit to Chapters. I went to the Chapters in Ancaster, Ontario, where I worked as a bookseller six (eep) long years ago. I went there because it was next to the Best Buy where I got the computer, and also because I used to work there. I started having flashbacks in the parking lot, remembering my days of placing books reverently on shelves and despairing somewhere deep down in my soul, thinking, I'll never be one of these people. My writing will never be good enough. I'll never have my name across the cover of a book.

Then I got inside the store, and wondered where all of the books had gone.

It's a slight exaggeration, sure (the books were lined up along the wall, like they've always been, and the Bestseller shelves at the front of the store were as prominent as they'd been six years ago when I'd had to restock them), but the sheer size of the store's gift section blew me away. The variety of gifts on offer, even more. For heaven's sake -- Chapters now sells BRIE BAKERS!

This is probably not a big deal to anyone else except me, but I'll admit I was a little saddened. Crazy, right? Especially when it's probably the height of convenience to be able to walk into a Chapters/Indigo and pair a gift from their lovely gift section with one of their delicious, wonderful books. Like, say, a brie baker with a copy of the new Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Or a new paperback with a fancy schmancy paperweight, or a cozy blanket with which to curl up on the sofa. This is all very convenient, yes? It's basically the big box creed -- why spend your time piddling around in a myriad of different shops when you can get everything that you want and need in one location? Even if that location is, surreptitiously, a bookstore? One stop shopping! Hallelujah!

It bothers me, though, because the prominence of the gift section is of course directly in line with what Heather Reisman has previously stipulated about the Indigo chain -- namely, that the plan for the store is to eventually become a "lifestyle concept" shop, where the merchandise is split evenly between books and other gifts. Or maybe not evenly, after all. She says it right there: I believe full-on dedicated book stores will be a very, very small part of the landscape.

It makes me sad. I recognize, of course, that stores need to do this in order to survive, and that bookstores have been selling book-and-non-book-related merchandise for quite some time. It's not like it's a new idea. But there's a part of me that worries about whether or not this is starting to send out the message that books aren't enough. Again -- I know that stores have to do this in order to survive. But what are the long term implications of selling a brie-baker alongside those copies of Faulkner and Proust? If a store has its merchandise featured more prominently than its books, does that mean that people will start seeing the merchandise as more important? Is that brie baker, in fact, going to feed your soul more than that book?

It's no doubt an irrelevant worry -- this is the way that the trend is going. There's no stopping things now, especially not because some idealistic gal who calls herself a writer waxes nostalgic for those stores that hold books and little else. But I used to love walking into Chapters, and I'm not so sure I love it anymore. I still like it, and I like what the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation does, and I like the fact that Heather Reisman is a booklover at heart, and not afraid to champion that.

But there's something to be said for community, isn't there? It's You've Got Mail all over again, only on a slightly bigger scale. Those of us who've loved bookstores since we were wee have no trouble walking into a store filled with bookshelves, and nothing else, and feeling at home. What happens when those dedicated book stores disappear? How do you go about filling your soul then, and finding your community of like-minded booklovers, sandwiched as you might be between Harry Potter and a kitchen mixing bowl? Do things just shift? Do we just relegate those bookshelves to fond memory, and continue trucking on?

I watched You've Got Mail most recently in October, when I was in the States. My best friend, watching it with me, said the following: I bet even Fox Books couldn't have anticipated Amazon. Which hit home in a whole bunch of ways. First the big box stores replace the indies, and now the online retailers are replacing the big box stores, and so diversification becomes necessary for survival. What gets lost in the end is that delicious sense of walking into a special, unique place where thousands of doors sit ready for you, just waiting to be opened. That overwhelming sense that books are special enough to deserve a selling place of their very own. But maybe that isn't important; memory, after all, is not tangible, and nostalgia does not turn a profit. I should probably just shut up, and get my discounted books alongside my brie baker and fancy new cutting board, made exclusively for Chapters by whatever artisanal company has jumped up on the roster.

I didn't get the brie baker, by the way. Somehow, buying it in a bookstore -- even a bookstore that's admitted it's going for a 50/50 book/merchandise split in order to live on -- just felt wrong.

[Edit: Obviously there are plenty of exceptions to the rules as outlined above re: the disappearance of book-only stores. Stores like Parnassus Books and Bryan Prince and McNally Jackson and the gorgeous Ben McNally Books in Toronto, and of course my favourite little JH Gordon Books in Hamilton, are great examples of bookstores that are carving out a name for themselves in an increasingly fragile book world. And I also, obviously, don't mean to say that Chapters (like Apple) is inherently evil and one should NEVER GO THERE. Obviously not. But sometimes, tangible or no, memory and nostalgia *are* important. Books deserve a home of their own. That's all I'm trying to say.]

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, Chapters is pretty evil. I would advise people to NEVER GO THERE (unless they absolutely cannot find a book somewhere else, which seems unlikely, given the breadth of Amazon and Abebooks, etc.; or, like me, they get gift certificates and the money's already been spent). I got my first sense that Chapters was evil when I worked there. I prepped all my literary knowledge for the interview only to not be asked a single question about books. I realized it was because it wasn't a bookstore. I guess it was a "lifestyle concept shop." I remember noting how totally shitty all that gift crap was. I watched the woman who worked that part of the store do her job and thought, "How does she feel putting out that garbage?"

    Then working in and studying publishing I realized what a monster the chain is, and although it does help keep many publishers afloat, it does so entirely on its own terms; never does the love of books come into play at all.