Monday, April 12, 2010

The Last of the Independents

This is my much loved book/shopping/carry all bag. I've used it for years and no one else has noticed it until January, when strangers would stop me and asked if I'd heard and wasn't it sad.

Two months ago Duthie Books, Vancouver's first independent bookstore closed it's only remaining location after 53 years and 20 million bookmark designs. After being a part of the community for so many years, it was terribly upsetting to true Vancouverites. When I stopped to take these photos, I saw a few people looking at the empty store and crying. I have to pass by it everyday on the bus and I always tear up as I look at the familiar shelves, now devoid of books and people wandering amongst them.
The first store in 1957, downtown on Robson. The building is long gone and the library to the extreme left is now an HMV (source)

I was the third generation of my family to shop there. In a world of big box stores and online shopping, we are forgetting how much more personal shopping used to be. In our parents and grandparents generations, shop owners used to know regulars and their families and both the buyer and seller developed a relationship over the decades. Duthie's was the place where my grandparents bought their art and poetry books, my parents bought most of their vast collection of cheap paperback editions and where I discovered the joy of P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford. We even named one of our dogs after Binky Marks, who used to run the Paperback Cellar in the basement of the old downtown store. That's customer loyalty a reward points card can't buy.

Inside the original store -late Fifties (source)

When Bill Duthie started in 1957, he had architects design a store that was specifically designed for selling books, something which never changed in 53 years and every store was unique and everything was easy to find. What made Duthie's popular was that the staff were more knowledgeable and cared more about books then anyone else in the city, apart from the librarians. Duthie's was always stocked with good books, not necessarily the most popular ones and nothing was ever pushed on you, aside from a large focus upon Canadian works (and rightly so too). Duthie's eventually expanded from one store on Robson Street, next to the original downtown library branch, to ten stores across Vancouver. But in 1999, after struggling to compete with the rise in popularity of Amazon and the western expansion of Chapters-Indigo (it's like Barnes and Noble or W.H. Smith's but with a nation-wide retail monopoly) Duthie's shrunk to just the one store and now it is no more.
Last week when I was searching for Lula, I saw in Chapters, between the Starbucks and the pile of Twilight and reduced Dan Brown books, a $15 water bottle emblazoned with the Keep Calm and Carry On image, which does sort of negate the importance of that message and shows just how far our consumerist culture has come. I think I shall now try to stop buying things from Chapters, not that I ever bought a lot from them, I just like to read the new magazines without paying for them and make a list of newly released books to borrow from the library. There are about a dozen used bookstores and a few independent bookstores left, but they are specialty ones and now that Duthie's is closed, the only general independent bookstore around is Munro's (yes, that Munro) which is a long drive and ferry ride away in Victoria. Imagine that, Vancouver just hosted the Olympics and is the World's Most Livable City and there isn't even a decent bookshop.

How are the independent and family-run stores fairing in your community?


Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

Wow, what an thoughtful post. I was so moved by the story of Duthie Books. You did a wonderful job writing this important piece. The story of Duthie is the story of independent book stores across the U.S. as well. Here in Boston some of our branch libraries may be forced to close dew to lack of funding. For those of us that love books these closures are very sad. It is not, however, only the books that are lost but a true sense of community that is the greater loss.

Ivy Black said...

Brilliant post, really interesting.
It's the same in the UK. Twenty odd years ago there were lots of little bookshops that had plenty of obscure titles the bigger places didn't and wouldn't sell. Over the years they have all gone leaving us with the big boys who all sell the same thing and have an Arts section that amounts to four shelves!

Jessica Cangiano said...

That positively breaks my heart. I adore independent bookshops and will go out my way to seek them out, yet they are becoming harder than water in a desert to find (thanks to the monopolization of a certain large chain of bookstores that shall remain nameless).

Recently my mom told me that the local bookshop in the town where she lives (and where I spent a good chunk of my childhood), Penticton, closed its doors as well. I was struck with sadness at hearing this news, as I used to adore going there after school or on weekends as a youngster and pouring over the diverse range of books they brought in. I comforted myself though with those very memories and vowed even harder to continue to look for - and support - look book sellers here in Toronto.

Your fellow book worm,
♥ Jessica