Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bookstore Purgatory--A Day in Vancouver, British Columbia

A lot of people equate Seattle and Vancouver, almost like twin cities.  Their weather is similar, their arts scenes are vibrant, and both attract folks not only from the rest of their respective countries, but from around the world.

But as much as Seattle is book heaven, Vancouver is something else entirely. I figured if I simply walked and drove around interesting neighborhoods, I'd find the stores.

But like many vibrant downtowns and their surrounding areas, Vancouver has priced its indie bookstores out of that market.  Sophia Books closed its doors downtown in April of 2010, just months after the legendary Duthie Books (generally ranked #1 in reader surveys) closed in January of that year.

I had read that the manager of Duthie was going to open Sitka Books and Art in a nearby location of the same Kitsilano neighborhood.  But when we drove by, the bookstore in that space (which wound up being named Ardea, due to a nearby skate shop with the same name) had already opened and closed by this past May. Sigh.

That left Blackberry Books on Granville Island. Kirk and I spent the afternoon walking around with my niece Jocelyn's fiancee Chris.  By the time we got to Granville, I had sort of lost track of my agenda.  But what literally distracted me from my search for Blackberry Books was a liter of blackberries that we bought at one of the market stands.  Go figure.  I had been to Blackberry when I last went to Vancouver, which was in 1991, give or take a year.  I learned that the store had renovated about five years ago, cutting out marginal sections, and adding internet service.

Once I remembered we hadn't found Blackberry, it was too late to go back.  But I did know of one more bookstore that we could head to, and it was not too far from The Naam, the popular vegetarian restaurant that we were hoping to visit for dinner. Banyen Books and Sound was located further down on Fourth Avenue, still in the Kitsilano neighborhood.

The store is great looking, nicely shelved with an attentive staff. Your first sensory experience--incense. Sections reminded me ofthe old Transitions Bookstore in Chicago.  Cooking focused on vegetarian, gardening was organic, current events focused on community.  New age, spirituality, and eastern religion sections were enormous, heavily subjected.  The store has such a strong presence, and I could not  help but admire their ability to infuse the entire store with personality. From the kids books to the blank books and cards, to the room filled with gift items, everything was all about spirit.

Really a superb job. There was only one problem--it just wasn't the store for me.  As much as I get antsy about stores that seem to focus overly on fiction, without the books that I love (or at least some of them), it's just not there for me.  Sigh.

So what did that leave?  At least two branches of Chapters, the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble and Borders and Books a Million put together. The product of a merger between Smithbooks (W. H. Smith) and Coles, it was itself merged into Indigo Books and Music.  I don't exactly understand why there are still two nameplates (Coles is used for the smaller stores), especially when the kids' departments are branded Indigo.  Heather Reisman stickers her favorite books at Indigo as Heather's picks, just like at Indigo.  And the centerpiece of the ebook strategy is the Kobo, an also-ran in the U.S., but likely to have a much larger market share in Canada.

The stores are fine, and I'm sure Heather and I would have a fine time talking books.  Though the signage still played up Canadian content, sections were downplayed, compared to when the Chapters stores were separate. 

The selection of new releases was focused.  Room was on several different displays, both in paperback but also in hardcover. Some clever front tables had front and backlist mixed together, titled with intriguing headers like "books to make you think."  I don't think that was the exact title, alas.  It's all from memory. Little Bee was published by Vintage (though with Simon's American jacket, unlike the Canadian hardcover).  The Paris Wife was the only high-profile title I noticed that had a different look from the American edition.

There's one section that brings back memories.  The magazine area was packed to the gills.  I counted 150 copies of the Macleans guides to colleges, but that was soon surpassed by a Vancouver City Guide; I had counted close to 400 copies in stock in at least three different display areas.

But really, the most surprising find was Ann Patchett's State of Wonder as a paperback original. It's not like this was a common thing--The Family Fang (a recent favorite of Stacie) was an Ecco hardcover, just like in the United States. The Patchett was still published by Harper and had an identical jacket.

In the end, my best book moment happened at one of the department stores.  Sears Canada is somewhat more upmarket than its American counterpart, but hardly the Eatons of old. The Hudsons Bay Company is actually American owned; they own Lord and Taylor in the States. And Woodwards is just a memory, carved into the sidewalk, the building torn down and replace by a classroom for Simon Fraser University and some sort of office/condo hybrid.  But at The Bay, we found a history of the Hudsons Bay Blanket, and that confluence of obsessions made it a must purchase.

So that's my story of a detour north of the border.  John (who sells just about all of Canada for Harvard, Yale, and MIT except for Vancouver, Victoria, and Calgary--oops, John just informed me he does sell Calgary, but not Regina) would have told me to check out the UBC bookstore, as most Canadian college stores have more of a commitment to trade sections. I'll have to save that for another visit, when I finally also return to Blackberry.

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