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the Gauntlet

Bookstores and the case for community

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Let's agree that reading is a solitary activity. Aside from the exciting and emotional journeys we take with our favourite fictional characters, reading is best experienced alone (preferably during a quiet evening with a glass of wine or a cup of tea). That said, the connections we make with other readers of shared texts are often the most enjoyable. Lively participation in a reading community is a significant loss as the downfall of the bookstore-- and the replacement with its online equivalent-- becomes increasingly apparent. The convenience of online stores is hard to discredit, but I can't help feeling disappointed in gradually losing the civility and intellectual vibrancy that the bookstore offers.

Perhaps it's just Calgary. Winnipeg, for instance, still supports a McNally Robinson Booksellers and an anarchist bookstore (slash vegan cafe) among others, and Seattle has a bookstore dedicated entirely to poetry. While Pages has been in business in Kensington for over 10 years now, and Shelf-Life Books is a promising new option, they remain the only independent exceptions to the Chapters-Indigo-Coles chain for new books. It's not that you can't have an excellent discussion there-- they just target a different market. Chain bookstores tend to sell board games, yoga equipment and linens, broadening their appeal with big coffee-table books and gift sets. Their selection is dependent on a corporate board in another city and the staff usually has a high turn-over rate. Independent stores, though, determine their own selection, employ long-term, knowledgeable workers and almost never carry merchandise other than books, magazines and newspapers. As one of my first English professors insisted, the quality of the bookstore is easily gauged by its poetry section.

The University Bookstore is great for textbooks, but its fiction section is sparse and the store has a dependable source of student-customers. While Calgary's surprisingly good used bookstores come close to a substitute, they are limited in material to whatever books are brought in by their patrons. Sometimes you find something interesting, but often you don't. The public library is an environmentally-friendly and very cheap method of attaining texts, but like the used bookstore, they can't hold the same number of contemporary novels or amount of poetry that the independent bookstore can. Their selection is decided primarily by circulation numbers. I understand the limitations in the bookstore business model: it's too expensive to house all those books (especially the un-sought-after titles that I have in mind) while making a profit. I'm simply calling for new ideas to make this kind of reading community possible.

E-texts and online bookstores are helpful-- there's no reason to bemoan their appearance-- but they are probably not a complete solution. If we are to continue enjoying and encouraging literary pursuits to their full potential, we still need physical places in which they are promoted and shared. Of course, online communities are on the rise too, just as in-person community activities are generally declining. I won't examine the different types of communities here, but in my experience, in-person discussions (particularly with a group of participants) are usually more fruitful than those over the Internet.

The move away from a physical location holding books and toward Amazon.com does seem to be a general trend and I don't want to stereotype Calgarians as non-literary types. The reading population in North America has actually increased (though only marginally) in the last 20 years. Most publishers, however, attribute the statistics to young adult super-series such as Harry Potter and Twilight. I don't mean to disregard this kind of reading: any fiction is probably better than none. But with the help of a reading community, we are pushed to try new texts or old ones that we wouldn't typically consider, and in the process, we uncover more of our own imaginations.

Maybe Harry Potter readers will turn on their own to classical giants such as Homer, Virgil and Ovid (J.K. Rowling certainly points us in the right direction); maybe Twilight will lead its fans to Jane Austen. I'm not discounting it, but part of the appeal Potter has is its fandom-- its global community of readers encourages others to join in. When a text lacks such a communal force, however, the bookstore should stand as the best place to find inspiration-- to motivate you to tackle, say, the copy of Moby Dick that's been sitting on your shelf since first year. I know I need an enthusiastic nudge once in a while.

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