The death knell began clanging decades ago, back when I was a sullen, chain-smoking teenager, hanging around the Book City outlet on Bloor Street West in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, chatting up the friendly guy who worked there and (it was rumoured) wrote brilliant minimalist novellas about twisted gay sex when he wasn’t standing behind the till recommending I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Across Canada now, as well as in the United States and Britain, the old-fashioned main street with its butcher, baker and candlestick maker is mostly a thing of the past. Soon, the cynics say, there will be nothing but Tim Hortons and cheap nail salons, and that’s only because you can’t get a double-double or a pedicure on the Internet (yet). In the near future, the story goes, our main streets will be nothing but online shopping pick-up points and badly lit sizing depots – miserable places filled with grey consumer zombies itching to get back to home to their iPads so they can buy some more crap they don’t need. A world without shops to poke in. No more places for patient gay intellectuals to recommend novels to sullen teenage girls.
Except – to my delight – there’s another story brewing. It’s a side narrative to the larger (admittedly grim and unstoppable) trend of the whole world basically going to hell, but it’s a happy tale indeed. And that is the return of the small independent bookseller.