May 11, 2008

Yesterday, a Saturday, I was stuck in the suburbs of Toronto (Markham, specifically—don’t ask, don’t tell) for almost four hours. It was a bone-chilling experience in a number of ways—for one thing, they’ve cut down all their trees to make room for “bigger stuff.” Everything is over-sized, particularly the stores, with not a Ma and Pa—and certainly not a Ma and Ma or a Pa and Pa—store in sight.

I thought I’d allay my fears by opting for Chapters Bookstore to sit out the wait, but that was a bad choice. It was the size of a barn, possibly bigger, and mostly empty except for a handful of bored looking teenagers clustered around cell phones in an adjacent Starbucks.

I should have known on entering what the experience would entail—at the front door I was confronted by a giant store ‘waiver’ explaining why current prices for Canadian books didn’t reflect the strength of the Canadian dollar, and assuring customers that Chapters was in the fight to force publishers to offer their books at lower prices. Does anyone realize how precarious the Canadian publishing industry is, or how little writers actually get paid?

Inside, the store was all about that Superstar, Supersize, Blockbuster mentality, with categories admonishing me to ‘Go Green!’ or ‘Pick Up a Hot Topic!’ at ‘10, 20, 50 and even 80 percent off!’ How enticing. Not!

It was crammed with every kind of hot seller imaginable, but strangely enough, after more than an hour, I hadn’t found a single book I wanted to purchase, except for a knock-down of Louise Welsh’s The Bullet Trick (which I already have) and an Emma Donoghue hardcover I couldn’t afford (not because it was over-priced, but because as a working writer I don't get paid enough.)

In fact, it hardly seemed to register that I’d changed stores from the No Frills grocery superstore, with all its nicely lined up fresh produce, which I’d just left. This certainly wasn’t much of a bookstore, if the object was to entice me into reading. By comparison, I never go into niche stores like Glad Day Books on Yonge St or This Ain’t The Rosedale Library on Church St without picking up an armful of books, and having to put most of them back before I leave.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to sit through more than five minutes of Survivor (though I love Survivorman, that real deal, surviving-in-the-wild without a camera crew series with Les Stroud), or watch an entire song on American Idol or anybody else’s Idol. Like that Chapters, these shows and their misguided mentality don’t make me feel the world is a smaller place, a friendlier place, or a better place, populated by people like you and me. They just make me feel it’s empty.

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