Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Turn Off Your Computer

Turn it off.
Don’t read this. I really wish you wouldn’t. So please do both me and yourself a favour and turn this off. It’s true that this is a blog. And I’ve been writing this blog for the past few days. There’s a first time for everything. But I don’t find it very satisfying. So I would prefer that you read books, articles, letters, and the like that have been published in print.

Thankfully, very few people will read this. And I don’t want you to either. So don’t. If you care about books, music, and film, then turn this thing off, if you can bear to, and go read a book; write a letter; pick out an album, look at the artwork, and put it on and listen to it from beginning to end; or grab a video or DVD and watch it.

I love all kinds of books, movies, and music. I love these objects. People say I am real gourmand for loving these things so democratically. But I just can’t get used to a reality in which these works of art have lost their physical form. It’s true that there are still bookstores, still video stores and movie theatres, still music stores, still stationery stores, and the objects in them. But these places, and the objects inside them, seem to be disappearing. Friedrich Engels (and Marshall Berman) suggests that “All that is solid melts into air.” And these places and objects seem to be doing just that, melting into air. 

So enjoy your neighbourhood while it lasts, because these stores seem to be disappearing from a lot of neighbourhoods. I don’t know what’s supposed to replace them. And enjoy these objects, because these objects seem to be disappearing, too. I think we all know what’s replacing them. And I don’t like it. I don’t really want any part of it. I don’t want to read your favourite blog, or download your favourite song, film, or book.

But if you’ve got an object, something I can hold in my hands, I’ll give it a try. If you’ve got an album you want me to listen to, I’ll listen to it twenty times. If you’ve got a film you want me to watch on my VCR or DVD player, I’ll watch it five times. If you’ve got a book, you’d like me to read, I’ll read it. And then what friends we’ll be. But don’t read this blog. Turn it off. But if you’re at a music store, a book store, a video store, a stationery store, I’ll see you there—and we’ll have lots to talk about.  

Three Cheers for the Stationery Store

Write with this.
Whatever happened to the stationery store? There used to be a great small stationery store in my neighbourhood. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was called Eastside Graphics. I loved this place for several years. I used to go there to buy all of my pens, paper, and office supplies. I especially loved to buy a new journal to write in from that store. They were gorgeous journals. But the store is gone now.
Unlike the bookstore, the music store, and the video store, the stationery store thrives. Places like Staples and Office Depot continue to do brisk business selling paper and related products in large quantities. But I regret the loss of the smaller stationery store for a couple of reasons. 

Of course we’ve had the fax machine, email, instant messaging, Skype, blogging, and the like for many years. But to me, the demise of the small stationery store is just one more sad thing signalling the demise of the personal letter. Like the book, the CD, and the DVD, the letter is an object. It is an object that that buoys the relationship between the sender and the receiver. It takes effort to buy the paper, the envelope, the pen. It takes time to write the letter and address the envelope. There is effort in mailing the letter and it takes even more effort for someone to deliver it. 

All of this effort in creating the letter and getting it to the receiver does much to honour the sender, regardless of the letter’s content. And because the letter, like the book, is an object, the receiver benefits from being able to touch it, to hold it. The letter takes on the form of a gift. On the other hand, instant messaging and email, for example, don’t honour the receiver as much as the letter does. They’re too fast, too easy: there’s no object, no gift.  

The demise of the stationery store and the art of letter writing have also led to the demise of something else: handwriting. Umberto Eco laments the decline of this art. He, like all good primary school teachers, understands the important brain/body connection that comes from the practice of handwriting. For many years I used to print in my journals at home: it was fast and easy. But about ten years ago, I returned to handwriting. It’s slower and more difficult, but it’s a lovely experience. I think people who write should try handwriting.

Generally, in recent years, I’ve been getting my journals and other office supplies from a local drug store; and specifically, I’ve been stealing all of my pens from other people at work. This obviously can’t go on. I still miss my old stationery store. I liked being there. It won’t be the same, but from now on, I am resolved to try to re-create the excellent experience I enjoyed at my old favourite stationery store. I’m going purchase my journals from Artrageous Pictures and Framing. And if I can stop my pen thieving, I’ll head downtown to the Vancouver Pen Shop.

Three Cheers for the Video Store

Watch these.
Whatever happened to the video store? Like the bookstore and the music store, the video store and the objects it houses is disappearing. And I think it’s disappearing for the same reasons the bookstore and music store are. The video store is important for many reasons. But it is especially important because of the people who work there. 

One of my favourite video stores of all time was The Celluloid Drugstore on Commercial Drive. It existed for a few years. And I loved it. I loved it for its vast and eclectic collection of titles, which rivaled the best video stores in the city; and I loved it for the organization of its titles by country, by director, by theme. But mostly I loved it for the people who worked there. They were so passionate about film and so knowledgeable, it was a pleasure to be in the store with them. 

The proprietor had a sense of humour but took film very seriously. And he expected that of his customers. He loved the classics and knew them inside out. He had high standards about the aesthetics of film. His ethos regarding this would make Proust’s characters look like philistines. 

Many of his customers were of like mind and shared his passion for film. Others merely wanted to rent an amusing movie to relax with. While these others were completing their transactions, the proprietor would sometimes utter, “You enjoy that,” in a withering tone. I often delighted at the confused and hurt expressions of the customers as they walked out of the store. I was not immune to this treatment either. But I didn’t care. One doesn’t object to being insulted by a great Master.

The thing I enjoyed most about going The Celluloid Drugstore was the opportunity to learn about film. I would walk into the store, choose my video, and after exchanging a few pleasantries, a conversation would start that went something like this:

Me: I’m not likely to take a course in film history, but I would like to learn. What do you suggest?
Proprietor: Well, of course, you have to start with Citizen Kane. After that I’d watch all the films of John Ford. Did you ever notice that all of Ford’s movies have a big dance scene in them?


Me: What’s your favourite movie about the Vietnam War?
Proprietor: Well, the thing about Apocalypse Now that impresses me is the use of Wagner music. You know Wagner hated Jewish people. The Nazis loved Wagner and played this music in the concentration camps. The American soldiers play this music to the Vietnamese. It’s the music of genocide.

I had many conversations like this with the proprietor. And not just with him, but with other employees at the store, and with the employees at other video stores. The British librarian Michael Gorman states that libraries are important because they are storehouses of the human record. And I think video stores are like this, too. And they are keepers of the human record because of the people that work there.

I think the video store is disappearing faster than either the book store or the music store. And not just the big ones like Blockbuster; or the venerable ones, like Videomatica. In the past two years, four independent video stores in my neighbourhood along a stretch of ten blocks have gone under. Only Black Dog prevails. Long may it live. You store clerks of Black Dog are preserving a treasure. And the former store clerks of Alpha Video: I will remember you with great fondness and admiration for years to come.

Three Cheers for the Music Store

Listen to this.
Whatever happened to the music store? Like the book store, the music store and the things it houses is disappearing. And I think it’s disappearing for the same reasons the book store is. The music store is important because of what a music store does for the neighbourhood. But the music store is equally important for the artist who creates music, and for the quality of sound that is represented on the musical artifact.

Since the beginning of sound recording as a commercial enterprise, the artist has created and recorded music with certain intentions. If the listener bought a single, the artist likely intended for the listener to listen to the song on each side of that disc. If the listener bought an LP, the artist intended for the listener to listen to all of the songs—however loosely or tightly thematically related—on that LP. And if the listener looked at the album art on the cover of the recording, then the artist probably intended for the listener to do so. The music store honours and makes possible the intention of the artist with the sale of objects like the CD and vinyl LP.

The music store also does much to foster sound quality in recordings. How wonderful it was in the old days when LPs were more common to grab a record, look at the cover, take the disc out of its sleeve, place it on the turntable, lift the arm, place the needle in the groove of my favourite song, and sit back and listen to the great sound. So warm, so rich. The sound was almost visual. Later with CDs the sound quality deteriorated. And putting the disc into the carousel and listening as the numbers representing the tracks and the seconds passed by was not as good as putting on an LP. But even CDs are disappearing now. 

Now instead of songs or tracks, there are digital files. And the sound is even worse. In the 80’s critics complained of the brittle sound of CDs. But the sound of MP3 files is even worse than that on CDs. With the LP, the listener enjoys the aural equivalent of a gourmet meal; with the digital file, the listener enjoys the aural equivalent of a cup of instant noodles. Sometimes noodles are just what you want to eat. But I think most will prefer the gourmet meal. 

I’m very happy that there are music stores. I’m grateful that excellent music stores in Vancouver like Highlife and Zulu records persist with their vinyl and CDs. But I still want to ask: what happened to the other great Vancouver music stores of my youth: What happened to A&B Sound? What happened to Sam the Record Man? What happened to Odyssey Imports? What happened to Quintessence Records? What happened to Friends Records? And even before that, in New Westminster, on Columbia Street: What happened to Kelly’s Records? Oh! What has happened to these wonderful music stores of my youth?

Three Cheers for the Book Store

Read these.
Whatever happened to the book store? I know there are still a lot of book stores around, and books therein. But the bookstore is disappearing. 

There are all kinds of big book stores that still flourish: Chapters and Book Warehouse still thrive, and thank God for that. But for every big book store that thrives, there are others that have gone out of business. All book lovers in greater Vancouver remember Duthie Books. They operated for decades. There were branches all over the city. What a terrible loss. 

Just as some big bookstores thrive, there are some smaller book stores that flourish in Vancouver:  Blackberry Books on Granville Island, and The People’s Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive still flourish, and thank God for that. But for every small book store that flourishes, there are others that have gone out of business. Many book lovers in Vancouver will remember The Granville Book Company on Granville Street near the Commodore. They operated for years. And who can forget the excellent Magpie Magazine Gallery? I loved that place. The loss of these book stores is a terrible one for me. 

Perhaps the biggest killer of book stores is the internet. Owning and running a bookstore is a difficult enterprise at the best of times, but the difficulty in maintaining a bookstore has been made just that much more difficult by the internet: the internet is killing the book store. And I hate that. 

The internet has killed many book stores. This is true. But there are other market-driven reasons for these book stores’ demise: Big non-book stores like Costco, and Walmart sell a lot of books, and they sell them cheaply. Many people are happy to buy books from these places. Hurray for the market! I don't mind these big stores selling flats of doughnuts, vats of salad dressing, helicopter engines, and the like. But books are different. And people who work at Costco and Walmart don't care enough about books.

People who work at book stores do care about books. They love them. And more than this, there is something of a fulfilled intention in the relationship between books and the place they are sold. Surely, just as the body houses the heart that beats, bookstores house and help to fulfill the aesthetic and moral purpose of the book.

So let the book store thrive, let it flourish. Let’s not read our books online or order our books online. Let’s go to the book store. And if we do go to a book store, let’s not go to a big box non-book store: Let’s go to a real book store.