It seems only fitting that on national love day (or something of the sort) I would write a love letter to something that has always been important in my life. Perhaps I should be spending this time writing my boyfriend something sweet but given that we both agree that Valentine’s Day is a little bit odd and that I would follow the sweet up with snark it would seem a little disingenous, you know?
If you live in Toronto – or probably anywhere else – you likely have heard of the sad case of the closing bookstore. We have lost four Coles stores in the past year, lovely Nicholas Hoare down on Front Street, plus multiple other casualties over time. In the next month we will also be saying goodbye to The World’s Biggest Bookstore on Edward Street and the Book City in the Annex. While it is common knowledge that the print business is not just hopelessly treading water but well on its way to drowning, it always saddens me when I pass a storefront heralding closing signs rather than new titles. What has struck me most about the stores that have closed or are about to close is how institutional they have been in Toronto.
And how, ironically, there are many people who are also saddened by it but we know full well we didn’t do enough to keep them alive.
I remember going to both Nicholas Hoare and the World’s Biggest Bookstore for the first time. I was very young and my parents took me to both likely with the preface of, “You’re going to love this place.” I have a slight memory of my Grandpa being with us at the World’s Biggest Bookstore but that could be a simple case of nostalgia meeting nostalgia. Either way, you always remember your first. Nicholas Hoare was a beautiful little shop, homey and comforting, the way a bookstore in a small neighbourhood would be but somehow it existed on busy Front. While their selection wasn’t huge it was rather extensive and they took pride in what they carried. When I was attending George Brown College I would stop in quite often if I had time on the way to or from the train station. I always got the same feeling when I walked in there: magic. The World’s Biggest didn’t lend itself to coziness – you couldn’t expect it to given its name – but it definitely offered selection. The Honest Ed’s of bookstores, it felt like it went on forever, full of the scent of inked pages, even offering up different cover styles to choose from for many books to make sure you got just the right one. I couldn’t believe a place that large could just be filled with books but there it was in all its lined shelf glory.
If I ever do have children (which is a whole other piece of writing in and of itself) I worry about what will exist in the way of bookstores to take them to. How far will I have to travel to take them to a place where they will get that feeling for the first time? How will I be able to combat the lowered prices of e-books and convenience of online shopping in order to convince them that a binded book is something worth saving your pennies for (at which point I suppose they will say, “What’s a penny?”)? I could not imagine not being able to crouch down to their height and mysteriously and excitedly say, “You’re going to love it here” and feel their hand tighten around mine in anticipation and then loosen in awe of a place that seemed built just for them, calling to them with every book they could have ever wanted. Or at least it would seem that way since they could read all the Robert Munsch, Melanie Watt, and Dr. Seuss they wanted at that particular store. Or will they, to my horror, say. “But I can just get this on the iPad, Mom.”
I have a romantic notion of books and rooms full of them. The bookstore, the library, the full shelf – they all produce within me a feeling of simultaneous calm and excitement. I had to hold back tears as I stood in the Long Room at Trinity College in Dublin, I had never seen something so incredible in my life and I was so awed by the fact that there were people in the world fighting to preserve books. Bookstores and libraries are a sanctuary to me. I couldn’t have agreed more than when I read a quotation by Jorge Luis Borges that read, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”
Well yes, it will, because there is nothing more beautiful than a wall of decorative spines, beckoning for your hands to take them off the shelf, open them up, and get lost.
There is little we can do to combat the growing need of consumers for faster, cheaper, easier. Those of us who work in, or often visit, bookstores will attest to the fact that prices of physical books are one of the biggest villains in this situation. You can find most titles cheaper online and with free shipping to boot.
But in our hustle and bustle, our need for the inexpensive and convenient, have we forgotten the beauty of time, of reward? Have we forgotten the magic of walking in to that bookstore and feeling the familiar scent of books hitting our noses?
I could hardly believe there will ever be another physical object that I could love as much as the book, another structure I could love as much as the bookstore. Without the bookstore I would have nowhere to wander around to kill time, writing down titles to purchase when my bank account is a little fuller. Without the bookstore I would have nowhere to feed my appetite for imagination, fantasy, happiness, depression, connection. Without the bookstore I would have nowhere to find something I can disappear into, only to find something out about myself on the other side. Without the bookstore I would not be given the support and encouragement to recognize within me the traits of characters, both wonderful and terrible, and reflect upon what that means.
Without the bookstore I would have nowhere to go when home feels lonely, when life feels overwhelming, when love has abandoned me.
I sit here worried that I am slowly watching the longest, healthiest, and most beautiful love affair I have ever had begin to dwindle.
And then where will I go when I’m heartbroken over losing that love affair?