CANADA’S BOOK QUEEN COMES TO TOWN

IMG_4788 Like many, I presume, I have a love-hate relationship with the big box Chapters bookstore downtown at Robson and Howe. Stocking the main floor with almost everything BUT books, bringing in the flag-waving American Girl franchise to what is supposed to be a Canadian bookstore, and, worst of all, the shameful relegation of books by local and B.C. authors to a shelf way at the back on the third floor with a title “Local interest” do not exactly warm the cockles of my heart.

On the other hand, it’s the only bookstore that isn’t a used bookstore in downtown Vancouver, it has lots of natural light, and I buy lots of books there. Plus, of course, so-called “bricks-and-mortar” stores fend off the increasingly worrisome dominance of the book trade by the new robber baron of our age, Amazon. So I was not a happy reader to discover that Chapters’ Robson store will be closing to the public at the end of May, driven out by sky-high rent brought on by Nordstrom’s coming mega-store across the street. The big bucks are in retail, not, alas, in books.

Unless Chapters is able to find a new location in short order, this will leave Canada’s third largest city without a downtown bookstore, a development that would speak volumes about where our strange, soulless society is heading. Just what Vancouver needs, another Sport Chek.

Luckily, perhaps, we have Heather Reisman, the boss lady of Indigo, which owns the Chapters chain. (More on that, later). Still a professed book believer, she came to Vancouver this week to scout out locations for a new bookstore in the ‘hood. And (insert blare of trumpets here) she held a public meeting at the store Monday night to bring us up to date on her company’s plans and actually listen to us store-users.

I was more impressed by this corporate mogul than I expected to be. With no fanfare or introduction, Reisman simply walked up the front and began talking to us. She provided information, personably answered questions and even asked our opinions about stuff, no matter how unlikely our raised or lowered hands would factor into the company’s cold, hard decision-making. In turn, we were polite, friendly and inquisitive, as only life-long book buyers can be. Okay, there were a few cranky questions (guilty, my lord…), but not many. IMG_4790 Here are some of the things we learned. All quotes are Reisman’s, unless indicated.

  1. The current Chapters store is 53,000 sq. ft. “That’s a bigger store than we need.” The third floor was added by Chapters in an effort to head off Indigo’s charge into the bookstore business. When Indigo prevailed and took over Chapters, they were stuck with the excess space. “What we need is 30,000 sq. ft….While the rent was sustainable, we could sustain that amount of space, but they doubled the rent.” Goodbye, Chapters on Robson.
  2. Indigo is committed to opening a new bookstore downtown. In the meantime, the company would like to find temporary space, while searching for a permanent location. Reisman said one spot they looked at was the second floor of a new office/retail building nearing completion at Thurlow and Alberni. Dismissive at first glance, Reisman said IMG_4802 she was having second thoughts. When people said they wouldn’t mind the extra walk, she observed: “We gotta re-look at that…We could be there a month after we close.” She said they also looked at another location she would not identify. Why does Indigo want a new space so quickly? “The notion of leaving you without a bookstore in downtown Vancouver is concerning to us.”
  3. Reisman was positive about her company’s future. “Indigo is growing. We are hugely committed to the business. We are not looking to close stores.” She agreed physical bookstores have challenges, but pointed out that e-reading has leveled off (17%) and some former e-readers are beginning to buy physical books, again. At the same time, young adult readership is “exploding”. On the down side, although Indigo’s online business is growing, so too, of course, is Amazon’s. She derided a fellow in the audience who said he came to Chapters to browse, then went home to order the books he liked online. “If you browse here and buy elsewhere, that hurts our ability to keep bricks and mortar stores….If you buy more online, then we are in trouble.”
  1. Yes, there are lots of other products for sale at Indigo bookstores. “It’s not exactly a bookstore anymore…but it is still the centre of what we do. I love to be surrounded by books, but we want to extend products for the consumer.” The add-on formula is working, Reisman said. “It’s why we’re doing better. We need other products to enrich us.” She avowed: “We are a passionate bookstore. We do not want the bricks and mortar stores to go away.”
  2. Nor is all gloom and doom. Business at the company’s physical bookstores had single digit grown last year. Its online business had double digit growth. “We’ve had a nice kind of growth.”
  3. If you prefer the name Chapters to Indigo, you will soon be out of luck. Reisman said they kept the name on stores bought up by Indigo “because some people love their Chapters.” But now: “Slowly and surely, we are going to change all the names to Indigo.”
  4. Odds and ends: Indigo is looking to enhance its in-store rewards program. Toys in bookstores? “We are one of the few toy stores downtown, and we are very committed to our toy stores.” Does Reisman really read all those books that become “Heather’s picks”? “Yes! I read them all. My picks are books I have read and loved like crazy. Magazines? “Sales have gone down a bit, but we’re starting to do better. We’re holding our own.”
  5. Image 22AND NOW THE BIG ONE! Yours truly, modest co-author of the best-selling, prize-winning tale of the Dave Barrett government, The Art of the Impossible, complained about the lack of prominence Chapters gives to local and B.C. authors. “If you can find them, they are way at the back of the third floor, categorized as ‘Local Interest’. Is that acceptable?” Surprisingly, Reisman agreed this was bad. She noticed the same thing in another of her bookstores. “For sure, we have to look at that.” I’m not holding my breath, but it was something.

Finally, here’s a take on the pending closure of Chapters on Robson by the “alternative” folks at Rabble, who celebrate independent bookstores, though comparing the two is really apples and oranges. Long may both survive. http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/bound-not-gagged/2015/02/vancouver-chapters-closing-what-does-this-mean-big-box-books

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TOP 10 THINGS I LEARNED FROM LAST WEEK’S DRONE FROM THE THRONE

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10. Our MLAs have earned “a sacred trust to represent democratic values: Respect for each other and tolerance for differences of political beliefs….While we may disagree with the person speaking, we must always…respect their right to speak.” I guess they left out the asterisk that this refers only to Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver. Keep those nasty NDP jokes coming, Premier.

9. “A near-record 2.3 million British Columbians are working.” Since it’s not a record, that means fewer are working today than before. Nice try, government spin-meister.

8. “Thousands of British Columbians shared their input on a new transportation plan.” Not bad for a province of 4.6 million. Certainly better than the efforts of those puny, elected Greater Vancouver mayors representing 2.5 million people.

7. “B.C.’s mining and energy sectors provide good-paying jobs across the province, from rural communities to corporate offices in Vancouver.” Well, knock me down with a hard hat. Who knew?

6. I’ve long been worried about British Columbia’s absence from the world map. How can all those rich Chinese tourists find us, if we’re not on the map? Now, it seems, I can rest in peace. “B.C.’s technology and green economy are putting B.C. on the world map…” And to think, reporters claimed there was no news.

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5. “Perhaps no sector has attracted more excitement and investment than natural gas.” PERHAPS????? “Liquefied natural gas could create a hundred thousands and the revenues to eliminate our debt.” COULD????? How did those cautionary, weasel words slip in?

4 (a). For those who think humour is a lost political art: the Lieutenant-Governor reminded us that “most notably, the provincial government and teachers’ federation set aside more than 30 years of discord to reach a negotiated agreement. The longest in history.” Laugh? I thought I’d die. Those spoilsports who point out this happy event occurred only after a bitter teachers’ strike that was also the longest in history are just that. Spoilsports. Detentions for all of you.

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(b). Not only that. “Now there is an opportunity to work together on our shared priorities: students and student outcomes.” Court case? Court case? Don’t need no stinking court case!

3. “We can never forget there is only one taxpayer.” What, in the entire province? Jimmy Pattison, take a bow.

2. I’m not sure how reporters missed this grand ambition, but this year, British Columbia is going “to contribute to Confederation like never before.” While B.C. may have contributed a lot in the past by…..um….hang on…just a second…., you ain’t seen nothing, yet. Alas, details of this mighty contribution are still sketchy. So far, it seems to be nothing more than gloating by residents of Vancouver and Victoria about cherry blossoms, crocuses and daffodils in mid-February, as the rest of the country is buried in snow.
Unknown-11. And the number one thing I learned from last week’s Drone from the Throne, once again, folks: Vaughn Palmer is a very funny columnist. Clink the link below for Mr. Palmer’s take on the Throne Speech.

http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/Vaughn+Palmer+tape+Reward+good+citizens+Protect+free/10803076/story.html
Happy Budget Day!

HOORAY FOR ED!

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Long before there was Christy Clark and “her” Family Day, long before Manitoba’s Louis Riel Day and even long before the 1996 proclamation of National Flag of Canada Day, there was my Uncle Ed.

Relegated by political history to a trivia question at best (Who sent Ray Perrault packing to the Canadian Senate?), Uncle Ed remains a forgotten figure amid all the hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the good old Canadian flag.

Yet it was Ed Nelson who stood in the House of Commons in the late afternoon of Feb. 15, 1973 to introduce private member’s bill C-136. That bill brought forward by the guy lucky enough to have married my mom’s sister marked the first official effort to have Feb. 15 proclaimed as a national holiday in celebration of the Canadian flag.

If the parliamentarians of the day had had the wisdom to pass Uncle Ed’s bill, the hodge-podge of February holidays across the country would not exist, and we would be united in easing our mid-winter blues all at the same time with Canada Flag Day. It was a near thing, too. Bill C-136 came very close to passing. More about that in a moment. But first, a bit of background.

In 1972, Ed Nelson, wonderful high school English teacher, former first vice-president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and longtime member of the CCF/NDP, decided to give federal politics a whirl. He survived a tough fight to win the NDP nomination in Burnaby-Seymour. Then, as a political neophyte, he had to face the riding’s seasoned Liberal incumbent, Ray Perrault. Not only was Perrault a former leader of the provincial Liberal Party, he was loathed by the NDP for knocking off their beloved Tommy Douglas during the Trudeaumania juggernaut of 1968.

Yet, on election night, after a tense, nip-and-tuck count that lasted far into the night, the NDP got their revenge. My uncle upset the mighty Perrault by 289 votes. When he finally showed up at NDP headquarters, the roof nearly came off the place. The next day’s papers, hailed him as a political “giant-killer”. (After his loss, Ray Perrault was rewarded by Trudeau with an appointment to the Senate, where he spent 28 years during which, thanks to Allan Fotheringham, he became widely known as Senator Phogbound. All Uncle Ed’s fault.)

Alas, that night was probably the high point of my uncle’s brief political career. In politics, it’s not enough to be a good, decent guy like Ed Nelson. You have to be seen to be doing something — make the newspapers, create controversy with partisan sound bites, ask flamboyant questions in QP, and so on. My uncle didn’t really know how to do that kind of stuff. In the rough and tumble world of politics, diligently helping constituents with their problems, and making passionate speeches in favour of peace, women’s rights and Canadian unity didn’t cut much ice. In the next election, just 18 month later, he finished up the track, and that was that.

But he did have that one moment in the sun, when he moved second reading of his bill to “establish February 15 or the Monday following as a legal holiday, to be known as Canada Flag Day.”

Bill C-136 had been positively received from the beginning, rocketing to the top of the list of private member’s bills, which normally wind up where the sun don’t shine. In prior, all-party discussions, everyone seemed in favour. No less than parliamentary legend Stanley Knowles congratulated my uncle in the House “because if, as a new member, he should get a private member’s bill through during the first session he is here, what a future he has ahead of him. If I stick around long enough, I might have the same success.”

No one disagreed that a holiday between New Year’s and Easter was a good thing. During debate, however, the piling-on began. What about the Red Ensign and the Union Jack? Why not a day for John A. Macdonald? How about a general “Discovery Day” to celebrate all the country’s history?

The Honourable Member for Burnaby-Seymour responded to the foofaraw, thusly: “We Canadians are not normally flag waving, but I feel deeply that we should recognize the official flag of our country in a concrete way. Still further from my intent would be the encouragement of any jingoistic form of nationalism, because I believe that pride in our country and its institutions is best expressed by a quiet but deep respect for this symbol of our nation.” Nicely said, Uncle Ed. If only our current Prime Minister embraced that concept of quiet nationalism, without using the Canadian flag as a backdrop for his controversial, anti-terrorism polices…

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The upshot was that, instead of just my uncle’s bill proceeding to committee, three bills were sent forward. The other two proposed John A. Day and Discovery Day as potential holidays. Still, there was general expectation that Canada Flag Day was the holiday mostly like to be proclaimed.

Sadly, when Bill C-136 came back to the House of Commons, the earlier consensus to let the bill whoosh through was gone. “Yukon” Erik Nielsen, brother of The Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen, and a few other MPs denied the necessary unanimous consent to move the bill along to the next stage, and it died. More than 40 years later and more than 18 years after my uncle passed away, we still don’t have such a national holiday.

So, Happy Canada Flag Day, Uncle Ed. You were a man ahead of your time.

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(Ignore the goof on the left. That’s Uncle Ed on the right.)

DAVID CARR, NEWSPAPER GUY

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As if the announced departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show and the death of veteran CBS correspondent Bob Simon in a New York car crash weren’t enough this week, we in the biz are now having to mourn the sudden passing of David Carr. It’s a big, big loss. When news broke last night that Carr had been struck down in the newsroom (where else?) of the New York Times, there was a collective outpouring of grief on social media from journalists, most of whom had probably never met the man. But we felt as if we had. A friend of mine went to bed, then got up and returned to Twitter “in hope that I’ve imagined events this evening”. Later, she tweeted me: “I am just so sad, I cannot go to bed.” I knew how she felt. David Carr was special.

In addition to all his talent, passion and ability to express himself with such remarkable clarity, he was someone who gave us hope in these dark days of declining real media impact, particularly in the newspaper world.

Despite his embrace of and fascination with social media (470,000 followers on Twitter!), David Carr remained, at heart, a newspaper guy. Whenever his home-delivered New York Times didn’t make it to the doorstep, Carr felt out of sorts for the rest of the day. He read two or three newspapers every morning, before heading in to work. For this 58-year old veteran of the trade, the Internet was an adjunct, not a replacement for newspapers. I loved what he told the Globe and Mail’s media reporter James Bradshaw last year, about surfing the ‘Net during a rare day at home: “All I did was lily-pad from one thing to another. And just vast reaches of my day disappeared. Did I work? I guess I did. At the end of the day, I felt a little bit like I had been looking at porn all day.”

Amid all the yellers, instant analysts and short attention span merchants, who are increasingly dominating this new age of information, he reminded us of the value of dogged, daily reporting and good, clear stories,

David Carr was old-school. He handled his unexpected fame with aplomb, enjoying the attention that came his way from his prominent role in the fine Page One documentary on the Times, but not letting it get in the way of doing what he loved, reporting and writing. He continued to come into work every day, ask smart people questions and satisfy that great friend of a good reporter, curiosity, by getting to the bottom of story after story. There was much more to Carr, but that pretty much formed the foundation for everything else.

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As the NYT’s longtime media reporter and columnist, he dominated a field that seemed to change with every phase of the moon. While the first to proclaim that no one, including himself, could predict the future media landscape with any certainty, his insights were always valuable. One of the newspaper industry’s vanishing breed of beat reporters, he brought smart, common-sense perspective to events in the strange media world of today that one could rely on. He was a must read. That’s what happens when you are left to cover something for a long period of time. You get to know what’s going on, rather than just marshaling facts for a next-day story, becoming an instant expert, and then moving on to the next assignment. Those stories are necessary, but that’s not what David Carr did, although I’m sure he excelled when he had to do that, too.

In addition to everything else, he loved movies, and wrote for many years about the Oscars. Take a look at his recent superb opinion piece on the Academy Awards’ snub of Selma. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/business/media/why-the-oscars-omission-of-selma-matters.html

In fact, look up any of David Carr’s columns, and you will be struck by just how good they are. Search his byline on the NYT website, as I did Thursday night, and prepare to be both wowed and moved. A bunch are here. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/david_carr/index.html

The best for last. Yes, Carr was a fearless reporter, never backing away from asking the tough questions and taking on those who needed it, even, on occasion, his own newspaper. But that was nothing, compared to the courage he showed in his personal life, coming back from a terrible addiction to crack cocaine that took a toll on everyone around him. At pit bottom, he was visiting crack houses, his young twin daughters left outside, alone. That experience and subsequent day-at-a-time recovery, vividly recounted by Carr in his book The Night of the Gun, surely contributed to the candour with which he accepted life for what it was, determined to make the best of his reprieve from the depths.

In The Night of the Gun’s concluding paragraph, he wrote: “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end anytime soon.” Alas for us all, it did. We are unlikely to see his like again.

DYLAN, DULUTH AND DESOLATION ROW

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Among the 100 or so great songs written by Bob Dylan, the mystical, Rimbaud-like Desolation Row is among his very best. Coming at the end of his wild, genre-busting album, Highway 61 Revisited, its 10 verses spread over 11 acoustic minutes are beautifully sung by the 24-year old Dylan. The lyrics are full of imagery and literary allusions so startling and dense I have yet to tire of them, even after 50 years (yikes!) and a hundred or more listenings. Each verse is a gem, a story in itself. On the rare occasion when Bob performs Desolation Row in concert, I feel proverbial shivers up and down me olde spine.

The long ballad opens with the haunting lines: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging/They’re painting the passports brown/The beauty parlour is filled with sailors/The circus is in town.” During the many years I used to puzzle over Dylan’s lyrics and what they could possibly mean, I came to accept that the words in Desolation Row painted nightmarish pictures, but nothing more.

As I eventually learned, however, the first and fourth lines of the song’s opening verse are based on a real event that remains shocking even today. It took place in the Lake Superior port city of Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born and lived until his family moved to Hibbing in 1947.

On June 15, 1920, far from the deep south, where lynchings were commonplace, an ugly mob stormed the local jailhouse and rousted out three terrified black men, who were in Duluth as part of a travelling circus. Accused of raping a white girl, they were given a hasty “street trial”, beaten and strung up from a lamppost at the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue East.

1024px-Duluth-lynching-postcardAs if that weren’t bad enough, a photo was taken of the lynchers, posing proudly by their frontpage_smallmurderous handiwork. The photo was soon made into a postcard that circulated around Duluth for years. Dylan’s uncle remembered seeing such a postcard, when he was a youngster, and young Bob obviously heard him mention it. Hence: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging…..The circus is in town.”

You can read the whole terrible story here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1920_Duluth_lynchings

One wintry weekend last November, my brother and I travelled south down Highway 61 in search of Dylan’s roots. Our first stop was the scene of the lynchings in Duluth. There is now an evocative memorial to the three dead men, put up by the city in 2003, across the street from the actual site. Presiding over a small plaza, it cast a sombre yet powerful spell on us both, despite the bitter cold and dusting of snow. I doubt if I will ever hear Desolation Row again, without thinking of those poor victims: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie.

IMG_3823Then, we went to the modest, nicely-painted duplex where, for the first six years of Bob’s life, the Zimmerman’s resided on the second floor (right). The house is a mere five and a half blocks from the spot where Duluth had its night of infamy.

IMG_3834 And finally, here’s Dylan singing his great song. Live, in concert. Sit back and get lost, man. Not often you get Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35gheud5xBo

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