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Friday, September 28, 2012

Last Trip to Greenwoods'

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. According to rumour, there's a rough beast slouching toward Whyte Avenue's Greenwoods' Bookshoppe - permanent closure.

I was a regular customer at Greenwood's from 1987 until 1999 or so, but my visits grew less and less frequent over the years. It wasn't a conscious choice; I simply moved out of the neighbourhood. I shopped more frequently at Audrey's for a while, and then, after a few months' resistance, I found myself at Chapters more and more often. A few more years have passed and I've found that I purchase books online about 25 percent of the time, especially when I know what I'm looking for and physical bookstores can't or won't carry the often obscure titles I desire.

No one except the Greenwoods knows for sure, but it's easy to surmise that Amazon and other online vendors have contributed to the bookshoppe's pending closure. So this morning, burdened by guilt, I parked at the west end of Whyte Avenue today and took a long penitent walk east to Greenwoods'. There were only two people in the store when I arrived - both staff - and scarcely greater numbers of books. Most of the shelves have been laid bare, and posters declare "All books 50% off - All sales final."

I took a moment to wander up and down the aisles, but there wasn't much to see; just row upon row of empty wooden shelves, shelves that were once crammed to bursting with all manner of literary riches. I remembered all the happy hours I'd spent in the original location next to the Princess Theatre, times when I'd accompany university buddies to catch a show and then pick up some books, or vice versa. After graduation I struggled to find a job in my chosen field and wound up driving a parts truck around the city. I was depressed by the rote nature of the work and the abuse I often endured from a number of my customers, but every Wednesday afternoon I had one escape: I stopped at Warp One to pick up my week's supply of comic books, then crossed the back alley to the back door of Greenwoods' to browse for books. That weekly pleasure never failed to reinvigorate me.

Despite my ability to find all the books I've ever wanted online, I still lament the loss of Greenwoods'. Amazon and other online vendors are wonderful if and only if you already know what you're looking for. But they can't replicate the experience of browsing through the shelves and finding something new and wonderful via serendipity. I estimate fully half the books in my collection were discovered this way.

Now there's one last place to browse, and Edmonton is poorer for the loss. All these thoughts flashed through my mind as I handed over the one book remaining at Greenwoods' to catch my interest: Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom. I'd never heard of the book before the lurid cover caught my eye on one of those near-empty shelves. One last escape, courtesy of a business that's been a portal to wonder for over thirty years.

Thanks, Greenwoods'. I won't forget you.


Kim D said...

Oh, how sad to lose such a gem! I suppose it was only a matter of time though.

BJT said...

Well put Earl. You and I trudged that same path on Comic Book Wednesdays. I remember as a kid thinking I needed to supplement Superman with something high brow from the bookstore, like Three Investigators / Madeline L'Engle / Ursula LeGuin / Moorcock. Funny, I still feel the same way now. Hopefully Wee Book Inn doesn't get sucked into the hole left by the Great Online Book Homogenizers. Whatever happened to just going for a stroll and finding a gem, anyways?

Colin said...

Costumers? You had random people dress you and abuse you? That's a pretty narrow fetish, how could you afford that?
On a serious note, I too, spent a great deal of time, and no small amount of money, in Greenwoods. One of my sisters used to work there, too. I loved that store, and fumed when Chapters chose to set up shop only a couple of blocks away. Between online bookstores, big box book stores, and ebooks, these independent stores can't last. Which is truly tragic.

Earl J. Woods said...

Thanks for spotting the typo, Colin, Somehow I transposed the u and the o...

Chapters' decision to set up shop so close to Greenwoods' was one of the reasons I refused to shop there for so long. But they eventually wore down my resistance when I heard the work environment is above average for retail, and then of course I'm weak and they're so darned convenient...

It's funny Brian should mention Wee Book Inn, because I stopped in right after visiting Greenwoods'. Online vendors make finding used books easier too...

"The Jeffemy" said...

I see a fair amount of your writing as going into a forest and pointing out one particular tree from all the others. "This is my tree," you say. In this case, you're standing in a denuded field going, "This is where my tree used to be." To me this makes sense from the blog world, because you write about personal things, and you write about what you know. However, I also think that you are missing a much larger view.

The book publishing and distribution industry is beset with inefficiency and a surfeit of stuffy tradition. It's the kind of thing that's woefully undervalued in the present economy, which is also why publisher/distributors are such lucrative investments. All one has to do is trash the inefficiency and start a new paradigm of service, and the customers will beat a path to your business.

And that's exactly what Amazon has done. If you're standing in the what's left of the forest looking at the sad Charlie-Brownian remains of your own personal tree, be aware of the predators that lurk among the overhanging branches! This article, although somewhat out of date, provides a powerful and cogent explanation of how New Media is doing battle with Legacy Media, and how the customer becomes marginalized as a result.

The good news is that there was absoultely nothing you could do to save Greenwoods so you can stop feeling guilty on that count. Even if every man, woman, and child in Edmonton bought a book from Greenwoods every day, they'd still be sunk. What a chilling prospect!

In a few years, we won't be choosing bookstores, we'll be choosing distributors, and the only way we will do that is by buying those damned e-books. You want a Grisham? You'll have to own an Apple. You want Hemingway? You can only read him on a Kindle. Kobayashi exclusively on a Kobo. Bradbury on a Rocketman. You won't be able to buy an independent book again, as we all walk around carrying our wasteful little hand-helds that mark us each as indelible information points on the Google grid.

The very sad thing is that the greatest minds of our generation are not occupied with building our next mission to mars, or curing cancer, or even with running the CERN LHC. Certainly not in the arts, creating words, music, pictures or dance for the ages. The very smartest and most ambitious people in the world are completely employed in the information-based e-business of making sure that a specific ad will be targeted at the right time to any given person on the planet. And that's the whole show right there. All other considerations are secondary.

BJT said...

I don't know. There's a lot of truth in what Jeffemy says, we all know it. I think it was because of aLibris that I found a copy of "The Great Comic Book Heroes", a childhood library favorite that I would never have found in Greenwoods, Wee Book Inn, or others.

But personally, I'm still a guy that likes to go out and browse. I go to the library to find something specific, I end up finding it, and I get two books on the shelf right next to it. It's harder these days, especially with kids, to get out and do that. But I like the feel and smell of a bookstore, and the unplanned surprises that await. It's hard to replicate that. Once it's gone I have a feeling we'll miss it deeply. If small booksellers' time has come, fine, I will get a little Charlie Brownian over it. And my friend Linus, he's got a blue blanket for the loneliest and scraggliest of the remaining few.