On a recent Friday night, as foreboding spits of hail assailed the protesters at Vancouver Art Gallery, I went across Robson Street to Chapters with the intention of buying a book. Perusing the aisles of the store’s three floors has been one of my favourite pastimes since I moved to the West Coast in 2006, but it had been a long time since I browsed for myself. This time, it felt particularly fleeting.
A few months ago, it was announced that Vancouver’s downtown Chapters location – one of few bookstores left in the city center – would be closing its doors. As the store has been a fixture of upper Robson since it opened in 1998, it will leave a sizable hole in a street where rent hikes have already led to a multitude of vacant storefronts. In a time where consumer goods seem to have more power than ideas and imagination, the closing of a bookstore feels more ominous than ever.
As I browsed through the main floor where the crowds came hustling in from the busy street to buy books or baby gifts or coffee from the adjoining Starbucks, I became suddenly aware that all the options facing me – the books and their beckoning covers – would be gone soon enough. Like all things that take up space in our society, I wondered when the books held safely within their jackets, full of things practically summoned from everyday dust, would disappear with it?
It was at Chapters on Robson Street that I discovered many of the writers I have grown to love the most. The first night I ever spent in the city, I purchased Vancouver writer Evelyn Lau’s book Treble from the poetry section, a writer whose work I would incorporate into my own classroom odes upon returning to college a few years later. I often mulled over the Community & Culture section where I discovered Chuck Klosterman’s pop-culture essays and fell in love – hard! – with Hunter S. Thompson’s rage-infused writ. The elegance and unassuming honesty of Joan Didion’s prose first appeared to me on one of the aisle tables in the form of We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live. From John Updike to Philip Roth, there are so many writers who have leapt out at me from its stocked shelves and – like real writers do – taught me the most about my own life.
Though Chapters plans to relocate to a smaller retail space nearby, the disappearance of the books feels hostile. EBooks have certainly begun to take precedence over paper, but research seems to indicate that the comprehension of an eBook is not equivalent to that of a paper book. There is vexation too that is associated with all of this newfound lightness; a space that was once filled with objects that is now empty. What of the tangibility of feeling a book and having cognizance of its physical space?
The reality of a world full of so many objects can be frightening, but a world without them seems even more distressing. Like standing in front of a homeless man versus staring at a picture of one, there is a different connectedness to what the reality is – a tangibility that will never transpire. Objects should not be something that we hide behind, but they do have the power to make a home in our memory, creating a space that cannot disappear without at least some dim awareness that it is gone.