I just learned that another independent bookstore in the Annex, Book City, is closing shop although it will continue to operate at other locations in the city. There have been a number of closings in the Annex neighbourhood in the past few years, including the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, and a personal favourite, Atticus Books, which specialized in second hand academic texts and now operates online.
Having lived somewhere devoid of independent retailers, I cannot describe the kind of cultural wasteland you invite into your neighbourhood and into your life when they aren’t around. The number one reason why I ❤ independent retailers is because of the people who work in them. These are people who genuinely care about what they sell, who will know their products better than you ever will because it’s their livelihood. And because of this, especially when it comes to media, they should be one of the first people you turn to whenever you’re looking for something new, not algorithms on some e-commerce site.
For years, websites have been trying to figure out how to monetize the ability to introduce you to new shit and trying to build “communities” out of them, but if you live in a truly great neighbourhood, I am telling you, this type of personalized service is right around the corner in your local indy retailers. And if you’re really lucky, they will be champions of local talent and creativity, bringing with them, a genuine, living and breathing community.
You can’t have relationships with Walmart or Indigo-Chapters or iTunes and unless you make a supreme effort, you can’t have relationships with the people who work there. Everyone who works retail for some publicly traded corporation is trained to be disposable and indistinguishable from everyone else. In the eyes of the corporation, their customer service is at its best when it’s standardized, commodified, dehumanized. It is easily replacable and easily replaced. You simply can’t replace the person behind the counter at an indy retailer. You can’t replace someone who’s seen you in and out of the store for years, who understands your tastes, who knows you as a person and not a walking visa card or fresh data to be mined.
I try to get to know the staff at indy retailers because they’ll take the time to get to know me. And because of this, they are the ones who can find exactly what I’m looking for before I know what I’m looking for. And it’s not just media. I try to have relationships with my butcher, my baker, my tailor or basically anyone I’m doing business with. I pick them up a little something for Xmas or Chinese New Year or whatever happens to be appropriate. Because I’ve lived somewhere where you can’t do this. Where retail staff come as cheap and commodified as the crap they sell and believe me, it is a miserable way to live and it’s no way to develop a truly great neighbourhood nor support the communities within it.
Who else would I consult first but Peter at The Beguiling when I’m looking for a comic that’s erotic, with strong, unsentimental writing, preferably by a woman, oh, and also small enough to read on a TTC commute without being cumbersome? Where else would I turn to but Queen Video, where the staff remember who my favourite directors are and get my sick sense of humour and are always able to suggest something awesome that perfectly matches my mood for the day? And let’s not forget local events and artists supported by indy retailers like little book/magazine/album/etc. launches, fashion shows, industry panels and the like. Do you know the first thing I do when I step into Sonic Boom? It’s going through all the local flyers by the door to look for local shows that I’d like to attend.
And you know what I’ve found to be of even greater value? It’s not someone’s ability to show me more of what I already like. It’s about getting me to push my boundaries, to challenge myself and try something new. It’s someone telling me, “This shit is really good. I’m not sure you’ll like it, you might even hate it, but give it a try.” And then I get into it because they’re right. Or maybe I hate it, but at least it’s better than subjecting myself to something predictable. Because art isn’t a commodity to me that can be shoved into a convenient category like “chick-flick” and then packaged by comparing it to the latest blockbuster. I am not here to be entertained, to pass the time, to stick to what I know. I am here to EXPLORE LIFE.
The benefit of the indy retailer is that they are in the business of not sharing what they like, but knowing about everything they deem that’s fit to sell. This means that as a collective, the staff should be in the know with not only what their circle jerk of artist friends are into but in the know about everything that might have a viable market – and then some. It used to be that publishing houses and record labels and network executives were our gatekeepers to media. Now that this has been “disrupted” we talk about curation and look to blogs and so called indy websites to provide us with all the answers. Well, the answer for me is very simple. Get thee to an indy retailer that’s staffed with great people and introduce yourself. You won’t regret it.