Wednesday, June 9, 2010
As I’ve gushed before, Budapest is full of great bookstores. Calgary is not. There are a few really good bookstores holding out, like the ever popular Pages, but the variety and mix of bookshops that I remember from the Calgary of my childhood has now been replaced with one monolithic big-box chain. Little shops went first (Sandpiper Books was my personal childhood favourite), and then medium sized stores like McNally Robinson began to close their doors. A Winners now stands ironically where McNally used to be.
There are many problems that come with the homogenous rule of Chindigo. A family trip to the bookstore today found one person griping about the craft section being faddish and geared towards an unskilled and general audience, another complaining about the unavailability of "The Writings of David Thompson," which they believe to be indispensable to a knowledge of Canadian history, and me debating ordering a book through the company’s website instead of just buying the copy I had in my hand, since the online price is about $20 cheaper for the sake of competing with Amazon. Trips to Chindigo almost always result in these kinds of annoyances and disappointments—despite the enormous size of the stores, they never seem to have anything. Worst of all, slowly but surely, we are losing the ability to choose to go elsewhere.
One of the many drawbacks of Chindigo’s dominance only became apparent to me after poking through the bookstores of Budapest. Because I only read Hungarian at about a sixth-grade level, and because what I know of Hungarian literature I have pieced together from random, broad, and flailing Internet searches, I often didn’t know what I was looking for when I arrived at a bookshop. Despite my vague ideas of what I was searching for, I left all the bookstores we visited satisfied, and with a bag full of books. The wide variety of small privately owned stores in the city not only meant that there was a wider choice of books available, but that the people working in these stores actually knew their holdings, and were adept at helping you find a book you didn’t even know you were looking for.
At the spectacular Irok Boltja, the clerk helped me choose some books that were appropriate for my reading level that she thought would also give me a sense of what literature most Hungarian students would have to be familiar with. Additionally, the bookstore carried books of Hungarian visual poetry, books of fairytales told exclusively through illustrations with no text, and a series of little books focusing on odd little subjects, such as peepholes or pen nibs.
Our visit to a used bookstore was similarly awesome. The bookseller was able to find the exact poem by Radnoti Miklos I was looking for, digging the book out from behind two layers of tomes, based on my vague description, “The poem they found in his pocket.” I also got a bunch of itty-bitty books, on everything from the history of the printing press in Hungary to the 60th anniversary of communism in Hungary, all of which were sitting temptingly by the cash register.
The great thing about these little bookstores was not just that they each carried interesting and unique books, but also that the employees were knowledgeable about what they were selling. The staff has shaped the store’s selection, and is there to help you navigate it. More than punching a time clock for a big company, the people working in these little bookshops have at least a minimal expertise in the genre or subject of the texts they are selling, and can take an active role in helping readers find material. Here in Calgary, we’ve relegated this role to the inaccessible and distant people who choose what Chindigo carries. This is not only bad because it limits our browsing to the things that company thinks will sell, but also because we are losing access to knowledgeable booksellers who can give customers access to a world of books beyond that set out by one big company. Do we really want just one company choosing what books we can buy? The issues that small bookstores in Canada face are large and complex—I don’t pretend to know all the facets of these issues, and I certainly don’t presume to suggest a solution. All I can say is that I miss browsing though our little bookstores, and that with their disappearance, we are losing something important.