Spirit Quest: OF BOOKSTORES AND FIRES by Hanns F Skoutajan

Smoke billowed from the building, sometimes black then green or yellow. Flames shot into the air as the fire consumed the various chemicals, fertilizers , barbeque fluids and bricks and whatnot else, all very flammable. The hardware store had only recently acquired its stock of those toxic substances for the season.

Firemen worked diligently spraying water from aerial ladders. There were paramedics but thankfully they were not needed. Police cruisers with their lights flashing blocked off the street for many hours. People were warned away from the scene and residents were told to close their widows.

Thus came to an end the better part of a block of stores on Beechwood Avenue in the New Edinburg neighbourhood of Ottawa. Adjacent buildings around the corner on MacKay Street also suffered mostly from water damage. Students and other roomers lost their possessions in the fire. An art galleryφs precious contents were carefully loaded into a city bus and taken to safety.

All this happened about 18 months ago. Nothing has happened since except that the area was boarded over to spare the passerby from scenes reminiscent of a war zone. The Village, as I like to call it, has lost much of its essential facilities, a barber shop, dry cleaner, watch repair, United Parcel Service, Epicuria that supplied the neighbourhood with goodies as well as a small coffee shop that sold wonderful gelato, are all gone. Not a full list by any means. Some have relocated nearby but others have moved out of the area. Undoubtedly the hardware store is most missed. Will ever come back, is a frequently asked question.

The locals have wondered about the future. When will we hear of redevelopment. Roumours have come and gone. But businesses that have remained have also sensed a significant decline. One especially, Books on Beechwood, a wonderful independent community book store that I wrote about in one of my Spirit Quests a few months ago has announced their closing at the end of January.

An employee explained it this way to me. It is estimated that about 300 visited the hardware store daily. Perhaps 10 or 20 may also have dropped into the local coffee shop and bookstore to browse and buy. That dozen or so are gone which in itself is quite a blow.

Of course independent bookstores are an endangered species with ebooks and chains chewing into their business. Amazon promises 2 to 3 day delivery of any book on the market which the independents can’t match. What they can supply is a knowledgeable and affable staff that can advise and recommend from personal experience and often just offer a listening ear.

Recently when a grieving Jean Barton, owner of Books on Beechwood apprised me of her decision to close rather than await bankruptcy, I felt hollowed out. So have others with whom I sought to commiserate. Some of the friends have talked. Can Books on Beechwood be resurrected? Is there a fairy godmother or rich uncle somewhere in the woodwork? Its all been thought about and mooted. Are any of those dreams just that, like the smoke that poured from the hardware store to blow away and dissipate?

In my story about my love affair with books I recalled my first home whose walls were lined with precious volumes. None of them were to be underlined or dogeared or handled with unclean hands. All that reverence for the written word has changed. I recall a facetious article in the student newspaper at Queen’s. It was purported to be a research report. Books in the Douglas Library were examined to determine what drinks or foods were consumed with certain subjects by the stains on the pages. I admit I am much less reverent about books but my love for them has not abated. But I do underline.

Books on Beechwood was started by Jean Barton and Mary Mahoney in a small house on Beechwood Avenue 18 years ago. The house, now empty, remains an eyesore in the village along with several other hovels that their owners have ignored.

Books on Beechwood wasn’t just a store to buy books, it was a place to browse, to meet friends and read. I am often reminded of the caption in a bookstore on Queen Street East in Toronto, it read: ‘This aint the Rosedale Library’. Often my wife took our granddaughter for a scone to the cafe next door and then to the bookstore where they picked from its large collection of children’s books to read while sitting in one of their comfortable chairs and then to buy.

The store also hosted book launches, book signings by local authours, a book club. I cannot imagine the Village without the bookstore but I suppose I shall have to reconcile myself to buying my reading materials elsewhere in the city.

Independents have struggled and many more will lose. Few have been the source of wealth. Except for the chains its most likely motivation is the love of the sport.

The New Testament of the Bible begins, ‘In the beginning was the Word.’
whether cuneiform or papyrus. There were large storages of early volumes where monks slaved over manuscripts to reproduce them. Cities like Alexandria in Egypt, in Athens, Babylon and Rome had magnificent reservoirs of books. Some of these libraries burned down with a tremendous loss of history and knowledge,. Umberto Ecco in his The Name of the Rose describes such a fire. The word went up in smoke. Books are casualties in wars . How many libraries were destroyed by the saturation bombing of Britain and Germany in W.W.II?

Books have a way of regenerating and I hope so do bookstores. Since the Gutenburg era and into the digital age the written word has proliferated. I see it on my own bookshelves, also in the coffee shops where customers are seen cradling their Kindles.

I comfort myself and my friends that there is a Spirit that proliferates knowledge and stories. Of course they are not all of the same value . Secretly I hope that a book store however small will emerge in the Village.

The Bookstore is Dead: Long Live the Bookstore!