Monday, March 28, 2011

Support Your Local Author, or If you're not Canadian this column is pointless

I like reading and listening to local artists. Right now, for instance, I've got music on by Lara St. John--she was born and raised about an hour and a half from here, in London.

When it comes to local reading matter, I'll admit that I'm spoiled. The great short-story writer Alice Munro is probably within a 45 minute drive from here. The novelist Joan Barfoot lives in London. About 90 minutes from here is Sarnia where Don Gutteridge writes novels and poetry. One of the finalists for the Canada Reads program last year was a novel set in Sarnia (Fruit). I also lived in Toronto for many years and visit/work there for two or three works every month: A couple of years ago, I read a great Toronto novel by Michael Redhill. I grew up on the prairies and am constantly finding new authors from out west (most recently: Sharon Butala).

I think there's a bunch of reasons local authors appeal to me. For one, I get a big kick of recognizing settings. I think I know the exact stripmall that appears in Fruit. A novel by David Berger talked about a stretch of road in Winnipeg that I regularly biked up and down when I was growing up. I think authors writing about what's around me also help me understand the world I live in (and, as a result, understand myself better). Reading also helps me understand the world I only get to visit: When I travel to other places I always try to read their local authors and pick up music or art by local artists (missed a bet when I was in Moncton a few months back).

Which leads to my complaint.

About two years ago, a very well received novel, At the Corner of Hope, written by a London author, came out. This year, one of the finalists for the Taylor award for creative non-fiction was The Geography of Arrival, also set in London. Can I buy either? Not really, no.

I live in a little town, Goderich, where I don't really have access to a bookstore. However, I do get to major urban centres all the time (primarily, Toronto). In the US, there are several major bookstore chains (Barnes & Noble, Borders, BooksAMillion) that have wiped out the independent bookstores. Up here, there's just one (Chapters) doing the same.

I admit it: I love Chapters. When I work in Toronto, it's just a question of how much of the money I make I will leave at a Chapters store. Some weeks, it's just a break-even proposition. Heck, some weeks, I would have made more money if I'd turned down the gig and stayed home.

But it means that if Chapters doesn't carry the book, I can't get it...and Chapters doesn't stock either of At the Corner of Hope or The Geography of Arrival--not even in the store they call The World's Biggest Bookstore.

That doesn't mean I couldn't get the books if I wanted to. The publishers of each of these books assure me, on their respective Websites, that if I pay shipping and handling, I can get my own copies of these books. I can even order the books from Chapters, online. But I can't do what I love to do: Walk into a store, pick up a warm book, buy it, take it home, and read it.

I'm not sure what the problem is that prevents Chapters from putting these books on its shelves. But, since Chapters has, effectively, turned itself into "Canada's Bookstore" by virtually eliminating the independent bookstore, I'm surprised it's not carrying Canada's books.

Reading or read

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