Saturday, June 15, 2013

rep road: dateline Toronto (4)

Wrapped up the week in Toronto with a delicious and badly needed home cooked meal with my predecessor and friends David and Maria, who are a trove of local bookselling history.
Despite all the current challenges, and at least one big disappointment on every trip (can it really be true that the Art Gallery of Ontario is sacrificing it's excellent book department to more jewelry, umbrellas and toys?), the bookselling community in Toronto would be the envy of many cities.
While every veteran book person can ratlle off a list of the late, great stores which are no more, I was kept extremely busy all week hopping amongst some pretty fine ones which still very much are. 
Contemporary Torontonians can choose their books from an excellent chain of neighborhood indies (a business model that has all but evaporated in the states); from a superb, expertly selected shrine to new books in the financial district; from several still excellent academic stores; from (if you hurry) one of the finest Art Museums in North America; from two of the most eccentric used bookstores I've ever been in; from a wonderful, quirky and completely delightful shop in the Queen West neightborhood, and another one in High Park; and from a host of specialty shops, boasting the finest collection of books on film I've ever seen, to an excellent design and architecture shop, to two bookshops featuring books on cooking and food. And surely I'm forgetting someone. (oh right, Indigo and Chapters. If you like candles and incense with your literature.) 
Add to this the finest public library system in North America, and I'm quite jealous. Given the number of large and medium-sized cities that have become book deserts, I hope the people of Toronto appreciate their good book fortune.
My plan to travel the next few legs of my journey by train were stymied by Via Rail's inflexible bargaining tactics with it's customer service workers, who had called a strike for yesterday, the morning I was to leave. VIA Rail kept sending me confusing emails saying they are certain there won't be a strike, but if there is a strike my train will still be running, but that if I'd like a refund I'd only be able to get it in advance. 
I'm a knee-jerk pro-union guy, except when it comes to my own convenience. So in truth I had decided to take my chances. I didn't even know what the issues were.
But then I read an article about what the workers were asking and realized this is just a variation on the "demonize and penalize public workers" approach that's become so routine at home. The difference here is that the union still has enough clout to bully back a little. I haven't been faced with a decision to cross a picket line in the US in a long while because there are no strikes.
My father worked in a factory and was in the union when I was a child. He earned a decent wage and some benefits for the time, but at some point he got a promotion and was made "a company man," which seemed like an achievement to my mom, though to my sisters and I it just meant that we couldn't go to the fun union picnic. 
But somehow along the way, I absorbed a kind of moral/ethical idea about strikes being sacred. Workers don't resort to them casually. And in this climate where they are always the ones being asked to do the sacrificing, I decided I couldn't enjoy a train ride with that on my conscience. So I cashed in my tickets and rented a car.
The strike was (for now) settled at the last possible moment, so I could have avoided scab-dom aft all. But It was a useful exercise in reviewing my core beliefs. 
And anyway, isn't this situation not so different than what booksellers are asking their customers to do all the time? To think beyond price and convenience. To ponder in a more complex way their commercial actions. To consider buying the book from the indie shop for all the added value they get from its existence rather than online. Or to consider not buying the T- shirt at all if you suspect it's been made in a Bangla Desh sweatshop.
The drive to Ottawa was beautiful, and I didn't feel like a hypocrite when I arrived.

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