What’s At Stake When Indie Bookstores Fade?

Courtesy of Flickr user erikheidstra

In what seems an all too familiar scenario, the Toronto Twitter-literati (Twiliterati?) are buzzing about the potential closure of yet another indie bookstore. People are bummed, and yet mobilizing. But beyond the usual empathy for those who may lose their livelihoods, it seems many are also sad to see what feels like another sign of the decline of independent publishing – and perhaps ‘book culture’ too.

Whether or not this is true – if in fact it’s harder to publish now; that less books are published; or that less people read today – is a discussion for another day. For now, the right question to ask seems to be this: what do we lose or gain if and when the indie bookstore becomes a thing of the past?

The benefit of the indie bookstore is – or perhaps was – very much about the ‘indie’ part of its name:  it carried books you wouldn’t find at your local Chapters or Borders because they would sell too few copies to be economically viable to those large chains. That advantage has, of course, since evaporated. Though the economic benefits of the long tail may be up for debate, it’s clear that it’s often easier and cheaper for most people to find an obscure book online than schlep one’s way to a small bookstore.

But moreover, when Pages, perhaps the most prominent Toronto indie bookstore, closed earlier this year, it was clear that people weren’t simply sad about the loss of a place to buy books. Rather, it was that Pages was also a focal point for literary culture, deeply invested in both the book as an idea but also as genuine part of people’s lives. Pages ran reading series and supported both independent authors and presses to an impressive degree. To lose it wasn’t just about a bookstore; it was about a losing a home for books in a big, techno-friendly city.

But at the same time, the shutdown of these stores and the ensuing reaction also reveals the centrality of ‘the shop’ and ‘commerce’ to book culture. Without these stores, the community of independent presses and their readers – the people who, to deliberately invoke a mostly false dichotomy,  read literature rather than romance novels, poetry rather than gossip blogs – have no place to meet.

To try and position this as some kind of marker of the inherent capitalist corruption of ‘like everything man’ would, of course, be naive. The indie bookstore forms an important node in the economic network that sustains independent publishing, providing a distribution point for a variety of small, often economically tenuous presses, while quite literally forming a physical place for aggregating both financial and cultural transactions that support ‘the industry’. This is the simple materiality of, well, everything.

But if the small book shop had two advantages – a specialized inventory and a dedicated community that it both relied upon and nurtured – and we know one is gone for certain, then are what the options in the face of an economic and possibly cultural inevitably?

Well, I have two suggestions, both of which are probably completely naive and idiotic. But stupid ideas are what the internet is for. So:

  • The standalone indie bookstore ends in favour of the indie bookstore-slash-coffee shop/bar/clothing store/dry cleaner/dog grooming salon/whatever. I know, I know – but this is the new media shtick, right? When the marginal cost of something falls to zero – or people just start buying from elsewhere or not at all – you produce a new revenue stream by encouraging spending on once peripheral things. If the indie bookstore’s specialization is no longer a unique value, it seems that its capacity to foster a community of readers still is. So, in some sense, I mean ‘coffee shop’ or ‘bar’ somewhat metaphorically; all I’m saying is give people a reason to gather that also produces a new, supplementary revenue stream.
  • ‘Course, if that now-hackneyed idea fails, there is always this: the increased cultural import of the library – not just as a place for kids to study or old people to learn how to use Google, but as a place that serves as a cultural home for literacy and literature. The benefit here is that you have a space that does not, in explicit terms anyway, run by strictly capitalist principles of supply & demand. Author readings, book sales etc. could be motivated less by market reactions and ‘saleable ideas’ than literary innovation (which, one hopes, will also sometimes be about form rather than simply content).

Naturally, this is partly motivated by my enjoyment of drinking various beverages  with literary types (’cause apparently, I don’t do that enough?). But it seems that even if, through the rise of the web and ebooks, reading itself becomes less attached to the physical, it stands to reason that communities of readers are less likely to become equally ‘immaterial’.

We need a place to hang out, right?

Buzzfeed, ROFLCon and Something Like Hipster Prejudice

Those of you unfortunate enough to be subject to my musings on Twitter may already know that, for a couple of years now, I’ve had the uneasy feeling that the fine folks at Buzzfeed may occasionally do as much harm as good. The site, which gathers memes, funny tumblrs, strange photos and the culture that surrounds them, is often funny and informative. But occasionally, simmering underneath, there is an uncomfortable current of smugness and elitism.

The picture above sorta’ crystallised things for me*. It seems to mark out how at least part of ‘meme culture’ ostensibly about the ironic critique of difference – but ultimately displays that ironic critique contains its own politics; you do, after all, have to be in on the joke. Or, in a sense, you have to be hailed by the joke as the right kind of person – if you get it, you are of those who judge culture. If you don’t, you are the object of entertainment for those who do. So it feels vaguely fun and okay when it’s Tea Partiers who are ridiculed – but when you see something like a racial-cultural hierarchy underpinning the humour, suddenly the whole thing starts to feel a bit insidious and icky.

If Buzzfeed is a site that collects much of this new subcultural undercurrent, then maybe it’s a good place to look for how meme culture deals with the difference of culture and class. And when you take a look at the examples, it doesn’t feel very promising. Differing linguistic systems are met with the ‘English, do you speak it motherfucker?’ response. People of Walmart is classism at its very finest. A picture of a young Muslim girl with a mohawk-esque hijab probably shouldn’t seem as incongruous as it was made out to be. And Stuff White People Like was just one long exercise in back-patting, the conversation surrounding it seemingly oblivious to the privilege that enabled the ironic distance of the site’s readers.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but just haven’t had the energy and haven’t done it any justice here.  Thankfully though, rather than listen to me ramble on, you have the beautiful prose of Matthew Battles instead – which is really why I’m writing this. After attending ROFLcon II, he collected his thoughts on the web culture conference and, among other things, he too speaks of the uneasy treatment of difference in ‘meme culture’. I like that he’s careful not to condemn – and helpfully points out that, “when we laugh together at a funny accent or a tone-deaf singer or a baby biting his big brother, we’re having and sharing fun. And it’s a good thing, too!”. Still – it’s worth keeping in mind the dynamics of the the kind of audience that ‘ROFLing’ creates: it is, after all, culturally homogeneous and has to be in order for it to find things funny. Anyway, if for some reason you don’t already have HILOBROW in your feed, Battles’ piece is well worth the few minutes it would take to read.

*Anyone who has grown up in an immigrant household – or is surrounded by friends who have – knows that the rice and lentils (or whatever) you have most days is just ‘food’, and the hamburgers, pizza, french fries et al. are ‘English food’ or ‘Canadian food’ or whatever country you happen to be living in. The irony of pizza and ‘french’ fries being ‘Canadian’ food is irrelevant. The point is – only someone hermetically sealed in privileged white American culture would find this strange or unusual.

Favourite New Tumblr: Fetishizing the Other [Updated]

Tagline: “Where post-grad meets post-race”

The folks who brought and continue to bring you SiW fave Slaughterhouse 90210 have now started a new Tumlbr called – wait for it – Fetishizing the Other. The site consists of a variety of unannotated images of some kind of ‘other’ – a racial minority, ‘the poor’, or another kind of subjugated figure – and, well, nothing else.

Edit: I got so caught up with my usual “Tumblr=postmodernism” schtick, I forgot to talk about the actual site. So:

As I said in the comments, Tumblr is so often a place for a kind of distanced, aestheticised nostalgia – full of “hazy photography of models in sundresses; arty experiments in design and typefaces; literary quotes and other fragments” is how I once put it. This Tumblr takes that kind of nostalgia – that affection for the weird, the quirky etc. – and casts a critical light on it. It takes those same out-of-context images and, solely through the use of a site name, critiques that same post-ironic blankness – “we refuse to judge” – that has become so central to both the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of Tumblr as ‘a culture’ (or cultural artefact).

So what is particularly interesting about this site is that challenges the aesthetic of what I often call ‘the hipster web’ – the Buzzfeed-y world of Tumblrs and ironic single-serving sites. If one of the tropes of Tumblr is collapsing past and present, this site not only looks at our racist past, but also suggests that it isn’t as far gone as we think – or gone at all.

Anyway, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I know I’ve endlessly yapped about Tumblr, but the thing that has always intrigued me about it is the way it crystallises how images in the contemporary (North American) context are ‘overdetermined’. I think the term stems from psychoanalysis, and regardless of what it ‘actually’ means, I’ve always used it to refer to an object or idea that is oversaturated with potential interpretations, simultaneously meaning more than one thing and remaining impossible to pin down to just one of the meanings. An overdetermined image constantly hovers in the potential of its semiotic multiplicity.

It’s for this reason that I’ve argued that few things are more endemic, or more a paragon of  ‘the present’ than Tumblr. Fetishing the Other, after all, simply presents a series of images devoid of context, explanation or an explicit editorial bent (other than the title, of course). Its authors, however, know that you’ll be able to produce a particular kind of interpretation – here, one critical of the way in which difference is made exotic – simply because you, like them, have spent your life being bombarded with both images and a slew of interpretations of those images. We live in a world where things mean multiply, all the time. And so Tumblr, as the stripped-down, context-less blog, simply functions on the interpretive saturation that, in my mind, defines ‘post-post-modernity’ – or whatever the fuck you want to call the current moment.

I feel like I’ve repeated this too often, but it just fascinates me. Hopefully though, this repetition means that a better, more intriguing idea is around the corner. That’s the way it works, right? You repeat one interpretation over and over again until it finally hits you how boring it is, and then you move on to a better, more nuanced one that, at least for a while, feels right.

The Best Blogs of 2009

Oh, as if I wasn’t gonna’ link to this.

So, some smart people – some of whose work I read religiously and really like – got together and talked about the best new blogs of the year. It makes for a fun read, particularly because you immediately get the sense you’re listening to informed people treating the form with care, respect and insight.

As I read it, what struck me as both odd and funny was that, in a sense, ‘blogs’ seem almost passe. Don’t mistake me – it’s not that they’re either unimportant or dying. It’s just that the term no longer captures the zeitgeist in the way it once did. A blog is just another form of publication or communication.

But far from being something sad, to me that seems like cause for hope. After all, it’s at that point that a form stops being a sign for an age that it becomes able to engage with that time without only descending into constant meta- self-reflexivity. Remember years ago, when we all breathlessly chatted about what blogging was and what it was not? That has largely ended. And with that, the cultural force of the form is growing as it starts to turn its critical gaze away from itself and, instead, uses that capacity for meta-commentary – for that constant deconstructive semantic multiplicity enabled by both hyperlinking and the overwhelming glut of context –  to engage with the world in a hyper-critical, innovative, rhizomatic way.

The list contains some blogs I talk about here – Slaughterhouse 90210, Hilobrow etc. – and some that I don’t. But I l also love that Rex takes the opportunity to go on about Tumblr. It’s a platform or site or whatever the fuck it is that I also can’t shut up about (here, here, here). But this idea is great:

Tumblr’s make-or-break premise was always that the semi-closed platform (insular, secular, participatory) would eventually make a deeper connection than the open online systems (cosmopolitan, egalitarian, populist) powered by Feedburner and retweets. Whereas anyone can read blogs or tweets, tumbling nearly demands participation.

That’s a key element that I’ve missed, as I’ve largely given up on using Tumblr (though I think I’ll be heading back there) and have instead remained a voyeur to the mad exchange of aesthetics and desire that drive the community. I also love that Rex picks Mad Men Footnotes as the paragon of Tumblrdom, particularly the way it makes that it’s-so-Tumblr move of collapsing nostalgia, history, aestheticism and immediacy. That’s still what I love so much about Slaughterhouse 90210, my personal pick for the site that best captures the weirdness of Tumblr. Slaughterhouse too does that thing where it conflates a historical timeline into a messy, always contemporary, singular pile, aesthetically and ideologically reframing both the pop culture artefacts from ‘the present’ and the quotations from ‘the past’ (also neat: the picture is from the present and the text is from the past).

Anyway, the list is full of good stuff and, like Robin, I love the inclusion of Offworld. Go read! It’s a great resource, but it’s also a great way to see how blogging as a form is approached by those who live and breathe it. Oh, also, Joanne Mcneil (who has SEVEN HUNDRED AND FORTY-NINE FEEDS in her GReader! 749!) includes Snarkmarket which, as if you couldn’t guess, would be up in my top three fave blogs of the year (the other two probably being Slaughterhouse and Hilobrow).

Slaughterhouse 90210: The Promise of Tumblr

As a cultural phenomenon, Tumblr fascinates me. Perhaps more than anything, it’s the way that the platform seems to have developed its own culture that intrigues me most. Due to the incredibly slow nature of print, however, my thoughts on it still won’t be out for a few weeks. In the meantime though, I wanted to share my favourite Tumblr ever: Slaughterhouse 90210.

The premise of Slaughterhouse 90210 is simple: each post is a screenshot of a popular TV show or film paired with a quote from classic literature or philosophy. The results are sublime.

At times, they are delightfully unexpected and profound, reframing both halves of the pairing in novel and provocative ways:


At others they are more subtle, but no less evocative:


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