Thursday, 8 July 2010

Local independent bookstores under siege again

I know it's not exactly news that independent bookstores have been having a tough time as of late. Caught between big box stores that can buy in bulk and undersell them, plus Amazon and other online sources which can do the same, even more so. Now with Kindle taking books themselves out of circulation things are getting worse. And it's been a tough year in Toronto.
Last year the much loved icons Pages (on Queen) and Atticus (on Harbord) closed their doors, along with the only French bookstore in Toronto, Champlain's. Earlier this year The Toronto Women's Bookstore shut down after a desperate flurry of fund raising although they are now set to reopen in the fall. Everybody expects the Gay Bookstore Glad Day will be gone by the end of the year. Even long time local comic book stores Grey Region and Yesterday's Heroes are closed or closing as well.
The latest blow still came as a surprise when This Ain't The Rosedale Library, another local icon was suddenly locked out on June 19 by it's landlord in a dispute over unpaid rent.
After some confusion Rosedale owners Charlie and Jesse Huisken posted the following notice on June 23;
"Our situation, which could be told as a long story about the plight of bookstores in Toronto and in many North American cities, is really quite a simple one. At our new location in Kensington Market we found a space with lower rent and overheads which thus represented an enticing solution to the difficulty of inflated rents facing many stores of our kind. For a year we worked in this space happily, until the recession hit with full force and we began to fall behind with our rent. Our response to this situation was similar to that of any small retail business. We bought shrewdly, held regular events, did book tables for small press launches, conferences and author appearances, did not invest in advertising, fixtures, signage or renovations, kept only minimal staff (the store has one part-time staff person), and most importantly worked full-time or more with long store hours, while drawing the absolute minimum for our own rent and expenses. In this way we were able, albeit very gradually, to pay our back-rent, and maintain an amicable relationship with out landlord. While the space presented a number of challenges, including our basement flooding whenever there was heavy rain, and though we heard many stories of rent reductions in our own neighborhood we were not offered this option, but continued none-the-less to enjoy working at the store and feel inspired by our customers’ enthusiasm for the books that we were selling. Quite suddenly this changed. Our landlord became impatient with the rate at which we were able to pay her and made demands for large repayments, without providing a precise accounting of what was owing. In light of our workload and the proliferation of other causes in this city, a fundraiser remained only an idea. Instead we responded to these unrealistic demands with an informal proposal which would not have been profitable to us, but to our landlord. We received only further demands which we attempted to meet within our resources until the locks were changed on Friday June 19th. We are once again offering our landlord a choice which would be beneficial to her and allow us to re-open our doors, and are hoping that the outpouring of encouragement from the public might influence our situation. Along with this we are seeking help with organizing a fundraiser, and we are accepting PayPal donations. As we were living day-to-day, as many small business owners do for years after opening or relocating, our own livelihood has been erased, and our present situation is very uncertain. None-the-less we have seen that many people value what we do and are eager to help us, and thus remain hopeful that a resolution is around the corner.

Jesse & Charlie Huisken "

Followed by another post the next day;
"We are sincerely touched by the outpouring of sympathy and understanding that so many people have shown us over the last few days. It is overwhelming that such a diverse group of people all feel strongly about the books that we stock, the place that we create for them, and the way that we champion them. We offer our thanks to each one of you, and have trouble finding words to repay this kindness.

We are, however, in the disappointing position of having had our formal proposal to our landlord rejected. Our proposal to work for her to liquidate our stock was dismissed with the argument that the cost of paying security or a bailiff to observe the process would outweigh the gain. Our proposal did not include security or a bailiff’s presence during the process. Clearly we are not trusted. With no negotiation of our terms of payment available to us we have to accept that the store has no future at this location. This might seem anti-climactic, and some of our supporters may feel that there must be something else that we can do. We ask for your trust that we have, for some time now, considered all the options, and have had the support of a lawyer in formalizing them. Our only hope is to imagine that the store may reemerge in the long-term. At this point a fundraiser could only be a Pyrrhic victory. We encourage all those who have shown such enthusiasm for the store to consider helping us and stores of our kind but in the future.

While we are open to suggestions, we are hoping that our own unfortunate case might offer others the opportunity to seriously consider the factors which combine to make creating and running a bookstore such a challenge in North America. Predatory pricing of Amazon, inflated rents in urban centers, remaindering of excessive print-runs demanded by big-box stores and corporate publishing have had a devastating effect on smaller entrepreneurs. We are still of the feeling that without big changes the best and most satisfying way to support indies is to explore the stores in your city, browse their selection, trust your own curiosity, and buy gift certificates if nothing suits you.

We cannot help but feel guilty for disappointing everyone who has demonstrated their hope that we might resolve our difficulties in the short term. We invite anyone who might feel that we have breached their trust in this respect to contact us at

Jesse & Charlie Huisken"

There followed a previously scheduled set of reading held on the patio of the locked store and the usual talk of fundraisers, which the above posting dismisses. At this point there is no way of knowing what is going to happen but it is assumed they will at some point find a new location. We can certainly hope so. The Rosedale Library had been a fixture on the Toronto scene since 1979, originally on Queen street and then on Church Street from 1986 to 2008 when they made a move to Kensington Market as the Church street's "gay ghetto" became more upscale and the more Market's more bohemian low scale atmosphere seemed a better fit. Apparently it wasn't enough.

So what is an independent bookstore to do? The first posting lays out some of their attempts to meet the demands of a tougher climate. The Toronto Woman's Bookstore lays out some more.

The TWB is another longtime fixture having been around since 1973 although it is bit different than the library in that the TWB was a non-profit that relied on donations, volunteers and a deal to supply some books for woman's studies programs at the U of T. However times were tough even for the TWB and by December of 2008 they were complaining that sales were not covering costs and the TWB would have to start fund raising more desperately. A couple of months later they put out another call, and then a final call asking for a buyer by the end of April or the store would close. Then in May the TWB sent out the following notice;

"Dear TWB community,

We know you have been waiting to hear the latest update, and we finally have something to tell you - it has been a challenging process, but it looks like we have found a new owner for TWB! There are still some logistics & legalities to be worked out so unfortunately we can't give out much concrete information yet, but we can tell you that she is someone who has worked at the store in the past and intends to carry it on in the same tradition. We are expecting the transition to happen for June 1st, and we will let you know as soon as the details are confirmed.

Many of you have asked us how you can help and we have several projects in mind for late May which we will be asking for assistance with, but what we need most is for you to keep shopping at TWB and making donations to help us through this last month. There will be a lot of work and also hidden costs associated with winding down the non-profit business and transitioning to a new model, and we need your continued support in order to meet all of our ethical obligations and give the new TWB owner the best chance of success.

We want to thank you all for loving TWB so much and helping us through this year. As always, we couldn't have done it without you!

the TWB Staff & Board"

This is a little cryptic and doesn't even mention the new owner's name. As it turns out it's a former employee named Victoria Moreno who stepped in when fund raising failed to come up with enough to save the store.

According to a report in XTRA Magazine on June 3 2010;
"As of the sale in May, there were still some legal issues to work out, and the signing hadn’t happened yet. The store was closed for inventory during the last week of the month, and Moreno officially started work on June 1. The store will be closed until the second week in June.

So, where do things stand, financially?

“That’s a bit of a difficult question,” says Moreno. “I’m not too sure. I think the idea is that it will be at a point where it’s pretty close to zero, but we won’t know until the inventory is done.”

Because the store is not-for-profit, Moreno is not purchasing it. Rather, it’s a sale of the assets. She adds that the store’s accounting is outsourced and is currently being worked on.

Moreno has plans for the bookstore. Changes include adding a cafĂ©, which should be ready by the end of June, fixing up the backyard to have a nice garden and seating, and adding new signage. She also wants to revamp the website, increase online sales and add WiFi. To build a sense of community, she’ll have social nights and track customer purchases so staff can make recommendations. She also needs to reestablish some relationships, such as gaining the confidence of university professors so they will place orders for the store to carry their course books.

An official re-launch will likely happen in late summer or early fall.

“I want to keep this space as what everybody has known,” she said at the sale."

As I mentioned the TWB is not a perfect example for Rosdale or other independent bookstores. The TWB gets donations, they also have a deal with the U of T. However within the final paragraph lie the possible answer future for small scale bookstores, and it's in the past.

The TWB will be adding a cafe and garden (with WiFi) and "events" which I assume means more readings and lectures, perhaps acoustic music sets and film screenings. This is actually what many bookshops did back in the early 20th century when they became hubs for artists and other bohemians. They became coffee houses.

These coffee houses had their roots in 19th century London, Paris, Vienna and Edinburgh where they gave a home for writers and artists, impressionists, surrealists, dadaists, anarchists, marxists, and later beatniks be-boppers and folkies along with university students to learn debate and hone their art. They also offered a collection of books that were no available anywhere else. They usually served an assortment of non-alcoholic drinks (usually coffee or tea) and bagels and similar fare to keep people around longer. Add in wi-fi and you have the same basic idea.

There are some big differences today of course. The internet means that soon it will not matter if the big box stores carry the obscure book that you want or not. In fact just this month Indigo owner Heather Reisman announced that in their attempts to remain competitive Indigo/Chapters will be selling more non book related items such as music, dvd's and even toys. Future independent book sellers will have to develop skills they never gave much thought to before; promotion, networking, showmanship. Bookstores must be part of a cultural hub of writers, music and art. Pure retail will not be enough. They must promote an entire lifestyle in which reading is an integral part. The internet simply can not do this. The internet can not offer a sense of community the way being somewhere in person can. This is the opening that Bookstores, Music Clubs, Community Radio Stations and Art Galleries can exploit. But only if they sense that the opening is there at all.

I hope that they can find their way through this (look; it's a literary reference alert!) Brave New World. I have spent a collective amount of time haunting bookstores that must be measured in years at least. With only music taking more time. I wouldn't trade any of it for the internet.

And yes, I am aware of the irony of writing this in a blog. To that I can only say that actual publishing is too hard and costly for me, but we do what we can.

Friday, 2 July 2010

NXNE Review 2010

So far I have been to every NXNE and CMW since the first ones and this year was certainly one of them. Actually I do think that they have put more effort into the lineup for NXNE this year both for bands and films, they also extended the schedule to cover both Wednesday and Sunday on either side of the weekend. To bad I didn't get my pass until the Thursday and so missed The Eagles of Death Metal and The Blue Van. Which means I kicked things off with....

Thursday June 17;

10pm ~ X ~ Dundas Square
Been looking forward to this even before I heard it was going to happen. X, with Billy Zoom, haven't played outside of L.A. since the 1980's so I've actually not seen them before. Damn if it wasn't a rock solid as you could have asked for. Dundas Square is not exactly the most intimate venue but the sound was decent all things considered. Billy always manages to look like he is the happiest person in the room while still looking like the coolest, which is harder than you think. And he played like a well oiled machine. Ditto for D.J. Bonebrake and John Doe. Xeane looked healthy too which was nice. The vocals were a little ragged of course but that was always one of their charms.

12am ~ Elliott Brood ~ The Horseshoe
I haven't seen them for awhile and it was kind of a sort set but they manage to make their goth-grass work as a foot stomping crowd pleaser. Their other stuff sounds more like Neil Young & Buffalo Springfield.

1am ~ The 222's ~ The Bovine
Another old school punk band reuniting for another kick at the can. This one's from Montreal and is a good example of basic pre-hardcore punk. Nothing special but solid.

2am ~ The Junction ~ The Horseshoe
Your basic indie guitar type band. It's OK but nothing that sticks in my mind five seconds after it's done.

3am ~ The Soft Pack ~ The Silver Dollar
One of the "surprise" TBA guests. The Pack, from San Diego, do a full on noisy guitar fest with driving bass lines and a whole lotta feedback. Cool. Worth seeing again.

Friday June 18;

10:30pm (approx) ~ Flatfoot 56 ~ The Hard Luck Bar
OK not really part of NXNE but what the Hell. I had the choice between getting crammed into the show to see Mudhoney, Man or Astroman and the Poisoned Arrows or going to the Hard Luck for the Brains. I chose the Brains, hadn't heard the openers Flatfoot 56. They are a Dropkick Murphys type Celtic Punk band with a bagpiper and mandolin player. Unlike some other bands of this type, like umm... the Murphys, you can actually hear the mandolin and piper, and they are actually really good players,especially the mandolin. They did a cool cover of Screaching Weasel's "Cool Kids", with bagpipes yet!

12am (approx) ~ The Brains ~ The Hard Luck Bar ~
The best Psychobilly in Montreal (if not Canada) are back with a new cd. I've seen them plenty of times and they always pretty much do the same thing, but they do it really well. Actually there was one new thing, a version of "Rock this town" using the mandolin player from Flatfoot 56 that really should make it to the next Brains cd, and probably will.

2am ~ The Schomberg Fair ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
This country/goth combo were not as rootsy as their cd, but then again I only got to see a few songs.

3am ~ The Cheap Speakers ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
A solid somewhat 60's ish guitar rock trio worth further exploration.

Saturday June 19;

9:30pm ~ Iggy and The Stooges ~ Dundas Square ~
I figured that a free Stooges show (with the return of James Williamson, something we never thought would happen) would be insane, turns out it was worse than that. Dundas square was jam packed with every freak in the city including unfortunately the two groups I most hate to see at punk shows.
Exhibit a) The Drunken Frat Boy/Jock type who take any chance to do their Drunken Frat Boy/Jock mosh which basically the same as the thing that football players do before they head out to the field where they grab each other by the shoulders and bang their heads together, except now they get to do that to much smaller people who aren't wearing helmets cause it's "punk rock man!" To them I say;
"Die you assholes! Go back and listen to those gangsta rap songs about date rape like you usually do. Fuck off already!"
Exhibit b) The Hard Core Squeegee Punks, some of them are ok and even funny enough, but then there's those ones with their "we're punker than you" attitude and their "we're too punk to bathe" look, all encased in black leather and spikes no matter how hot it is. Always shoving their way through the crowd and daring anyone to speak up and give them an excuse to beat somebody up. To them I say;
"Die you assholes! Go hang out with the frat boys, you have more in common than you'd like to admit. Fuck off already!"
Anyway the crowd was so dense and packed that I and others around me had to take it on faith that that was in fact Iggy up there and not just a backing track since it was literally impossible to actually see anything at all. So much as I would have normally would have enjoyed touching base with all the folks I ran into that I haven't seen in ages I had to get out of that sweaty frustrating mass. So I wandered over to the side and climbed over a railing and behind the drinking area to get to stage left where some other folks had gotten the same idea. At last it was possible to see the band since they never moved from the front of Rock Action's drum kit the whole time. Occasionally Iggy himself would shimmy his way over as well and accept the accolades from the smaller crowd at the side. The first few times this happened some people who had all-access passes to be further up on stage left would all stand up and block our view, until some guys started chanting "Down in front! Down in front!" After a couple of times some of the pass holders heard this, turned around, and then actually sat down! To which I say;
"Cudos to you Sirs and Madams; you're a class act."
Did I mention that they did most if not all of raw power along with other stuff from the first two albums and the sound was, all things considered pretty good? Well it was. And that Iggy is still a sweaty, shirtless, toned, leathery, lizard king? Well he is. And the Stooges still kick ass.

11:30pm ~ Moneen ~
Who booked this mess? Who decided to put the Darlings of Chelsea on while the Stooges were playing elsewhere thus guaranteeing that none of their fans or friends would show? I'm surprised the band even showed up, I wouldn't if I were them. Then they put on Moneen, a dreadfully dull indie type band of the type that Sonic Unyon used to sign back in the day, to bore the fuck out of everybody. Actually that's not entirely true as they do have a fair number of sappy fans who immediately left as soon as Moneen did so they wouldn't be contaminated by the Zeros and their old school punk. Kids these days I swear.

12am ~ The Zeros ~ The El Mocambo
Thank you NXNE for putting The Zeros, Stark Naked & the Fleshtones, Drive Like Maria and Man or Astroman on AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME IN COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FUCKING CLUBS! It wouldn't be NXNE with out some piece of randomly stupid booking. On top of which the Man or Astroman gig was one of their secret T.B.A. gigs which was announced via Twitter and gave out THE WRONG FUCKING TIME! Nice one. Anyway.. where was I? Oh right, the Zeros. They are yet another "legendary punk band of the 1980's", this time from L.A. where they were considered "The Mexican Ramones". Actually they had more in common with the Undertones or Teenage Head but what the Hell. They were still looking and sounding pretty well preserved too. This was actually their first gig in Canada ever and they are planning on coming back.

1am ~ The Gin Riots ~ The El Mocambo ~
This vaguely 1960's like Soft Boys type guitar band are getting some good press from England which is in short supply of such bands of late. They were ok but they really didn't belong on this bill though so I'm willing to give them another chance.

2am ~ Porcelin Forehead ~ The El Mocambo ~
And we have another "Legendary Punk band from the 1980's" this time from Ottawa which was not exactly a punk hot spot then or now. Although they were billed as a "hardcore band" and were apparently on a few hardcore comps back in the day (which I may or may not own), they are really a pretty straight up punk band. Not spectacular but solid enough.

2:20am ~ The Darcys ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
They sounded good from the street with a swirling psyche wall of sound, but the Rancho is a notorious sweatbox during the summer, especially when it's packed, which it was. So I got the Hell out of there. Sorry.

2:30am ~ Comanechi ~ The Silver Dollar ~
The hot new thing out of England is a two piece noise band with a cute Japanese girl drumming and yowling incoherently while her male guitarist partner grinds out two chord metal thrashes. He also had a hairdo that literally covered his entire face the entire time so that I actually couldn't tell if he was also Japanese or not until the end. Answer; no. It's energetic live but pretty much of a piece and we'll see if it has any staying power.

3am ~ The Winks ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
An art rock/performance art four piece from Montreal with an electric mandolin, stand up bass, cello and drums; no guitars please, we're art rockers. The girl singer also wore a lacy fairy costume. I only stuck around because I almost never get to hear an electric mandolin. Too band they don't have any songs to go with it.

3:20am ~ The Strange Boys ~ The Silver Dollar ~
Another solid roots rock band from Austin Texas, are there any other kind? I only saw a few songs, including a version of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a preacher man" which was pretty cool. Worth checking out again.

Sunday June 20;

10pm ~ Ali & The Dts ~ The El Mocambo
An Irish band that evokes the Commitments? That's too easy. Actually they're ok but I don't know if we really need a throwback to the pre-punk pub rock r&b of the 1970's. On the other hand we could do much worse and no doubt will. Much much worse.

11pm ~ The DGB ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
A three piece grunge band from Lindsay, Ontario where they apparently remember grunge. Does anybody here remember grunge? No? Oh well.

12am ~ The Archives ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
Another perfectly competent indie guitar band that I couldn't remember anything about once I got home. But I was pretty tired, otherwise I would have gone down to the Bovine for Sixxxer. However I did find one of their cds at the Stooges gig.

1am ~ Sleep for the night life ~ Rancho Relaxo ~
An all insturmental jam band that I was too bored to stick around for so I went home, NXNE over and out.

"You left me blue; The Handsome Ned story" ~
A loving documentary of the founder of the root's rock scene in Toronto in the 1980's until his death in 1987 before he had a chance to finish what would have been his debut album. He woulda been a contender damn it. There should be more footage when the home version comes out and it's worth seeing for anyone who loves the old Queen st. scene.Also has footage from the Handsone Ned Tribute show I helped put together and stage managed back in 2007 so there is an ever so brief glimpse of me stage left at one point, blink and you'll miss it.

"The Blank Generation" ~
Ivan Krals ultra crude black and white document of the 1970's New York punk scene, most of the major and several minor players are here filmed on stage with completely out of synch sound. However no Suicide though or Velvets which is too bad. It's not currently available but I actually have copy of this already and mentioned it to Ivan Kral (who was there), turns out there are a few bootleg copies floating around.

"X;The unheard music" ~
A straight forward "making of" doc originally done back in the 1980's the film makers were convinced that X were going to be the next big thing. They were wrong but because they thought so they did a thorough job so we have a good document about X unlike so many of their contemporaries.

"Search and Destroy; Iggy Pop and The Stooges raw Power" ~
One of those "making of" docs that they make for VH1. Iggy and James Williamson are quite articulate and thoughtful and the talking head experts don't distract which is a bonus. Unfortunately they didn't get to interview the late Ron Asheton and David Bowie. Although Iggy does allow that the notoriously muddy mix of "Raw Power" wasn't Bowie's fault after all.

"Superstonic Sound: The Rebel Dread" ~
A documentary about Clash manager, film maker and DJ Don Letts who turns out o be a great interview. He's the guy on the cover of the first Clash album facing down the police, it turns out he was actually running to get out of the way but what the Hell.

"Visual Alan Audio Vega" ~
A mercifully short, out of focus, absurdly incoherent interview snippet with Suicide front man Alan Vega filtered through enough feed back and distortion to induce migraines. I know that Suicide used to do the same thing kinda but that was still annoying. On the other hand it did conjure up memories of Chris Twoomy's Industrial Video Roadshow.

Note I sadly missed "Circa 1977; The Diodes" and "Stones in Exile" and I also manged to miss out on Man or Astroman, Mudhoney and Drive Like Maria (twice each!) as well as the Poison Aeros and The Blue Van. I can't be everywhere you know.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Let the lobbying commence for a Bill Monroe stamp

Remember the campaign and subsequent vote for an Elvis stamp? Well there is a similar move afoot to get a stamp for the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. I'm all for it. There have been plenty of stamps for politicians, explorers and scientists that frankly few people care about and it's about time some more respect was given to artists who are not of the "high brow" type usually honoured by the state. The famous Elvis stamps came about as part of a larger package of stamps honouring various other heroes of Rock & Roll, The Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Country. There have also been a few other stamps for Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, and last year, Roy Acuff. You can see them along the left side of this blog. Note the cool Bix Biederbeck stamp is actually a mock up never actually issued and way overdue. The Johnny Cash is also a mockup, he has not been dead long enough to qualify however. Canada has given a stamp to Oscar Peterson but is remiss in ignoring country stars Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Al Nolan. Do I detect a subtle class-ism in a willingness to honour jazz more than country music? For that matter even the series of American masters stamps had some odd omissions. Seriously, no Bix, Lester Young, Sam Cooke, Little Walter, Chet Baker, Sonnyboy Williamson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin? I suspect that the manner their respective deaths might had gotten them a veto. In other words no drug addicts or other scandals. Having only four country music stars leaves out Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzel, Jim Reeves which can be blamed on a belief that Country Music isn't to taken a seriously as Jazz. On the other hand there's no John Cage either.

Anyway here's the info on the Bill Monroe campaign from;

Voice Your Support for a Bill Monroe Commemorative Stamp!

Image courtesy of Grassware

Would you like to see Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, honored by a commemorative United States Postage Stamp? If you would, the time to act is NOW, and all you have to do is to write and mail a letter.

Each year, the United States Postal Service considers the issuance of approximately 25 commemorative postage stamps. Under its guidelines, the honoree must have been deceased for at least 10 years. The 10th anniversary of Bill Monroe's death occurred on September 9, 2006, meaning he is now eligible.

The first two opportunities to honor Bill Monroe with a postage stamp, in 2006 and 2007, have now passed. The centennial of his birth, on September 13, 2011, would be the perfect occasion to celebrate his musical legacy. Since the selection committee considers subjects three years in advance of the issuance date, that means this year and next year are our opportunity to influence their choice for 2011.

The first step is for a citizens' committee to select, and narrow down to approximately 25, the worthy nominees for each year. This they do by considering letters, cards, petitions, etc., sent to them by the public at large. After that, the committee considers art work and other details for the stamp. Because Bill Monroe's music is appreciated worldwide, nominations from outside the USA would be very appropriate. If you would like to participate in this effort on behalf of a great American musical genius, write your letter to:

Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee
Stamp Development
US Postal Service
1735 North Lynn St. Rm 5013
Arlington VA 22209-6432

Don't delay -- if we all pitch in and do our part by writing a letter, and telling our friends, Bill Monroe can receive this well-deserved recognition from the country that he loved.