I am still staggering from a full-on chocolate high. Couldn't be happier.
This evening, my wife and I were invited for a dessert party over at White Dwarf, Vancouver's SF specialty bookstore. Owners Walter and Jill like to have some of the regulars in for an after-dinner potluck once in a while, and if the variety of desserts wasn't enough, there was the blind chocolate challenge, where guests asked to close their eyes, eat a variety of chocolates and try to guess which is which based on its level of cocoa. Okay, so I only identified about half of the samples correctly, but after the first 3 or 4, the tastes linger in the mouth and it all just blends into homogenous chocolatey goodness. I regret not being able to savour each variety independantly and with a clean palate, but still: mass of chocolatey goodness - so I can't complain! And as with any well-planned party, there were lots of different folks with lots of interesting things to say. I think I started things in a chat with another fellow about favourite SF authors and how when your favourite puts out a new book, you rush to finish what's in front of you to get to it. But by the time we left, the topics had moved beyond SF: I'd listened to a highly-technical coversation about cameras, some musings about corset-making, and a taken part briefly in a discussion about comparative municipal tax structures. Really, with good conversation with nice folks and endless tasty variations on chocolatey themes, all crammed into a store filled with SF to browse during those occasional lulls in conversation, what more could you ask for?
And it is this experience that is at the heart of White Dwarf. Not chocolate necessarily (although nestled in among the fairy tales on the kids' shelf there is a nifty little book about the greatness of chocolate), but people coming together. It's about community.
White Dwarf is far beyond a mere merchant operation. It's not just about selling books or bringing authors in to read to sell more books. It's about being a member of the local SF community. You can walk into any of the local Chapters big box outlets and find whole rows of science fiction, fantasy and horror books, and a few of them might actually be worth reading (although the bulk are usually role-playing or other media tie-ins), but it's unlikely you'll find anything older than a couple of years, or in any way off the wall, or from a small press, and the staff certainly don't give a shit about you or what you're looking for. White Dwarf, by contrast, like the best of small niche bookstores, has people who know the customers by face or by name, they know what you like and they can talk about pretty much all of their stock or point you in the direction of someone who can. And it's the fact that they care enough to get to know you that takes the relationship beyond a purely business transaction into the level of community. It's the same at the local cons. Sure the White Dwarf staff go to sell their wares, but they also want to catch up with people they know and find out what's going on in the community. People matter to them and they matter to all of us. The divison of the seller's counter more-or-less disappears (except when you have to pay for your purchases, which is fair) because we all share a passion for reading and talking about really good SF. From there we build bridges between our other interests.
These days, community-building has become all the rage among big business. Bring the customers together for events, etc, and you've got a captive audience to better market your goods. They manufacture connections. Sure, there are some genuine relationships that form as a result of this, but ultimately, because of the intent, it smacks of falsehood.
With White Dwarf, on the other hand, the sense of community is genuine. Even without the author reading nights or by-invitation parties, customers want to go to the store just to be there: to chat with Walter and Jill, play tug-of-war with Judd the basset hound, to perhaps to run into other regulars who they recognize, and yeah, to check out the latest stock or browse to see if they can stumble upon an old chestnut that's been quietly sitting on the back of a shelf for a decade or two. People want to be there. Not because the store is urging customers to come as a way to have support or a more complete experience, but because they just naturally gravitate towards a place that's quiet, comfortable and friendly.
In these times of growing social isolation, it's more important now than ever to seek out places where authentic community grows on its own. You don't have to be there all the time -in fact, it would probably be a little weird if you were. But find that local specialty SF store, or comic shop, or club, or Saturday night pizza and movie gang or whatever in your community have some good conversation.
The first time I stepped in the door of this little book shop a few years ago, the experience was: "Ahhh. This is it." And that feeling hasn't ever left.