Sunday, January 31, 2010

Passing Up the Chance to Pick Over a Carcass

Not too long ago, independent book dealer Duthie Books, an institution of the Vancouver book scene, announced it was closing it's last store location. Their final going-out-of-business sale started on Thursday and will last a couple of weeks, but while I've never met a book sale I didn't like, I won't be circling with the other vultures this time.

There's no arguing that it's getting tough out there for book retailers. SF Signal did a great interview with Alan Beatts, the owner of Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, a few years ago, where Beatts explains in detail the challenges faced by independents these days in the form of national big box chain competition and Amazon. Throw in last year's economic slump, and the general culture shift over the past few decades where the increasing story complexity and visual candy of video games are drawing more kids away who otherwise might have read more and grown into fandom, and bookstore owners (especially independents) have got some pretty impressive odds stacked against them.

While conditions here in Canada are somewhat different than in the US (our economy wasn't pounded anywhere near as hard because we know how to manage it better), our national big box, Chapters, with the Canadian wing of Amazon coming in pincus-like on the other side, have hit the little guys hard. Case in point: Winnipeg's McNally Robinson, a fine bookselling company with (at least when I lived there briefly back in the 90's) great selection, friendly staff who knew their stock, and beautiful dark green stores accented with wood; but ultimately a store that got hammered down by competition and a few wrong moves by management to the point where they're down to just a couple of stores, only one of which is in the 'Peg, their home town.

Now it's Duthie, except this time, this 53-year-old landmark for booklovers on the Lower Mainland is going down for the count.

To be fair, Duthie's been in a downward spiral for years. I can remember back at the end of the 90's when they had several locations in Vancouver, including one at Robson & Hornby (right in the heart of the Downtown shopping district) where I used to go. But then Chapters started rampaging across the region. Word came that the giant (which had evolved out of the Coles/WH Smith/World's Biggest Bookstore conglomerant - this was years before it was taken over by Indigo) was going to set up one of its megastores in the heart of Downtown. To protect its turf, Duthie shut down the Robson & Hornby store and opened its own big box a couple of blocks away at Georgia & Granville. Problem is, that didn't stop Chapters from proceeding with its plans and opening up shop a couple of blocks away at Robson & Howe anyway. Inability to keep up with Chapters' pricing, along with other factors no doubt, led to the demise of the Duthie big box, and over time, their various other small, pre-existing outlets, were closed too.

That left Duthie with their last location on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano. And now, unable to compete, they're finally calling it quits.

But as I mentioned before, I won't be going to take part in their last hurrah by buying some of their SF leftovers.

And this isn't because I'm shocked and upset by Duthie being forced to close due to competitive market forces to the point where I feel I can't legitimize what's happened by participating in a going-out-of-business sale. Far from it. While I think it's unfortunate they're done, I have, in principle, no problem at all with taking advantage of a break in price on their books.

It isn't because their SF section is small. While it is tiny, many's the time that I've been in bookstores with small SF sections where I've found stock that no-one else is carrying yet, or that no-one else has carried in a long time and which might even be out of print. You can find some buried treasure when you take the time to check a bookstore to see if it has an SF section, no matter how small it may be at first glance. Besides, while SF may be my passion, I enjoy reading other types of books as well, and in theory it would be worth while to see what the other sections held.

It isn't because I don't support local small business. Quite the contrary, I'm a huge fan of neighbourhood businesses. Anyone who's read this blog long enough knows I'll sing the praises of White Dwarf Books - Vancouver's SF specialty bookshop - at the drop of a hat. Small business owners and their staff (for the most part) know their products very well and take the time to get to know their customers.

I'm not going to Duthie's swan-song sale because of bad customer service.

Back in the years before Duthie started to fall towards the retail event horizon, I used to be a somewhat regular customer at their Robson & Hornby location. Not every week mind you, but reliably every three months or so and on those visits I'd usually buy a couple of books. I'd go Downtown, go into the store, take a cursory glance around the small street-level shop, then head downstairs to their much larger basement section. The place reminded me a lot of the library basement in the opening of Ghostbusters. Even though the floor tiles, ceiling and walls were white to try to make the place bright, the ceiling was low, the stacks were close to one-another, and even when there were lots of people down there (and this was frequently the case, remember, prime Downtown business and shopping district - people were coming in all the time), you didn't really see them or hear them much... it always felt empty and haunted. And yet they had a fantastic selection. There was never a time when I went in there and couldn't find something new and interesting, or something old that I didn't know about - and this is despite the fact that between my visits to Duthie I was going to other stores every couple of weeks, so I knew the new stock fairly well. To top it off, the staff were always friendly and a couple of them knew their SF pretty well. It was a pleasure to do business with Duthie in the old days.

Fast forward to last year. The Duthie empire had crumbled with the Fourth Ave/Kits store left as its sole remaining outpost. I had some time on my hands one afternoon and spent a few hours walking up and down the strip, and in addition to checking out other stores, went in to see what Duthie had. I was immediately struck by the sour reek of exclusivity. To be fair, Kits is a place with its fair share of hipsters, university students, wannabe-artists, trend-chasers and assorted other hangers-on. But there are an equal number, if not more, of people who are generally talented, intelligent, creative, and cutting edge, but who are friendly and down-to-earth. On that day the store was staffed only by the former group. It's as though I'd walked through the door and some airport-like uncool detector had triggered a silent alarm, informing the Dieter-from-Sprockets brigade behind the counter and at the restocking carts that someone not of the scene had violated the sanctity of their store's pretension zone. I moseyed to the back (yep, the stereotype was in effect - gotta keep the SF section crammed away in the farthest, darkest - yes, the light above the section had gone out and not been replaced - back corner like twitchy cousin Skippy to make sure the neighbours don't see him) and found a book I hadn't seen anywhere else. Book in hand, I browsed around the rest of the store for a while before heading to the front counter to settle up. That in itself seemed to be quite an affront to the 20-year-old staffer who deigned to break off his conversation with one of his colleagues to punch through my purchase. He glared and sighed dramatically the entire time as though I was guilty of some intellectual offence by purchasing SF rather than the vegan cookbook of the week or the latest reprint of Satre. I laid down my cash, took my book, and left knowing that was the last time I'd go into that store.

Now, I'm sure that unrelenting competition from Chapters and Amazon ground Duthie down. I'm willing to believe they probably never recovered from the debacle of their attempt at superstoredom Downtown. I'm aware that real estate prices on the Lower Mainland are through the roof and rent or taxes on their business may have been a burden. But while that store may have had one or two good staffers (not that I saw them), I'm positive that if a reasonably normal-lookin' guy like me got treated as badly as I did last year, the same thing must have happened to plenty of other people. It's one thing for a big box retailer's staff to be impersonal, it's quite another for a neighbourhood store's staff to be snotty. If you treat people badly, your customer base will erode and with no customer loyalty, you won't be able to compete against the big guys, or even just hold your own in your own part of town. In the end, I have to wonder if, at least in part because of their staffing, they brought this on themselves.

I'm not going to the sale at Duthie's because even as they go out of business and need every dollar they can get, they don't deserve my business. Not anymore anyway. And now there won't be a chance to win it back.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Onward if Not Exactly Upward - Chuck season 3

With three episodes of the new season aired so far, I'm glad Chuck is back, but I have to admit I'm a little disappointed.

Season 2 left off with our intrepid geek having been loaded with version 2 of the intercept, endowing him (Matrix-like, if temporarily) with an astounding array of new abilities and knowledge with the potential of making him the uber-spy.

The problem is all of the qualifications the writers have put on Chuck's ability to use intercept.2. He has the potential for an increadible change of life, but it doesn't happen because frequently he can't make the thing work. Because of this, the addition of abilities like kung fu to his storehouse of secrets, doesn't much change his character. The only real difference is that now the others have added "Come on, Chuck, you can do it!" to their mantra of "Flash on it, Chuck!". It's like he's the Greatest American Hero doing well enough with the magic jammies, rather than excelling as much as he would if he hadn't lost the manual.

The consequence is that he flunks out of spy school and has to go back to his Nerd Herd double-life. His role in the team dynamic and in the field is pretty much the same as before too.

Moreover, his relationship with Sarah is, ultimately unchanged, with the two of them pining for one-another while pretending they're just friends and work associates who are pretending to be lovers.

So, at this point at least, season 3 is pretty much the same as seasons 1 & 2. There's been no significant character or plot development.

Which is too bad, because these things are possible in a geek-struggling-to-deal-with-being-thrown-into-a-big-dangerous-strange-life show like this. Look at Reaper. Sam's life got thrown into deep water, but he (and other characters) changed over the course of its two seasons. Sam got the girl, grew into his powers, and started to take the offensive in getting out of his contract with the devil. There were signs that had the show continued (and maybe it will, I'm not up on the latest gossip about whether it'll get renewed) he would have continued to adapt as a character and change his role.

Chuck hasn't done that.

That being said, Chuck is one of the most entertaining shows on the tube right now, and I'll certainly keep watching. I just hope that instead of serving us the same-old-same-old, the writers will allow Chuck to evolve a little.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kissing the Hand of Steampunk - Sherlock Holmes

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a roast chicken spattered with red wine that had been thrown at a famous detective)

We went to see Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr as the great detective and Jude Law as his only somewhat faithful sidekick, last weekend and while this aint your typical, staid BBC evening special, on the whole, it's a fun romp.

The story pits Holmes against the sinister Lord Blackwood, a man claiming to have supernatural powers who is bent on taking over the world. England's finest (and probably grimiest) has to connect the dots between a series of murders and chase Blackwood and his minions from the dirty underbelly of London (where Holmes is quite at home) to the halls of high society before his nemesis can execute his fiendish scheme.

Downey does a wonderful job playing the dishelveled Holmes as distant, calculating and occasionally cruel, as well as slovenly, depressed and needy to the point of being pathetic. Again, not your run-of-the-mill portrayal of Holmes, but one that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would probably have approved of if his rumoured dislike of the character was true. It's also a rendition that certainly works for a modern audience not interested in being shown the exploits of a Data-like robot, but rather a fallible genius who has to claw his way to success.

Kudos also to Law for his portrayal of Watson - steady, eminently Victorian in his demeanor, thoroughly fed-up with Holmes and his antics, and yet still unable to seperate himself from the man.

So where does steampunk come into play? Only very slightly through the appearance of a hand-crank-powered taser during a cracking good fight scene, and a radio/electronically-controlled bomb at the end. Certainly not over-the-top League of Extraordinary Gentlemen retro-Victorian high-tech, but just the same, and not enough to throw mainstream viewers off the rails, but enough to give SF fans a bit of a giggle.

If one were thinking of attending the cinematograph of an evening, one could certainly do worse than to witness Sherlock Holmes.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Awesome BTILC Christmas Present

It's a big Christmas present here in the other Little China my friends... My wife's present to me, which has been on order for awhile, finally arrived today!

Behold, fellow Carpenter fanboys and fangirls, the Dragon of the Black Pool jacket:

It may not be a six-demon-bag, but this coat rocks!

Thanks to the Wing Kong Exchange for pointing the way to this find. Thanks most of all to my wife, who not only indulges my geeky passions, but feeds them as well.

Monday, January 04, 2010

End of an Era - the 10th Doctor Hands Over the Keys to the TARDIS

Warning: Spoilers
(spoilage factor: about the same as a Christmas turkey after The Master has been at it)

On Saturday night we sat and watched as Doctor Who died - again.

After going nose-to-nose with both The Master and Rassillon, the 10th incarnation of the Doctor pulled a Spock, stepping into a chamber that would be flooded with lethal radiation in order to save Donna's grandfather.

Well, it was supposed to be lethal, anyway. But for an apparently killer dose, the Doctor was moping around for quite some time after. And that robbed his transition to #11 of a good deal of its punch. Sure, I'm all for letting a favourite character have a last speech that'll make us smile or weep, but #10 just dragged on and on and on and on. In the time it took for him to give gramps a hug, take 'im home, and then solemnly schlep around space and time to give final longing stares at Companions past (including a trip to the 'hood to pine over Rose one last time - it would have been a far more powerful, far more adult piece of writing to have him pop in on Martha, see that she'd married Mickey, and realize what a huge mistake he'd made taking her for granted and losing out on what would have been a more equal and thus enriching and stimulating relationship than the teenage hero-worship angst crap of the Rose affair ever was or could have been. The same if he'd gazed at Donna through the window. Really, the show over the past couple of years has been about missed opportunities for grownup relationships, but rather than having the Doctor come to this realization, rather than have him come to an adult state of mind, the writers defaulted to the easy, childish Rose plot of old. They made him the loser who couldn't get over a failed highschool romance. Sigh.) he could have lept aboard the TARDIS and zoomed off to a luxury hospital on some high-tech world (maybe the hospital at New New New New New York before the human guineapig disaster or the tragedy that led to the virus release and the ultimate traffic jam) and got his microwaved ass fixed. Maybe. But no, the writers went with the BSG ending that was self-indulgently long to the point of being kinda boring.

And then they tossed the show to the kid.

I'm trying hard, really hard, to give Matt Smith a chance. But my ability to cut the 11th version of the Timelord some slack was sorely tested when his voice cracked (granted, this was obviously a deliberate squeek to have a bit of fun with the fact that he's very young this time around) but most especially when he started racing through his dialogue in what was clearly an effort to sound like David Tennant. What make the Doctor interesting is not merely that there's a different face for every incarnation, or that he has a change of wardrobe, but that each actor puts a different twist on the character's mannerisms right from the start of their tenure. Why do we say that one Doctor is our favourite rather than another? It's because of his unique contribution to the character's behaviour. It was a mistake of cosmic proportions for Smith to try to imitate Tennent's frenetic pace, and doubly so for the director to allow him to do it. I hope they come to the realization that they've got to let him reinvent the character along new lines when they start the new season.

Beyond that, there's my worry that because he's young, and the new Companion, from what I've read, isn't much older, that we're going to be served some kind of Dawson's TARDIS here. Granted, Doctor Who is classified as a kids' show in the UK, and having a younger cast is a gamble to bring in more viewers in that age bracket and hold onto them so they'll become legacy fans, but there's also a large portion of the audience that's above 18 years old, and the producers risk losing us if the show becomes some kind of Twilight Through Space and Time.

That being said, I certainly didn't hate Doctor Who: The End of Time. It was fun to see Donna's grandfather finally get the chance to go through his paces as a Companion, if only for a little while.

I quite enjoyed the 10th Doctor's last words. They were frightened, they were childish, and they were entirely appropriate.

And I thought it was really clever the way the sound of drums that have plagued the Master throughout his existence were explained as a last-ditch bail-out attempt by the Timelords on Gallifrey.

Better still was the Doctor's willingness to admit that as much as he hates being alone in the universe, the Time War had had such a negative effect on the collective psyche of his people, had hardened them so much, had made them so self-absorbed and callous towards the rest of existence, that he wouldn't want them coming back - at least not as they were at the end of the war. They had become as much the enemy as the Daleks. In a series (and especially an episode) that's been known to flinch away from hard views of life sometimes, this was a pretty adult portrait of what war can do to a people.

While I wish Tennant's final stint as the Doctor had been up to par with some of the episodes of series three or four, on the balance this was an adequate way to say farewell.

Now we, as fans, have time on our hands as we wait to see whether the 11th Doctor will be able to prove himself.