On the last day of 2010 we drove 976km from Calgary to Vancouver. Along the way we stopped in Golden, BC for coffee and muffins at Bacchus Books & Cafe, which I totally recommend if you’re there, and it’s got me thinking about the future (if any) of physical-media retail.

But first, a quick sidebar:

No, that’s not a misprint, and it’s actually worse than that; the day before we’d gone 760km from Regina, where my family had gathered for Christmas, to Calgary. We gather because we enjoy each other and we travel because we’re scattered across the country. This time my branch of the family chose on impulse to drive because we could and because the airfares were stupid and because Western Canada is awesomely beautiful, particularly in winter. When I say “awesome” I’m using it in the biblical not teenage sense; Earth may offer one or two better showpieces than the eastern approach at sunrise from Prairies to Rockies but I sure haven’t seen any.

I don’t regret it for a second. Try it sometime. Yeah, you get into a somewhat altered state of consciousness when you spend twenty-plus hours out of 48 in a moving vehicle, but some of us like that.

Anyhow, we’d started super-early and taken the long stage from Calgary to Golden in one hop because some of the passengers were sleeping and the traffic was absent and I managed to zone out and miss the Banff turn-off. So we decided we’d get real-as-opposed-to-Tim-Horton’s coffee and buns by turning off the Trans-Canada into Golden’s downtown. Bacchus looked cool and was right beside a gas station.

They sent us upstairs for coffee and on the counter were two trays of great big muffins, obviously just baked. Those were blackberry; also available, from the last baking run, cherry-and-chocolate. They were superb, the lattes strong and good, the atmosphere friendly, the lady with the muffins happy to chatter with our kids, and the used books facing us attractively eclectic.

This was at 10AM on Fri Dec 31st; another sit-down customer was upstairs with us doing Internet and then there was a steady flow of take-out coffees and buns, and the muffins were going fast. There were ratty old used kids’ books lying around to keep the young ’uns interested, and then the same for grown-ups; used and new both, and I bought one of each:

Heroes of Blues Jazz and Country by R.Crumb and Ninjas, The Invisible Assassins by Andrew Adams

Both these books are attractively slim.

The Crumb, based only on a leaf-through, is obviously a gem; the faces and colors leap off the page enfolded in a cloud of high-quality-ink perfume. Plus, it comes with a CD containing 21 tracks by musicians most of whom you haven’t heard of, the tunes scratchy and sometimes only barely audible, but digging deeper into the roots of American music than most people realize they run. You can’t imagine how good it sounded as we raced round the big steep high scary snowy bends of the Rogers Pass neighborhood.

As for the Ninja book, it’s from 1970 and is just loaded with nifty pictures, albeit in second-rate black-and-white, of Ninjutsu techniques and artifacts and landmarks and so on. It’s apparently serious and predates the advent of the ninja into pop culture. For $7 used in decent condition who could decline?

And Your Point Is? · Well, at one point in the run-up to Christmas I found myself in a big-box bookstore thinking this place is dead. From where I stood, I could see no books I wanted to buy. And if I had, I would’ve been inclined to get the ePub for my Android. And I could see no incentive to sit down, or in fact to stay; so I left.

The immense size of the joint was predicated at some level on the need to house media-storage devices with a mass amounting to a significant fraction of a kilogram and volume on the order of a brick’s. Which seems wrong for something that can be expressed as a collection of bits.

Bacchus, on the other hand, got my car off the street and my wallet out of my pocket. I’m still a bit frazzled from all those kilometres, so I’ll eschew grand theories and offer a list of things Bacchus offered; some combination may be part of the formula for keeping bookstores open, something I intensely hope to see happen:

  • A good location with big letters on the outside saying what they sell.

  • Products unavailable digitally because they’re old and obscure.

  • Products unsuitable for digital delivery because they require print-quality resolution and color.

  • An incentive to sit down and spend time in a location where the product can reach out to you.

  • Friendly grown-up staff.

  • Strong flavorful coffee.

  • Fresh-baked muffins. I suppose the muffins are somehow a metaphor, but I’m not smart enough to pick it out. Let me tell you, when we walked in and there were old-fashioned muffin tins on the counter with these big honking dark-brown mounds broadcasting berries and cinnamon and sugar and love, the deal was three-quarters done right there.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Chris Marsden (Jan 02 2011, at 01:44)

One of my favorite guitar shops (that is, unfortunately, no longer open) used to offer its customer's free coffee. I literally spent days (and thousands of dollars) in that shop, sitting at the front counter and talking with the owner, coffee in hand. I'm not sure the coffee closed the deal on the first sale, but it definitely closed the deal on a ton of others.

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From: Claire (Jan 02 2011, at 14:56)

I remember that ninja book -- one of my friends had it (possibly even in the seventies). I remember it being really cool (in the sense of being interesting and enlightening), but, then again, that was thirty years ago...

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From: Andrew (Jan 02 2011, at 21:07)

I think what you described is a coffee shop that sells old second-hand books. Clearly such an establishment has to make its money from coffee and not from books as it couldn't possibly keep enough stock to be profitable. Imagine if that place was 10 minutes drive from your house. You might go there regularly for coffee and baked goods but how often would you really buy a book? Maybe at Christmas or birthdays but it wouldn't be sufficient to keep a place like that in business. A coffee shop however is a tried and true business model that seems to be thriving.

Like many people that bemoan the loss of independent bookstores what I suspect you really miss isn't the ability to buy the books selected by the owner but access to that selection expertise. Books are a perfect example of why the long tail isn't always a good thing. Independent book store owners have to be very selective about what they carry so they tend to have a very detailed understanding of their specific market. If that market includes you it means that you are more likely to find something of interest faster than you would in a larger store catering to a more generalized market.

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From: Duncan Ellis (Jan 02 2011, at 22:03)

Totally with you on the futility of the big box book stores.

My father-in-law has in the past given us Barnes & Noble gift cards, which would be perfectly fine if I could ever find anything I wanted to buy in those stores. The only viable strategy I have found is to know what I want before I go in: browsing in B&N provides no value.

Borders has been better, but they are closing stores here in Portland, OR.

But then we have Powell's.

*happy sigh*

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From: Scott Paton (Jan 03 2011, at 00:26)

Hi Tim,

Happy New Year!

This past summer I drove the Trans-Canada from Vancouver to Banff then returned via Highway 3 along the bottom of BC.

Was spectacular.

I remember driving from Winnipeg to Calgary many times in the 80's and 90's and, yeah, it's flat, but breath-taking in its own way.

Thanks for reminding me,

Scott

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From: Stuart Marks (Jan 04 2011, at 23:50)

Ah, Golden BC. I remember going through there on one of my trips through the Canadian Rockies a number of years ago. I either missed Bacchus' or it wasn't there yet. Thanks for the travelogue.

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From: Takashi Shitamichi (Jan 05 2011, at 04:51)

Mr. and Ms.Bray,

Happy New Year!

Golden is the one of the important base for Heli-Ski. I've been there once -- almost 20 years ago. I suppose a lot of things were changed but beautiful white Canadian-Rocky still is still there.

I think you saw amazing number of stars in the sky during your trans-continental trip. My wife is saying that most beautiful stars in the sky which she has seen was during our trip from Jasper to Vancouver by VIA Rail Canada about 17 years ago.

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From: The Sanity Inspector (Jan 08 2011, at 09:33)

Just parachuting in to say that I enjoyed your 2003 review of that Led Zeppelin double DVD. I found it in your archives en route to looking up something else.

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From: Duncan Lock (Jan 30 2011, at 18:21)

Nice piece, thanks for the travelogue!

I think points 2 & 3 should probably start 'Products currently unavailable...', though.

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January 01, 2011
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