Charles de Lint: Algorithms are No Substitute for Bookstore Staff

I grew up back in prehistoric times, when dinosaurs roamed the world and there was no Internet. Then, as now, I read broadly, but I was particularly drawn to fantasy. In those ancient times, genres weren’t as splintered as they are today. Looking for fantasy, one had to check both the science fiction and mainstream sections, and the pickings were still slim.

I remember hitchhiking weekly into downtown Ottawa from rural Quebec, stopping in at a few record stores, but always paying visits to both the Classics Bookstore at the National Arts Centre and W.H. Smith Books on the Sparks Street Mall because, for me, these were the only decent outlets for books. Secondhand bookstores also existed, but rarely did they have anything that I wanted. Later on, I discovered mail order catalogues and used them, but even they had their limitations given that they were only published monthly or quarterly.

It must seem quaint today when, with enough money, you can click and instantly buy pretty much any book you want from an online retailer, but the problem with buying online—or even those older methods of mail order—is that you don’t get the physical sense of the book. You can’t feel the weight of it in your hand, flip through its pages, check out more than the free sample pages at the beginning, or open the book at random to get a true sense of the author’s style.\\

 So it was a somewhat frustrating time and to be honest, I didn’t even know what I was looking for in a book retailer until the House of Speculative Fiction opened in the Glebe. Imagine. A whole bookstore devoted to fantasy and science fiction. A place where I could actually hold and peruse titles published by the small specialty presses, rather than just guess at their quality before ordering by mail. A place that displayed the new releases covers on the wall, months before they became  available.

The shop had a magical charm all its own located as it was in an old house on Fourth Avenue, just steps off busier Bank Street to the west. Wooden steps led to a porch, a hallway, and finally one entered what had once been a large parlour and dining room, now filled with books. It smelled like wood and paper, and sometimes the tea that was brewed by the staff in a little kitchen beyond the desk. Large windows let in natural light, which on a sunny day would make the whole room glow. 

Today’s algorithms are no substitute for conversations with bookstore staff, comparing favourites, getting and giving recommendations. I discovered so many new favourite authors in the House of SF, either by wandering around, pulling random titles from the shelves, or from conversations with the folks behind the counter. I also met one of my best friends there: Rodger Turner, who was a co-owner. Although the store is long gone, these forty or so years later we still get together on a weekly basis.

So don’t pass up the experience of frequenting a real independent bookstore. There are treasures to be found: long-lasting friendships and the shared bond of a genuine love for real books.

 (c) 2015 Charles de Lint

On May 2, Backbeat Books & Music at 6 Wilson Street West in Perth, Ontario will be hosting Charles de Lint.

Charles de Lint is the author of more than seventy adult, young adult, and children's books. Renowned as one of the trailblazers of the modern fantasy genre, he is the recipient of the World Fantasy, Aurora, Sunburst, and White Pine awards, among others. Modern Library'sTop 100 Books of the 20th Century poll, conducted by Random House and voted on by readers, put eight of de Lint's books among the top 100.

De Lint is a poet, folklorist, artist, songwriter and performer. He has written critical essays, music reviews, opinion columns and entries to encyclopedias, and he's been the main book reviewer for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction since 1987. De Lint served as Writer-in-residence for two public libraries in Ottawa and has taught creative writing workshops for adults and children in Canada and the United States. He's been a judge for several prominent awards, including the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon and Bram Stoker.