• Tag Archives Calgary
  • Why I Love My Local Independent Bookstore

    Walking into this bookstore is a different experience than walking into pretty much any other bookstore for one very good reason: it isn’t any other bookstore. It isn’t just another of a large chain of stores striving to make every shopping experience absolutely identical. This bookstore has an identity.

    I’m talking specifically about Shelf Life Books in Calgary, but I’m sure a lot of this applies to whatever independent bookstores exist in your community.

    To understand what Shelf Life Books is, let’s first see what it’s not. When I walk into a big chain bookstore like, oh say, Chapters, I usually need to know what I’m looking for specifically. It’s not really set up for browsing, confronting me instead with shelves packed with dozens of copies of the current best sellers. It feels more like going to a grocery store than a bookstore, and I tend to treat it the same way. I go to a specific aisle for a specific item. I can be assured to find the latest from any of the major publishers, but the chances of discovering something new and relatively unheard of is unlikely.

    Here, I have to browse. Even if the store is laid out into genres—I can’t imagine a book store that isn’t—the displays and the books themselves compel me to slow down, walk around, and really look at what’s there. For the first time in my life I’m deliberately looking beyond the fantasy section for something different. I’m looking—shock and horror—at non-fiction, finding books about things that interest me and things I didn’t even know interested me. Picking up The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Bable by Nicholas Ostler was hardly a surprise seeing as how I love language, but Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber was something I never expected to get into but did. Today it was the ninetieth issue of The Believer and Light Em Up, a book of microfictions that fits in a matchbook. Some of these things I wouldn’t be able to find at a Chapters, and the rest I wouldn’t even think to look for.

    Shelf Life Books encourages me to linger a while. I can sit at a table and write, just as I am now, which is something I haven’t been able to do easily at a Chapters (I’ve tried. The tables at the mandatory Starbucks are tiny and noisy.) The atmosphere here is an escape and not just another mad-dash stop at the mall on the way to the movie theatre.

    Another thing that bears mentioning is that a local, independent bookstore is, well, local. There’s a section for local authors—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—and works from local artists on display. The red chair on the wall behind me is by a local painter by the name of Veronica Funk, who also has paintings on display at Café Koi on 1st Street.

    I never know exactly what I’m going to get when I walk into Shelf Life Books, and that’s the beauty of it. What I do know is that I’ll find something new and interesting to discover, and is there any better reason to love a bookstore than that?


  • Confessions of an Urban Transit Junkie

    I learned two important things today:

    1) I don’t feel like I’ve truly visited a city until I’ve taken public transit there

    and

    2) I’m an urban creature with no love for suburbia.

    I am now, and suspect that I will always be, a transit junkie. Not only am I dependant on public transit to get around my own city, it’s the only mode of transportation I truly feel at home with. True, having a car would make some things easier and more convenient, up to and including finding a job, but the reasons for me not to drive outweigh the potential benefits by a wide margin.

    With transit, I can make my way around independent of of the plans of friends and family. If I want to do something on my own I don’t have to ask for a ride or wait until someone is going in the same direction, I can just look up the bus route and go. It’s actually a lot easier on me, though I have a hard time convincing my be-vehicled friends that no, I don’t need to be picked up, I can meet you there. (A ride home however, is a different story. We’re leaving at the same time, from the same place, therefore there’s less stress around coordinating timing.)

    With transit, I can pull out my MS and work while travelling. If I tried doing that while driving a car, Bad Things would happen. We’ll put that under ‘reasons Eric shouldn’t drive even if he could afford to.’ I love the ability to squeeze that extra bit of work time into my schedule, which is why I ironically prefer a longer commute to the day job. I also don’t have to deal with navigating rush hour traffic; that’s the bus driver’s job.

    With transit, I can get into downtown, any downtown, ridiculously easily, and can either take transit elsewhere from there, or walk anywhere within the city core. Or a combination of the above. My choices are endless. If were trying to drive however, and I’ve seen this more than enough times trying to direct people driving downtown, I’d have to worry about one-way streets, finding and then paying for parking, and worrying about having to move the car or plug the meter to avoid getting a parking ticket. Driving to a downtown destination is at best stressful, and at worst, impossible.

    Which brings me to my second discovery of the day, my distinct preference for the urban core over suburbia.

    With the convenience and accessibility of downtown, I have no use for suburbia (except maybe as a temporary place to store my parents.) The houses really do look the same, as do the neighbourhoods. You could take a house from New Brighton in Calgary and move it to Riverside South in Ottawa, or vice versa, and no one would know the difference. (Seriously, you should try it. It would be a great prank, except that no one would notice.)

    The sprawl is not only uninspiring, it’s an economical and ecological nightmare. Suburbia is pretty much cut off from every sector of life outside of sleeping and, I dunno, watching TV. Maybe there’s a mega block of outlet stores with giant parking lots within walking distance, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a leisure centre or even a library nearby. You’ll have a couple of playgrounds for the younger kids, but any teen without a car is SOL. I don’t know about you, but I’d be bored to tears if I had to live there.

    From my suite just outside of the downtown core, I can walk to my nearest grocery store. The core itself is maybe 15 minutes away by transit, and that’s only if the rush hour traffic is particularly bad. It’ll be even faster once the new train line is complete. I can walk to 17th Ave with all its boutiques and cafés if I don’t feel like taking the bus, and I can even walk to the downtown core itself if the weather’s nice and I have the time. I’m right by the Bow River, with parks nearby if I want to escape the City for a short while. It’s beautiful.

    Rather than one bus from my neighbourhood into the core, I have my choice of buses both to the core and elsewhere. Grab the Circle Route in one direction, and I can get to Chinook mall, and beyond that to my friend’s house. In the other direction, I can get to my pharmacy in Brentwood, right next to a used record store where I can find such gems as 16 Hits of the Gay Nineties for a dollar a pop. (There are pharmacies closer, but a good pharmacy is worth travelling to. The record store is just a bonus.) The whole variety and vibrancy of the City is on my doorstep, and it doesn’t even have to cost me anything to see it.

    And I don’t just feel this way about Calgary. I learned that today when I took the bus to the Byward Market in Ottawa. Taking transit, I felt so much more immersed in the City than I did being driven around by my Dad or my Step-Mom. I got to explore a part of Ottawa that was unique and vibrant in its own right, with elaborate murals in narrow back lanes:

    A tribute to French Canadians

    store fronts with sidewalk displays to take advantage of pedestrian traffic:

    Pedestrians walk past a sidewalk display in the Byward Market

    and wrapped it all up with a pot of specialty tea at the Tea Store:

    A special tea light holder to keep my pot of tea warm, such a clever idea!

    And that’s just a small sampling of what I saw and experienced in a couple of hours. I could spend a week, a month, a year there and never be bored. And if by some chance I did, I could hop a bus to Gatineau in Quebec for a new, more francophone experience. Or else visit Librairie du soleil right there in the Market and pick up some books in French. Whichever.

    The point is, I had a variety of activities to choose from downtown, and the freedom to get around easily. I felt at home there because I am an urban creature and a transit junkie, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Am I the only transit junkie out there, or are there others who proudly ride the bus? Do you have a favourite downtown destination or experience? Alternately, is anyone willing to try to defend suburbia as a viable, sustainable option? Devil’s advocates welcome.