Friday, November 29, 2013

The last days of 'Booksellers' Row.'

At the end of November and on the cusp of Advent, here is some news on the sad if inevitable end of an era in Toronto bookselling: Steven Temple Books, the last used bookstore on a stretch of Queen Street West once so thick with such places that it was known as "Booksellers' Row," will be closing its doors tomorrow after nearly forty years in business. Here is more on the story, courtesy of the Toronto Star:
It's the same tale as many others: the Internet ate up many of the independent bookstore's clients.

Sitting amid piles of used books of all genres, Steven Temple, 66, recalls a time in the 1980s when he was located a bit further east on the street, and when people would flock to the dozen bookstores that sat between Simcoe St. and Spadina Ave. . . .

Those were the good old days for Temple and his bookselling colleagues. But what once seemed like a profitable venture to Temple has turned into a bit of a trap.

He must now get rid of his nearly 35,000 books, many of them rare and "obscure Canadian literature," within the next few months so that he can recuperate some of his losses.

. . .

"There isn’t much of a trade here," said Temple, dressed in a green sweater and grey blazer, with a pencil sticking out of his breast pocket.

"Queen Street doesn’t have an intellectual base anymore," he continued. "It used to be a neighbourhood. Now it's just all big money."

. . .

Walking between the shelves, Temple blames the "lack of support" from people who still love books, as well as the Internet, for his store’s downfall.

The statement is ironic, as Temple is the same bookseller quoted in a 2000 Star story praising the Internet as a godsend for his business, as book lovers from around the world were contacting him with orders.

"The Internet giveth and it taketh us away," he told the Star 13 years later. "The Net opened a whole world to me. I was selling like crazy for a couple of years. I just couldn’t believe where it was going to lead … I didn't want to think where it was going to end."

Steven Temple Books is just the latest casualty in a long line of bookstores vanishing from Toronto’s landscape. Pages bookstore on Queen West was another notable closing. The store shut down in 2009 due to skyrocketing rent, something Temple still remembers clearly.

And then there's World's Biggest Bookstore, one of Toronto’s most famous retail landmarks, set to shut down in February.

"It's killing me on the inside," said Temple of his store's imminent closing, but also while reflecting on a rapidly dying trade that was booming when he opened his first location in 1974.

"I'm an emotional wreck. It’s tearing my heart out."
For more personal insight on the demise of Steven Temple Books and the decline of used bookstores in general, I suggest that you read an essay by Toronto writer David Warren, a friend and customer of Steven Temple who offers a wistful tribute to the retiring bookseller:
Steve himself is an old buddy of mine. He's a crusty character, with a crusty wife: both magnificent souls. Modern book retailing, generally in decline, has no use for such people — who love what they sell, and know a great deal about it. Who work on guild principles. For whom competition is good news. Who take personal risks, and would rather starve than work in a cubicle. Who do not eschew hard physical labour: for endless lugging about of books, in big heavy boxes, is among the tougher proletarian vocations.

. . .

Steven Temple Books began a few blocks east, at street level. Four decades have suddenly passed. I think this has been his fourth location, as rising rents have pushed him westward ho, ever closer to the sunset. His specialties have long been Canadiana, and modern first editions. Neither is my bag, especially, but from his general stock in classics, philosophy, modern literature at large, travels and topography, I have always found prizes. One could spend hours making discoveries in any one section — at intervals dragged out on the sidewalk when Steve wants company for a smoking break.

He will retreat to Welland, Ontario, pension-free and laden with debt as all other retiring booksellers, and no doubt continue selling books through Abe & the Internet; but it will not be anything like the same. It will instead be "books for collectors." (Spit.) It was that general stock — the presence of books for actual reading, including the obscure and the hard to find — that made second-hand bookstores what they were through the last many centuries. They were the meetingplaces of the literate — their agora, market and trading ground. In the strangest city, one would find such a bookstore, and it would be like an embassy from home.
I regret that I never visited Steven Temple Books, but news of the store's closing saddens me because I have known and loved similar places and I am acutely aware of the decline of the used book trade (and the book trade in general). David Warren's description of used bookstores as "meetingplaces of the literate" and "an embassy from home" finds confirmation in my own experience; I have walked into such stores in disparate places as far-flung as Innsbruck, Jerusalem, and Berkeley, California and found the same familiar atmosphere and, often, a welcoming if perhaps curmudgeonly proprietor who clearly loved books as much as his customers. I am sorry that this experience will be less accessible to future generations, and I can't help but think that the world will be worse off for that. AMDG.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Today is fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, which seems an apt occasion to share these images of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in Dallas, which I visited when I was in Texas last year. Dedicated on June 24, 1970, Dallas' monument to the president who was slain there is the work of American architect Philip Johnson, who had this to say about the project:
The cenotaph, which means empty tomb, is an empty room where anyone can walk in and be separated from life around. You can look up and see the sky, look down and see the plaque - and most important meditate in solitude.

This cenotaph in honor of President Kennedy I conceive as a place of quiet refuge, an enclosed place of thought and contemplation, separated from the city around, but near the sky and earth. To commemorate the man John Fitzgerald Kennedy there is, within, only a stone marker and the engraved name.
My prayers today are for the repose of President Kennedy's soul and for all who have been affected by an event that has cast a long shadow on the history of the United States and the world. AMDG.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Remembrance Day.

As longtime readers of this blog may recall, I always post something for Remembrance Day. In this year's Remembrance Day post, I'd like to highlight the work of the Canadian Letters and Images Project (CLIP), an invaluable online archive of Canadian soldiers' letters, photographs, and related materials based at Vancouver Island University. Like the letters featured in a Remembrance Day tribute that I discussed here last year, the CLIP website helps to make an ever-more distant past a bit more vivid.

For your reading this year on Remembrance Day, I'd like to share a letter from the CLIP website. This letter was written by the young soldier whose portrait illustrates this post, James Henderson Fargey of Belmont, Manitoba, who enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in July 1915 at the age of seventeen. On Sunday, October 1, 1916, Fargey wrote home from the Western Front:
My Dear Mother,

I rec' your long interesting letter to-day and was very pleased to hear from you. I also rec' a long one from Della Lawson.

I was very sorry to hear that Mr. Smillie had passed away. It will certainly be a shock to the family and when Bert is over in England and physically unfit.

We are having beautiful weather now, especially to-day the sun is shining and but the nights are very cool.

I am glad to hear that Mr. Jon Williamson is around and hope that Arthur will soon be able to around as one invalid in a Family is enough.

Was sorry to hear that you had little wheat but if the price keeps up it won’t seem to be so bad. I suppose flour is up in Fran price and will likely be up all winter.

We get good bread here and general enough; but now and again there are short rations. The Germans use black bread and you should see some of them eat our white bread. They work on the roads around here and get so much a day. They seem to be well satisfied.

So you are getting the house painted as it will make quite an improvement on it.

I guess the club will be successful alright and I hope that Aileen and Cecil are successful.

I rec' the parcel of papers the other day and have enjoyed reading them as we have been stayed at this camp for couple of days.

So Cecil and Aileen have plenty of homework to do now. Cecil certainly must have worked pretty hard for this age. I guess you have had some time with Wintie Smith.

I enjoyed your letter to-day and thank you for the scripture chapters I read my chapter every night when I can.

While I was in Bramshott I sent a scarf to London to Leslie Smith's grandmother for to keep for me as I had one when I came over and she is going to send it over as it get rather cool in the evening.

We had service this morning and communion after the service. Major Gordon is certainly a good minister and is well liked among the boys.

Arthur, Leslie and myself were at communion the generally hold service out in the open. I wrote to Willie Lawson to-day as he had sent me some clippings on behalf of the Bible Class.

I haven't rec the parcel yet but expect it any day now.

Well this is about all the news I have to tell Remember me to all.

From you loving Son

Jim Fargey

PS Your last letter was dated Sep 11th
One thing that strikes me about the above letter is its immediacy: despite the passage of nearly a century, the hometown situations that Fargey describes - a neighbor's death, children's homework, a new coat of paint on the family home - still seem familiar to a twenty-first century reader. Fargey writes nothing about combat and very little that is specific to military life, a reticence that may be influenced by army cenorship: all soldiers' letters were read by military authorities before being mailed, and soldiers were discouraged from writing about troop movements or combat conditions. At the same time, keeping the focus on the homefront could have been a way of making up for the geographical distance between a young soldier and his family. Fargey's words seem all the more poignant when one learns that the Manitoba eighteen-year-old died barely two weeks after finishing this letter, on October 15, 1916. After being wounded in action, Fargey sent one last letter home promising his mother that "there is no danger at all" and assuring her that "I will get alright." When Fargey died two days later, a nurse who cared for him wrote to his mother: "He was one of the finest lads I have ever seen & an absolute hero. . . . It may be a little comfort to you to know that everything that was possible was done for your boy & now that all the soldiers graves are well kept I shall put flowers on your boys cross with your love."

On this Remembrance Day, ninety-five years after the end of the "War to End All Wars," I pray for peace - and I express the hope that the stories of those who gave their lives in military service will never be forgotten. AMDG.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

On the demise of Blockbuster Video.

Earlier this week, the owners of Blockbuster Video announced that the once-mighty video-rental chain will be shutting down. Starting with a single store in Dallas in 1985, Blockbuster came to dominate the North American video rental market in the 1990s only to be face increasingly stiff competition in the 21st century from Neflix and other DVD-by-mail and online streaming video services; the number of Blockbuster stores declined steadily over time, falling from 9,000 in 2004 to 3,300 in 2010 to roughly 300 at the time of this week's announcement. While some Blockbuster stores are owned by independent franchisees and are not directly affected by the demise of the company, the broader decline of the video-rental business suggests that the Blockbuster name is still destined to disappear for good.

For more on what the demise of Blockbuster means, I suggest that you take a look at a eulogy for the video-rental chain penned by my friend Stephen Silver. Steve suggests that, in contrast with music and book retailers (which still show signs of life despite ongoing struggles) the video store was a flash in the pan, "a concept that emerged out of thin air at one point... enjoyed about a two-decade run as a ubiquitous part of American life, and then disappeared almost as suddenly as it arrived." Noting that "going to a video store was such a major part of the growing up experience for anyone around my age," Steve explains what this meant for him personally:
... So what did I like about going to video stores? Something, as a movie lover, got me excited about the endless possibilities of what was available. Also, video stores made it a lot easier to be a nerd in high school. Nothing to do on a Saturday night? Go rent a movie....

... And if you were a film nerd? Even better. The foundational myth of the indie film movement of the 1990s was that Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith worked in video stores, spent their nights giving themselves a film school-level education by watching every single movie they could get their hands on, and subsequently using that knowledge to launch successful careers as filmmakers and giving the world Pulp Fiction and Clerks. I myself did the work-in-a-video-store-and-watch-everything thing, two different summers in college. I never became a filmmaker, of course, but having done that certainly helped me hold my own in movie conversations with my friends - leading to my becoming a film writer.
Steve and I are in the same age bracket, and I think he's right about the important role that video stores played in the lives of many people who grew up in North America in the 1980s and '90s. When I was a kid my family would rent two or three VHS tapes every week, first from a mom-and-pop independent video store near our home and later from the local Blockbuster. I always liked movies - as I once noted here, I used to watch Siskel and Ebert and The Movies religiously - and weekly trips to Blockbuster helped to nurture my interest in foreign-language and independent cinema. Growing up in a small town, I appreciated the windows on the wider world that the video store and the local public library both provided. Since the Internet has dramatically changed the way in which we access information, I suspect that children growing up today will never be able to fully appreciate the role that video stores played in the lives of people of my generation. As Steve concludes, "My children will never set foot in a video store. They'll probably never use the phrase 'rent a movie,' or know what it means to rewind a VHS tape, much less do it fast enough that you can return it to the store in time to beat the late fee."

Does the demise of Blockbuster Video herald the extinction of video stores in general? Though I'm tempted to say 'yes,' I'm also a bit hesitant about that conclusion. Not unlike independent bookstores, some independent video stores seem to be hanging on because they fill a particular niche and have cultivated a loyal clientele; Queen Video here in Toronto is one such store, and I'm aware of similar examples in other cities. Part of what enables places like Queen Video to keep going is that they tend to specialize in obscure and otherwise hard-to-find titles that aren't necessarily available from Netflix or other online providers. Whether this is enough to ensure the long-term survival of such stores remains to be seen, but at the very least the continued success of at least some independent video stores owes something to the inability of online streaming services to satisfy everyone. I can't exactly say that I'll miss Blockbuster Video - I think I last visited one about seven years ago - but I am grateful for the role that video stores played in my youth, and I suppose that's good for something. AMDG.

Monday, November 04, 2013

A singer's life and death.

A couple of years ago, I posted a bit about the history of the Jewish community in Innsbruck, including some photos taken in the Jewish section of one of Innsbruck's main cemeteries, the Westfriedhof. Though it did not appear in my post on Jewish Innsbuck, the above photo was taken during my visit to the Westfriedhof. This tombstone caught my attention because it was a bit different from the others around it, set apart by Cyrillic letters and by the deceased's stated profession of "Opera Singer," which stood out among the neighboring graves of military officers, rabbis, and tradespeople. I like to visit cemeteries because I'm interested in the stories of the people who are buried there; as I snapped this photo of the final resting place of Opernsänger Yury Shklyar, I found myself thinking, "There must be quite a story here."

I knew nothing more of the life of Yury Shklyar - and, to be honest, I didn't think much more about him - until I read this recent post from The Practice Room, the blog of the pseudonymous 'Marcellina,' an opera singer based in Innsbruck. A colleague of Yury Shklyar during his last years, Marcellina provides a tersely eloquent portrait of an accomplished and very gifted man who finished his career in a place where he likely did not expect to end up, having moved to Tyrol from his native Russia in order to receive care for a terminal illness and to provide a more secure future for his family. I will say no more than that, because I want you to read the original post on The Practice Room. I am grateful to Marcellina for helping me to learn something about the life and death of Yury Shklyar; the video of one of Shklyar's performances shared on Marcellina's blog also makes me regret that I never had the opportunity to see and hear him in person. May he rest in peace, and may his name be written in the Book of Life.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

All Souls.

In what has effectively become an annual tradition on this blog, for All Souls' Day I am reposting a translation that I made two years ago of the Latin sequence traditionally associated with this feast, the Dies Irae. Attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a very special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the one heard above, because some days only Gregorian chant will do.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the sense of the original faithfully and in a style that flows well in English without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I to say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some contemporary ears, I suspect that some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.

Friday, November 01, 2013

All Saints.

For your edification on today's Feast of All Saints, I'd like to share a selection from John Henry Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons on "the Use of Saints' Days." Written while Newman was still an Anglican, this sermon offers a fine (and, I think, still timely) apologia for the Church's devotion to the saints and for their annual remembrance in the liturgy:
I have not yet mentioned the peculiar benefit to be derived from the observance of Saints' days: which obviously lies in their setting before the mind patterns of excellence for us to follow. In directing us to these, the Church does but fulfil the design of Scripture. Consider how great a part of the Bible is historical; and how much of the history is merely the lives of those men who were God's instruments in their respective ages. Some of them are no patterns for us, others show marks of the corruption under which human nature universally lies:—yet the chief of them are specimens of especial faith and sanctity, and are set before us with the evident intention of exciting and guiding us in our religion's course. Such are, above others, Abraham, Joseph, Job, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the like; and in the New Testament the Apostles and Evangelists. First of all, and in His own incommunicable glory, our Blessed Lord Himself gives us an example; but His faithful servants lead us on towards Him, and confirm and diversify His pattern. Now it has been the aim of our Church in her Saints' days to maintain the principle, and set a pattern, of this peculiarly Scriptural teaching.

And we, at the present day, have particular need of the discipline of such commemorations as Saints' days to recall us to ourselves. It is a fault of these times (for we have nothing to do with the faults of other times) to despise the past in comparison of the present. We can scarce open any of the lighter or popular publications of the day without falling upon some panegyric on ourselves, on the illumination and humanity of the age, or upon some disparaging remarks on the wisdom and virtues of former times. Now it is a most salutary thing under this temptation to self-conceit to be reminded, that in all the highest qualifications of human excellence, we have been far outdone by men who lived centuries ago; that a standard of truth and holiness was then set up which we are not likely to reach, and that, as for thinking to become wiser and better, or more acceptable to God than they were, it is a mere dream. Here we are taught the true value and relative importance of the various gifts of the mind. The showy talents, in which the present age prides itself, fade away before the true metal of Prophets and Apostles. Its boasted "knowledge" is but a shadow of "power" before the vigorous strength of heart which they displayed, who could calmly work moral miracles, as well as speak with the lips of inspired wisdom. . . .

. . . Let us not forget, that, as we are called to be Saints, so we are, by that very calling, called to suffer; and, if we suffer, must not think it strange concerning the fiery trial that is to try us, nor be puffed up by our privilege of suffering, nor bring suffering needlessly upon us, nor be eager to make out we have suffered for Christ, when we have but suffered for our faults, or not at all. May God give us grace to act upon these rules, as well as to adopt and admire them; and to say nothing for saying's sake, but to do much and say little!
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.