Requiem for a bookstore
CBC Commentary, Information Morning, Fredericton
Broadcast 26 April 2000
Russ Hunt

The morning we heard that Kingfisher Books was closing, my wife was downstairs listening to the radio. The "Oh, No!" she let out led me to think maybe one of the cats had been killed on the road. I ran downstairs, fearing the worst, and found out it was worse than that.

Losing Kingfisher is, for us and for lots of people in Fredericton, like losing a friend. We'd come to count on being able to go in vaguely looking for a birthday present, and come out with a book we'd never heard of -- but which turned out to be the perfect gift. We'd gotten used to going in to find one book and, after talking with Eric or Frances or Leo or Jilanna, coming out with something else we didn't know existed, along with the one we'd gone in for. Or sometimes instead of the one we'd gone in for, which was now on order. We'd become accustomed to taking visitors there, and smiling as they were astonished by the quality of the merchandise crammed into what looked like a little hole in the wall with the striking blue awning and the cat asleep in the window. And by the friendly, knowledgeable atmosphere and the little handwritten recommendations under books the staff particularly liked.

For me, the test of a bookstore has always been whether, when I walked in, within five minutes I'd seen something I hadn't known existed and that I could barely live without. There've been a few bookstores in my life like that. Howard's, just off the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Woozle's, in Halifax. Theatrebooks, in Toronto. The Harvard Coop, in Boston, used to be like that. Now, most of those places had far more display area than Kingfisher, and could afford to make many more mistakes. To stock such so high a percentage of books I wanted, I thought, someone down at Kingfisher must be reading my mind . . . but many of my friends reported the same feeling. My son, during their closing out sale, said that when they get down to having just one book left it'll still be a good one, one you'd be happy to take home with you.

When the big new Chapters opened, up in the Regent Mall, my friend the cynic greeted their arrival, here on Information Morning, by predicting the demise of Kingfisher. It's pretty obvious I'd have much preferred him to be wrong.

But it didn't take a rocket scientist, or a market analyst, to figure out what was going to happen. As Eric Aubanel pointed out the morning he made the announcement, Fredericton simply isn't a big enough book market to support even the Chapters alone. It can afford to be there, taking a loss on books, because big chains like that make money on expansions, on real estate deals, on stock options and endless growth. It's not really about books at all.

Once everybody else, unable to compete with the resources and capital of the giant corporation, has packed it in and sold off the stock, Chapters will be reduced to a provincial box store, carrying hundreds of copies of the current best-sellers. And, as in many other areas of our society, we'll have lost a species, sacrificed yet another element of the diversity we need so desperately -- and which seems an inevitable casualty of the transnational global marketplace.

It's possible, of course, that books themselves are going to be a casualty of the Internet and that marketplace, and that Kingfisher didn't have long to survive anyway. In a few years perhaps we'll be lamenting the demise of Chapters and its coffee shop, as online text purveyors push even them into the long lost past.

But knowing everybody's going to die some time is never much help when you've just lost a friend.