How our media world is Changing
Has anyone else had the sense lately how fast things are changing here in Vancouver? I’m referring in particular to our access to various media that many of us have taken for granted for so long, but I could just as easily be writing about, say, restaurants or neighbourhood stores.
Here is what I am talking about: Bookstores, music stores, cinemas, video rental outlets, have all been disappearing at an accelerating pace. But for me the issue is about much more than just shops closing: it is really changing how we live in our city, how we interact with others, and our access to ideas and information.
The imminent closure of HMV’s flagship store in downtown Vancouver reminds me of how many other music stores have disappeared in recent years. Of course HMV itself displaced the here-and-gone Virgin Records store. Remember Sam the Record Man? It was at one time Canada’s largest music chain. How about A&B Sound, located just beside it on Seymour Street? Both gone. Or Black Swan Records, which was a fixture of community life for many in Kitsilano for more than 26 years?
So, unless you are savvy about downloading music from the internet, don’t mind the accompanying loss of musical fidelity, and are ok with the grey zone of copyright infringement, where do you get your music these days in Vancouver? Your choices are very limited, primarily to Zulu Records in Kitsilano and Highlife World Music on Commercial Drive. In fact, it seems that the music CD is becoming an endangered species. Will CDs soon follow in the rapidly fading footsteps of cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, and vinyl albums (although the latter seems to be enjoying something of a cult revival these days, albeit in very limited circles)?
Not so very long ago, I grew up with 16mm movie rental shops on every second corner, and a projector in every (middle class) household. Yup, I know it sounds pretty weird now. But my family, and many others like it, would all get together on Saturday nights to watch a film, and it constituted a sort of social ritual that contributed to the fabric of that society. I’m just saying.
Then came video cassette tapes, and sleek VCR machines that sat beside your television. I well remember acquiring my first such machine, just after our first child was born twenty years ago: we had an inkling we would be staying home a bit more...
That lasted quite a while, and spawned the proliferation of video rental chains such as Blockbuster and Rogers. Walking down to my local Blockbuster store on Friday evenings to choose a movie lent a certain structure to the weekend. It also became a common meeting ground for local neighbours. I used to regularly bump into Gordon Campbell there, before he became premier. After that, he stopped coming. I often wonder what he did for entertainment once in office. Did he send his bodyguard to choose a movie for him?
When one wanted to watch something out of the Hollywood mainstream, or an older film, there were always the independents such as Limelight Video or Videomatica.
When DVD technology supplanted VHS, Blockbuster deftly managed the transition, offering customers both options in a gradual transition. I remember the combined thrill and awkwardness of renting my first DVD disk once I bought the new machine to play it in.
Blockbuster has of course now shuttered its stores, and Videomatica is gone as well. Is it just a matter of time before Limelight follows suit? And if so, where will we get our movie fix in future, if not from Netflix via our personal laptops? Something else: As the technology becomes more ubiquitous it also is becoming more individualized and privatized, and the social aspects of watching a film together with others (including strangers) seems to be fading.
Which brings us to the neighbourhood cinema. Who remembers the Varsity? The Bay Theatre on Denman? Or the Beacon, Majestic, then Odeon Hastings, originally called the Pantages Theatre? All gone. Last year it was the turn of the venerable Hollywood in Kitsilano. I remember many a night sitting in the darkness of the Hollywood Theatre, losing myself in the magical world of cinema. Four generations of the Fairleigh family had owned and managed the Hollywood since its opening in 1935. When it opened, the papers carried adverts for 26 movie theatres in Vancouver, three of them in Kitsilano alone. Almost all have disappeared. And rumour has it that the fabulous Ridge Theatre will soon go dark as well.
The Empire Cinemas in Oakridge Mall has also just closed, but word is that the new development at Cambie and Marine Drive will replace it with a new cinema complex.
For 52 years Duthie Books proudly reigned as Vancouver’s premier independent bookseller. No more. After the number of Duthie outlets kept shrinking, the last store on West Fourth Avenue closed for good in 2010. Again, online internet competition was cited as the main reason for Duthie’s demise.
Several other independent Vancouver bookstores have also bitten the dust. I don’t know what the numbers are, but more and more people are buying their books online from giants such as Amazon, or simply using e-readers instead.
When I aggregate the changes in my one Vancouver neighbourhood alone – Kitsilano – it feels like there has been a seismic shift, a palpable sense of loss. And it has all happened so quickly: Duthie Books, Black Swan Records, the Hollywood, Videomatica, Blockbuster, and so on. These places were private commercial businesses, yes, but they were also part of the social fabric of the neighbourhood: they helped build community by providing public places where people would come together, bump into each other, exchange ideas and gossip. With their increasing disappearance across the city, Vancouver’s public commons is atrophying.