Thursday, 6 March 2014

Farewell World's Biggest Bookstore

I just saw a tweet

World's Biggest Book Store Farewell Sale! After 33 years, we're saying #ThanksToronto, with up to 50% OFF storewide.

That seems only fitting on Throwback Thursday - if I understand the term correctly. The WBBS was a few blocks from the office where I worked in Toronto. Then I got laid off and tried to find work as a freelance consultant. For which, I decided, I would need a computer. An IBM PS/1 - which I could then write-off against tax as a legitimate business expense. It had a built in dialup modem. Now while I had a computer at my last job it was word processing and spread sheets. Some others had something they called email - I had no idea what that was - but they used that to send memos to the Niagara Falls office, I think. I had not heard a modem before. Well I had, I just didn't know what it was.

 In my new home office - ok the corner of the back bedroom - I set up the IBM and tried out the software it came with. I also used the modem to send files to one or two of the consultants I worked with. But the use of the computer changed when I learned that the WBBS had a Bulletin Board. It was free, and if you bought books at the store that got you access to Usenet. They called it "the Internet" and most people - like me - did not know any better. I was a bit hesitant at first, but after a while the on line community started to replace what I missed about work. Socializing at the workplace. Kibbitzing. Schmoozing. Networking. Whatever you want to call it.

wbbs bb was not always available. You could dial up and get a busy signal. Or sometimes it would just ring interminably. And of course every so often the phone line would be needed for actual phone calls. But when it worked you could "chat" or send messages and even download games and pictures. I made friends with people I had never met.

After a while I gave up the idea of being a freelance. I got a job - after intense competition - with the BC Government, in Victoria. I had to go live there on my own for a few months until the family home in Scarborough could be sold and I found somewhere for us to live. In the meantime, I told Mrs Rees, we could chat for free on the computer. Long distance phone calls in the early nineties were still hideously expensive. But we could email any time. I even had an email address at work  But she could log in to and email me.

I would like to report that this worked well and frequently but I had underestimated the power of technology terror. There was, on the other hand, someone on the bulletin board there who still sent me messages all the time. She even had a 1-800 number - for work purposes. That's another story. But the wbbs bbs was where that started - and was one reason why when I got to my new job I was not a complete newbie when it came to computer communications. After a while I realized that bulletin board systems were about as redundant as dialup was soon to become. The computer at work had a program called Mosaic. It could get pages from the World Wide Web. I could even create a home page for myself instead of trying to recall what web pages I had been to, and what they could be used for.

And in Victoria there was a free volunteer run dial up service - which was soon replaced by a Compuserve account and a much faster modem, that the even paid for!

But the WBBS was where it all started for me. So long - and thanks for all the web

See this link for the memories of others


ddrucker said...

I remember that bookstore as well, often visiting it when I was playing tourist in Toronto.

My best memory of the place was giggling when I found a copy of my HyperCard book, "Cool Mac Stacks", on sale in the bargain bin in the computer books section, with a price of $2, which was only appropriate because it was missing (wait for it...) its floppy disk.

I too will miss that bookstore, although I don't think I'll miss it as much as I missed the demise of 'WordsWorth' (my favourite bookstore that I used to go to at least once every couple of weeks) in Harvard Square, or 'Patelsons' (the world's sole classical music bookstore near Carnegie Hall) in New York city. The love of these stores outlives the technologies and markets they served.

On the other hand, a week ago I wanted to look at a score of Ravel's '3 Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé', which would have cost me probably $40 or $50 and I would have had to wait a week to get it on the crappy paper that Durand used. It was on my screen in about 30 seconds (including the time spent searching for it at, the public domain music library) for free. If only I'd had when I was a starving music student!

I'm sure there will be many people who will mourn the World's Largest Bookstore, just as I did Patelson's in 2010, and WordsWorth in 2004 (has it been 10 years?!) Virgin Records in downtown Boston is gone, too, as was every video rental place I've ever set foot in.

Stephen Rees said...

I was going to make some remark about how the internet is the cause of the closure of bookstores everywhere. I am glad you picked that up since in the rush of triggered memories I forgot to make that point. It is also nice to know that someone is actually reading this blog. Comments are very rare, and this one very welcome.

I wanted to read "Twelve Years a Slave". It costs $20 and is not readily available around here. The library has a long waiting list. But thanks to the comments under a Guardian item on their webpage I was able to find it for free, legitimately on line. And I converted to an ebook and read it on my tablet.

But one of my most viewed images on flickr is of my bookshelves.

Bookstores in airports still seem to be doing well. Perhaps the relaxation of rules on using electronic devices during take-off and landing will change that.