Vancity Theatre rallies support for Vancouver's unsung cultural retail heroes

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      It's been a disconcerting season of change in Vancouver's cultural scene.

      This week, book lovers received the sad news that the local Book Warehouse chain is closing.

      The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company shocked Vancouverites with last week's announcement that it would be shutting down due to debt.

      Last year, we saw a wave of video rental store closures, including Videomatica (although its sales department still remains in operation), Happy Bats Cinema, Independent Flixx, and more.

      In addition, the movie exhibition scene lost the Hollywood Theatre, Empire Oakridge Cinemas, and Richmond Centre 6 Cinemas. Then there's the Rio Theatre's heavily detailed ongoing struggles to stay afloat. And we recently heard that the Ridge Theatre could possibly be razed if a developer gets his way.

      Vancouver International Film Centre director Alan Franey is concerned about what kind of toll these vanishing businesses are having on our urban cultural environment.

      "As someone who's lived in this city for some time, I've really missed some of the stores that have closed down, and I know that it's a hard for some of these businesses now because of both the internet and property taxes," he told the Georgia Straight by phone. "And I think people don't realize how much these businesses contribute to the cultural vitality of a place. Personally, when I go to another city, I look for the best bookstores, best music stores, best theatres, best places to watch films, and I think that we've lost quite a few great businesses here already. When you hear about the Hollywood going or Videomatica shutting down…it makes you be concerned about what sort of cityscape we're going to live in."

      He pointed out that Vancouver is consequently in danger of becoming a generic, chain-dominated locale.

      "If you go to a bigger city, like New York or Berlin, one of the great things is the bookstores and theatres and so on, and you see a lot of tourists go to the places too…. So these places can make a place worth visiting too…. We don't want to end up being a place with only the same stores in every city. If you walk up Robson Street or go to a mall now, there are big names that we recognize. But the small little mom-and-pop operations that cater to a high degree of specialized knowledge, that's what we're at risk of losing."

      Franey notes that for-profit businesses sometimes don't get the same kind of respect that non-profit organizations do.

      "Non-profits get a lot of attention. They're wonderfully enterprising organizations often," he said." But for some reason, we tend not to think of privately operated businesses that way, even though just as much passion and curatorial intelligence and risk-taking goes into the private sector, of course…. If you see people who are in it for more than the money, obviously, and really, very deeply committed to quality and making the city a vital place, they deserve recognition."

      But Franey isn't complaining about the situation. He's doing something about it.

      At a free event on Sunday (March 18) at 7:15 p.m. at Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street), the Vancouver International Film Centre will celebrate and recognize Vancouver's independent arts-related retailers who have been in operation for around 25 years.

      The list includes bookstores, video stores, music stores, and art galleries.

      "If we're taking stock of what matters in life," Franey said, "there should be more attention paid to our friends and colleagues who are working in this sector in our city."

      Franey said that he had been wanting to do something for the city's 125th anniversary last year, and decided to focus on businesses that have been around since the centenary.

      While helping to recognize these unsung heroes, Franey said he also thought the event might also help to introduce business owners to each other who might not know each other and hopes it might help them to "not feel so alone in the world" and to feel that "other people care, too, about their futures".

      The introductions and acknowledgments will be followed by a screening of the 1928 silent film The Circus, in which the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) inadvertently becomes the star attraction of a circus.

      Franey said it wasn't easy to figure out which film to show. "We chose The Circus because of the metaphor of the highwire act and the passion that went into that, and that sense of showbiz," he said. "And the arts, in some ways, is about the world of entertainment and even showbiz."

      The list of businesses includes:

      Albion Books
      Banyen Books
      Black Dog Video
      Blackberry Books
      Book Warehouse
      Caron's Books
      The Comic Shop
      The Dance Shop
      Equinox Gallery
      Hager Books
      High Life Records
      Kids Books
      Lawrence Books
      Limelight Video
      Little Sister's Book and Art Emporium
      MacLeod's Books
      People's Co-op Books
      Ridge Theatre
      Sikora's Records
      Spartacus Books
      Tom Lee Music
      Videomatica Sales
      Ward Music
      Zulu Records

      Because the focus is on businesses that have been operating for a quarter of a century, other arts-related businesses aren't on the list, such as Oscars Art Books, Bizbooks, Varsity Video, or the Monte Clark Gallery. Other businesses that may have been unintentionally overlooked can contact the VIFC to get involved. (Franey said they apologize in advance to anyone who may have been accidentally missed.)

      Here's a clip from The Circus.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at




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