Of Christmas past & Christmas future

Walking into a bookstore on Yonge Street, I had one of my flashback experiences. I reported it immediately to my friend Paul, whose store it is (or soon, once was):

“Here I am in Toronto, back in the days when Eliot’s Bookstore was still open. As the hippies used to say, ‘It is all so real’.”

Paul is among the few who could understand what I was saying. After forty years in the second-hand book trade, he understands exactly. (I witnessed about thirty of them.)

His property taxes had been doubled, and would soon be quintupled, putting him out of business. Three floors of books were being sold off, basically for free, to diminish his immense disposal problem. Most other bookstores closed when their rents were driven up, as part of the universal “gentrification” process. Paul had survived because, by reckless sacrifice, he had come to own his uptown building — a narrow Edwardian shopfront which had once had seedy flats above it.

Were he younger, “I would have found a way to fight the bastards.” Now he could only put up signs, calling the mayor names.

He had turned down multi-million dollar offers for this building, with its cracked plaster walls and uneven floors and irreproducible charm. He’d told the real estate agents to go to hell — he intended to remain a bookseller till death.

“Don’t bother doubling your offer, I’ll only tell you to go to hell again.”

When one of them looked politely puzzled, he repeated it in Greek.

But now, with the help of the municipal politicians — who blather on about the importance of family business — they’ve got him. Sell and be rich; don’t, and you go bankrupt. Soon the whole block will be more glass and steel, because you can’t pay the property tax in that neighbourhood unless you go up thirty storeys.

I have flashforward experiences, too. The most memorable was the last time I visited London, England, and was touring one of my old neighbourhoods, much changed by glass and steel from the sooted brick I fondly remembered. My thought was, “Here I am in London, in the distant future. Here I am among all these people, who weren’t even born when I lived here. Here I am, the ghost of Christmas past.”

The old working-class types used to wear ties, out of respect for themselves and their neighbours; the shopkeepers wore aprons and never forgot your name. The millennials now dress “casual,” at perhaps twice the cost. Only the losers have to work in retail. Winners work in “networks.”

I read on the Internet where a Salvation Army bell-ringer was beaten up for wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” The Sally Anne are being driven out of the shopping precincts, not only because they are explicitly Christian. They are also déclassé.

The stores all play the Christmas music, because it is good for business. It has been tested: it makes people buy. (I wonder if it worked on Skinner’s rats?) But the tape spools must be carefully edited to eliminate all traditional carols, which have Christian references. Instrumental versions may, however, still be heard in some of the more cultured, upmarket places.

Money is like Dettol. It has a sterilizing effect. It gives you the choice between cash and character. And if you choose wrong, it phases you out. It cleans up your neighbourhood: polishes away all those biologically-scented human peculiarities; functions like a high-tech, perfumed latrine. “Identity politics” cleans out any remaining personal identities. We have incinerators for the corpses.

Poverty was our past; money is our future. In the future everything will be clean.

But I have faith in the human ability to make things dirty again. I feel confident that some inconveniences will survive.