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The slow death of a neighbourhood business [Jan. 24th, 2011|07:42 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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The Sign Remains the Same
Farewell to the Glebe Apothecary

Photo by Geoffrey Dow
Photo by Geoffrey Dow

One of the comforting myths about capitalism — one that has the benefit of, sometimes, even being true — is that investment is about creating wealth, not just amassing it. And so we tell each other inspiring stories about the Steve Jobs of the world far more often than we do the cautionary tales of the Bernard_Madoffs or Conrad Blacks.

The reality, though — and more now than since the Gilded Age — is that most investment has little to do with creating wealth and almost everything to do with consolidating it (or stealing it outright). There are many more Blacks and Madoffs than there are Jobs.

I got a pointed reminder of this just after Christmas while cycling up Bank Street. I spotted a sign familiar from my first time living in Ottawa, Prospero the Book Company, which I remembered as having been a very good independent book store back around 1990. I decided to park my bike and pay it a visit.

What I found inside was a non-descript store with generic shelves displaying generic stock, little different from a Chapters mall outlet stuck between a Fairweathers and a Circuit City. And many of the books on display carried familiar-looking orange stickers, which should have given the game away right there.

I cruised the uninspiring shelves for a few minutes, then made a snap decision to pick up John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor (review forthcoming). The woman at the cash asked whether I had an irewards card and I realized why the looked so much like (almost) any other bookstore in Canada.

"I thought you were an independent company," I said.

The woman shook her head. "No, we sold out to Coles — let's see, my son's 26 now, he was three then — 23 years ago!" (I wish I could say that I cancelled my purchase in favour of a side-trip to the genuinely independent Perfect Books, but inertia had its way, even if I felt a bit like I'd been taken in by a confidence game.)

Not quite a lie, in an era of conglomerate mansions housing many rooms, but the name and sign outside, Prospero the Book Company, was certainly misleading, since there was nothing inside to distinguish the store from its corporate siblings. The name lives on but its purchase by a conglomerate has certainly diminished its reason for being.

I thought little more about it until I read about the sale of the Glebe Apothecary in the January 20 edition of Ottawa This Week, and was reminded of the ongoing strip-mining of the real economy by the same corporate behemoths who recently came close to knocking over the entire western economic system.

Conglomerate buys local business, starts lying to customers right out of the gate. Click for more behind the fake cut.

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