To live in the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta is to live in the shadow of West Edmonton Mall—sometimes literally. Until 2004 the biggest mall in the world, WEM is still a top-10 heavyweight, and its 5.3 million square feet contains not just 800 stores but also an indoor waterpark, amusement park (complete with rollercoasters), hotel, ice rink, mini-golf course, underwater caverns, and full-size replica of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria, all of which combines to draw more than 30 million visitors per year. A lot has changed in Edmonton since it first opened in the 1980s, but WEM, which The New York Times once called a “behemoth on the prairie,” remains the defining symbol of the city. Love it or hate it, all Edmontonians must reckon with The Mall. Writers are no exception. Over the decades WEM has served as unlikely muse for poets, children’s authors, essayists, international comic-book conglomerates, and the occasional stunt journalist who tries to see how long they can stay inside without leaving. Even visiting Nobel Laureates are inexorably drawn to it, knowing that the mall needs to be seen to be believed. Sing, O muse, of Apollo Originals, and OPA! of Greece. Sing of the Mindbender and sad flamingoes and that fire-breathing dragon that used to sit at the entrance to the movie theatre. Sing of Two Guys With Pipes and Chan International Model & Talent. Sing. 1. Alpha Flight #26, 27, 28; #67–70 (Marvel) Once named the most frequently destroyed Canadian city in Marvel Comics history, Edmonton has never taken it on the chin harder than whenever Canadian supergroup Alpha Flight drops by the local super-mall. The first time was in 1985, during Alberta native John Byrne’s run as writer-artist, when the team took on its rivals Omega Flight in the world’s largest parking lot (not to brag). But that was nothing compared to their return visit a few years later, when writer James D. Hudnall had the villainous Dream Queen set up shop in the city and then brainwash Edmontonians into brutally murdering one another. Alpha Flight arrives on the scene, only to be tricked themselves into crashing their jet directly into WEM’s World Waterpark, giving new meaning to the term “wave pool.” 2. Eric Wilson, Code Red at the Supermall (HarperCollins) In this 1988 entry from a beloved series of ultra-Canadian middle-grade mystery novels, a series of bombs are left anonymously all around the mall. Enter: Tom and Liz Austen, a pair of teenage sibling detectives who are determined, along with their actual-detective father, to get to the bottom of things. The ensuing caper includes a ton of local color, including a map of the entire mall for easy reference, and features surprisingly progressive lessons about multiculturalism, consent, and the dangers of dating ice-skaters named Chad. 3. Archie Giant Series Magazine #620 (Archie) When noted millionaire Hiram Lodge decides he wants to renovate the local mall, there’s only one place to send Betty and Veronica on a fact-finding mission. But what begins as a dream for Veronica (“It’s Xanadu, Camelot, and Rodeo Drive all rolled into one!” she says at one point) quickly turns into a case of mistaken identity, as some would-be jewel thieves chase the pair through West Edmonton Mall’s amusement park and eventually down a waterslide. This three-part bit of corporate synergy from 1991 was encouraged by another of Edmonton’s odd distinctions: for a long time more Archie comics were sold here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. 4. Anne Swannell, Mall (Rowan) In 1993, Canadian poet Anne Swannell turned her eye to WEM for this book-length poetry cycle about our civic monument to late capitalism. Swannell, who lived in Edmonton briefly in the 1960s, takes in the highlights and spends much of her time alternately marvelling at and pitying her surreal surroundings: “It seems to her some days / the place is definitely sliding downhill.” Today, Mall has added value as a snapshot of WEM as it stood several renovations ago, with careful descriptions of decorations and food-court shops long since dismantled. Ultimately, however, even the building itself rejects any whiff of artistry on the premises. Here’s what happens when the poet character drops a coin into a fortune-telling machine: “Get a Real Job!” she tells her and clicks off. [millions_ad] 5. José Saramago, The Cave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) This 2002 novel from the late Portuguese Nobel Laureate would seem to be an ocean away from the frozen Canadian prairie. But in an interview with Le Devoir, Saramago specifically cited West Edmonton Mall—whose artificial beaches he saw in person when he came to town to receive an honorary degree from the University of Alberta—as an inspiration for the gargantuan shopping complex known simply as “The Center.” In the book, which takes place in a nameless city, Saramago presents his Center as a capitalist juggernaut with a mysterious secret cave underneath it, which nicely dovetails with longstanding urban legends about the subterranean nuclear reactor that supposedly powers WEM. 6. Vivek Shraya (editor), The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton (Self-Published) West Edmonton Mall might get the lion’s share of the attention, but there’s obviously more than one mall in this city of nearly a million people. And they all get their due in this gorgeously produced limited-edition anthology edited by author and musician Vivek Shraya. Still, WEM is the undisputed champ, and accordingly gets the most attention, from memories of first dates gone wrong to little kids who grew up in the Maritimes but dreamt about this magical place on the other side of the country. The smartest, most powerful piece of mall lore yet committed to paper—and, alas, the hardest one to find. 7. Dina Del Bucchia, “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” (Arsenal Pulp Press) When you get right down to it, West Edmonton Mall is more than just a place to buy socks and watch a sea-lion routine while eating a cinnamon bun as big as a manhole cover. It’s also a place of pilgrimage. Like the protagonist in the title story of Dina Del Bucchia’s 2017 collection, I first encountered WEM as a kid who came specifically there on vacation, when my brother and I tried to see how long we could go without breathing outside air (three days, easy). But for Alex, a spontaneous return trip is in order, complete with a suitcase stuffed full of coins, after her relationship with an older man in British Columbia goes south. Del Bucchia’s story is about what happens when your expectations don’t meet reality, and how no mall can solve your problems for you. Not even one as gloriously weird as this one. Image Credit: Flickr/IQRemix.
For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself teetering dangerously on the edge of a new and almost certainly expensive obsession with rare books. Blame Instagram. As social-media platforms go, Instagram is the flashiest, the least reliant on text, and by far the most brazenly commercial, where it’s an open secret that every account past a certain audience threshold has long since been infiltrated by product placements and corporate-engineered hashtags. None of which is an obvious match for the literary world. But that all changed for me when I came across a group of rare-book dealers who use the platform not just to show off their wares, but also to sell them directly to their followers. In the process, these young turks are bringing one of the most inaccessible corners of the book world into the digital public square—and tempting me with $100 siren calls every time I open the damn app. “The networking I’ve achieved through Instagram has been incredible. Way more than half of my sales are through there now,” says Jordan Brodeur, a mail carrier by day and book dealer by night (where he goes by the handle @sunlitcaverarebooks). Brodeur signed up for Instagram in late 2016, after selling for several years through eBay. He was also the first such dealer I fell for—his photos well composed, his titles well curated, and each post complemented by a dash of personality in the caption. So when I found out that we both live in the same northern Canadian city, I hopped in the car immediately to go see his collection in person. Brodeur first got the collector’s bug when he spotted an unannounced first edition of Hemingway’s Men Without Women at a bookstore in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He loved the thrill of finding something valuable hidden in plain sight, and from then on kept chasing the dragon, teaching himself the ins and outs of the trade (and its attendant lingo) as he went. He turned to selling once he realized he couldn’t afford to hold onto every rare book he came across. And that meant going online. Like a lot of analog industries, most rare-book dealers didn’t take to the Internet immediately. Ebay was the first place where rare books could really flourish online, but traditional dealers still held off, more comfortable selling through the mail, via catalogues, or in person at specialized fairs and brick-and-mortar shops. That landscape is shifting, though—especially in the retail world. “Rare-book stores are kind of rare these days,” says Kevin Sell, a bookseller and grad student in St. Paul, Minn., who goes by @rarebooksleuth on Instagram. “No one really goes into a rare-book store and browses for $500 books. Typically, the person who’s buying a rare book knows what they want. So they will look online, and find the best copy in the best condition at the best price.” Instagram turns out to be particularly attractive to dealers like Sell and Brodeur. For one thing, it’s a free space to show off their wares (Amazon and eBay, by contrast, both take significant commissions on each item sold through their sites). There are also none of the barriers to entry that used to be standard for aspiring dealers—as Brodeur puts it, “apprenticing with some old codger who had you sweeping the floors eight hours a day.” And the built-in community element offers a continuous point of contact that other sites can’t match: once a user has found and followed an Instagram seller they like, they will automatically see every new post that dealer makes (well, in theory, anyway, non-chronological timelines be damned). And those followers might not even be collectors. Like me, they might just enjoy looking at pictures of pretty books. Brodeur is not unaware of the possibility that his feed might be a gateway drug. “I have a lot of followers who don’t collect rare books, but see these posts and wish they did,” he says. “My mercenary intentions are not to get likes from people. They’re to get engagement from people who will actually buy books.” At the same time, he’s a hardcore reader at heart who loves to talk about his favourite authors. Instagram, then, is a way for him to scratch both itches: to talk about how much he loves William T. Vollmann (a particular favorite among the literary Instagram crowd), and to flip a signed first edition of The Rainbow Stories at the same time. Age is a factor here, too. Sell and Brodeur are both 31, literal decades younger than your average rare-book dealer. They are naturally more comfortable with social media than someone who still prefers the charming inefficiencies of mail-order catalogues. Youth can be a double-edged sword, though; many of Brodeur’s followers are also young enough that they can’t afford to drop hundreds of dollars on a single book. “The exceptions,” he adds, “are always notable.” Even though the Instagram community is still in its early stages, dealers are starting to jump in with both feet. Like Brodeur, Sell lists his books other places—eBay, Amazon, AbeBooks, Facebook, and at his own website. But Instagram is in a class of its own. “People are so much more friendly there,” Sell says. If, for instance, he were to list a copy of Atlas Shrugged on Facebook, he can already imagine the 100-comment firefight it would degenerate into. Whereas on Instagram, “it’s people who can appreciate the book for what it is: a monumental intellectual work that has a lasting influence today—with a really cool dust jacket.” “Unbelievably friendly,” Brodeur agrees about the Instagram crowd. “Just so nice. I’ll post a book that’s a big deal for me, and everyone’s just so excited about it.” As a hobbyist, Brodeur lists about 150 titles in total and sells on average a couple of books per week. For Sell, a comparatively seasoned dealer who’s been on Instagram since 2015 (and who later convinced Brodeur to join the site), those numbers jump to 300 and 10 to 20, respectively. Both, however, are chalking up more and more of their sales to Instagram. And both say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many new friends, fellow aficionados, and potential future customers they’ve met along the way. Of all the ways Instagram might change the rare-book game, none is more important, as far as I’m concerned, than the way that Sell, Brodeur, and their peers have demystified what can seem from the outside like a dusty, impenetrable trade. “My goal in life is to do something that’s considered pretentious, but not do it in a snotty way,” Brodeur says. “Just be a good guy. C’mon. You don’t have to be a snob.” OK, I’m convinced. Now, about that first edition of The Rainbow Stories… is it still available?