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The Bay Makes an Assouline Out of You and Me
In the new Assouline-published book for The Hudson's Bay Company, we get a semi-celebration of Canadian fashion heritage. But is the Bay what defines us?

In all the scorched-Earth battles between Amazon and independent bookstores, between Chapters and independent bookstores, between Kindle and Kobo and independent bookstores, between Google e-Bookstore and independent bookstores, what we’re forgetting is the thing worth fighting for, really: why we buy books. We buy books to have them, duh. We buy books to hold them, I think; this is why I’ve never bought an e-book. We buy them to learn, to think, to feel, to derive our ideas about the world from them; all this is why I’m in favour of e-books, despite not buying them myself. E-books must be read in secret communion between you and your device; you can’t and don’t have them just to show them off. Because, even if we don’t like to say so, we do traditionally buy books to show them off. This is why we have publishers like Assouline. And it’s why Assouline (and Rizzoli, and Phaidon, and Steidlville, and so on) will survive–much like large-format art and fashion magazines will survive–whatever onslaught against books our increasingly anti-intellectual, corporate-whoring culture might bring. Publishers like Assouline are not affected by the scary erosion of private consumption. Instead, they cater to dinner parties and private cocktails and coffee-table klatsches. Their books serve our sense of style; ergo they serve, to whatever extent one feels these things are commensurate, our sense of ourselves. With their glossy, prominent spine-print and indubitable heft, with their significant affect, Assouline books let us put our self-images on display, our selves on our shelves. “All of our books are about style,” says Prosper Assouline, the grinning Parisian who–together with his wife–founded his luxury-book imprint in 1994, then moved to New York in 2005. “The book can be about fashion, architecture, travel, but at the end, it is really about style. We have published over 1000 books, and they are all for the same customer with the same sense of style.” It is a rarefied sense. It’s not unfitting that as Mr. Assouline explains this to me, he is sitting in the plush, coolly lit private-shopping area of The Room at the Bay, where he’s promoting the Hudson’s Bay Company book he has recently published. The book is foreworded by Vanity Fair editor and Canadian expat Graydon Carter (although on Amazon, it says the foreword’s by Monocle editor and Canada-hater Tyler Brule). Blanket-striped and richly illustrated, it has the look of a classic. “And if you put all [our] books together,” Assouline says, “you understand that it’s like we designed a house, and each book”–he gestures grandly to the Bay book–“is a brick in the house.” It is also a brick in the careful construction of being. What does owning/displaying/giving the Hudson’s Bay Company book tell about you? It tells that you’re classic, as above. It tells that you appreciate heritage and, to some extent, history. (I say “to some extent” because the book blankets over the less fortunate, more colonial aspects of the Bay and its/our past. There is a perfectly awkward, lost-in-translation moment in my interview with Assouline when he describes with glee a painting he’s seen, in the Bay offices, of an “Indian” wearing the iconic striped blanket. I express dismay; he says, “You don’t like Indians?”) It tells most of all that we’re Canadian, and that we’ve come to feel like that’s kind of alright, even cool. Assouline has, at least for intents and purposes, bought into the idea that the Bay is selling: that there is nothing more Canadian than this historic, massive, chain department store. As I’ve told you before, the Creative Director of The Bay once half-joked that he’s “creative director of Canada.” When Assouline talks about how The Bay “owned Canada,” he does not seem quite convinced he’s speaking in the past tense. And when he spills his nostalgia for the ’40s and ’50s in publishing, a time when books were about “real work, real love, real authors,” not “part of marketing,” he seems not to know that the Hudson’s Bay Company book is exactly that: a (brilliant) marketing tool for the reborn Bay, or for, if you believe the Bay, a reborn Canada. Albeit, Canada is a country that still needs its style-biography published, nay, validated by a New York-Paris imprint. Le plus a change, as they say down in Lower Canada. Le plus a change. The Hudson’s Bay Company book by Assouline is $75 and available at The Bay. But you know what’s better than buying it? Winning it. Subscribe to our Newsletter between now and January 2, 2012, then RT our ‘win this’ tweet to win at @TorontoStandard. Sarah Nicole Prickett is the Style Editor at Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @xoxSNP.

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