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Vancouver's HMV goes out with both a bang and a whimper

Pre-Christmas sales should be something to celebrate, but it is difficult to walk past HMV, at the corner of Robson and Burrard, and not feel a twinge of sadness.

The signs in the window seem so desperate: "Store closing up to 60 per cent off!" and "Fixtures, furniture & equipment for sale!" "Nothing held back!"

Inside, sales staff watch dejectedly as the shelves are slowly emptied of the items that gave them employment. Once all the DVDs, CDs, posters, T-shirts, books, accessories, display racks, cash registers and perhaps even the paint off the walls have been sold, they will be out of work, or transferred to HMV outlets outside Vancouver, where others will be displaced. That's 60 people facing unemployment in the New Year. So there is nothing merry about this Christmas sale, even if it does mean you can get 26 episodes of Get Smart, season four, for $16, or a Sex and the City DVD for $4.99.

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Prices are in free fall at the biggest retail outlet HMV operates in Canada. But it's not because management is cashing in on the Christmas sales rush.

This is a business that's violently contracting because of international market forces that are making it increasingly difficult for retailers to sell – at any price – entertainment content that can be bought cheaper (or pirated for free) on the Internet.

The closing of HMV is a blow to the city, because it means there will no longer be a major retail outlet in downtown Vancouver where you can actually shop for music and films. This was a place you could go and talk to people as you pondered buying a CD. Where you would feel an affinity for complete strangers because they were looking at the same jazz titles you were. And when you bought something, you could actually take it home, reading the liner notes on the bus, and enjoying the tactile pleasure of putting a shiny new disc on your player.

But that is the past, the future is now, and it means sitting home alone, downloading tunes at 99 cents each and burying them somewhere within the soulless digital guts of your computer.

It's convenient. And we, apparently, are loving it so much that CD and DVD sales are off between 5 per cent and 50 per cent, depending on which market analysis you believe. Whatever the sales drop is, the reality is reflected on the large sign a guy is lugging around the HMV outlet which, as of Friday, was announcing prices had now been cut 70 per cent.

HMV was never a small, intimate store where you could interact with a knowledgeable owner who recommended new music or new films to you. Those little outlets began folding years ago, and now there are very few left, anywhere. Certainly you can't find one in downtown Vancouver. There are some on Commercial Drive, and, against all odds Dunbar still has one, Nightwatch Video. Nightwatch is hanging on because its owner, if you come in a few times, will remember you. And unlike Netflix or iTunes, he will recommend to you obscure, unheard-of foreign productions, which nobody is watching but which are brilliant.

Places like Nightwatch Video expand your horizon in a way that HMV never did.

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But HMV had huge content and it had good prices. If the digital age can sweep away a big player like this, then no retail outlet that sells pop culture is safe.

And if all the shops that sell DVDs and CDs close, we won't be shopping elbow to elbow for music and movies any more. We will all be sitting at home, waiting for iTunes to program our tastes through its Genius software, which is apparently based on the premise that more of the same is what we want.

When the last of these retail outlet closes, something important will have been lost. The music may not have died, but the social interaction around buying CDs and DVDs will have. And that's a shame.

So if you get a DVD or CD for Christmas, enjoy it. There might not be any next year.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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