There’s Always a Price Tag

Have you noticed the cost of a paperback book recently? I never lose sight of it; it’s my bread and butter.

A long time ago, when I was a boy back in the U.K., paperback books were looked down upon as “pulp fiction”. We were actively discouraged from reading them, and they had built-in obsolescence. They’d fall apart almost as you read them.

One of the old faithfuls on my “favourites” bookshelf is a case in point. It’s an early paperback edition of Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”, published in Canada by Pan Books in 1965 and priced at 65¢. It’s still hanging together, but its pages are brittle and yellowed by the acid in the cheap paper.

Today’s paperbacks bear little resemblance to those I remember. The quality is far better. Today’s paperback is printed on acid-free paper and will pretty much withstand anything short of total immersion in water. At around $13.00 a copy, though, it will also kick the confidence out of the contents of your billfold. Which is how a book that I bought a few days ago got me started on this line of thought.

It should have been no big deal. This particular book was a hardcover novel, and there wasn’t much to it: 300 substantially thick pages in a large type face, giving it much more heft than substance. But I bought it because it was the sequel to a novel I had read and enjoyed about a decade ago for something like $12.95. This one, far smaller, cost thirty bucks . . . minus, of course the cosmetic nickel that lowers the price to $29.95 and is supposed to make you think you’re only paying twenty dollars instead of thirty. And then came the insult on top of the injury, GST and PST, neither one, of course, reflected on the price tag.

There’s always a price tag. But what should it really be called? As Shakespeare said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But clearly, Shakespeare could never have envisioned a 21st-Century price tag.

In bygone days in Alberta, where I lived for a couple of decades after coming to Canada in 1967, a price tag was always what it appeared to be: you looked at the thing and counted the pennies in your pocket. If you had enough pennies and wished to trade them, you then bought the item for the price on the tag. Those were the days, until GST came along, and at first GST didn’t apply to books. And there’s still no Provincial sales tax in Alberta.

But here in B.C., as in most other provinces in Canada, price tags have seldom provided anything more accurate than an indication of where you should start counting, if you intend to buy.

And you’d better figure carefully if you’re buying in the hundreds- or thousands-of-dollars classification.

Thinking such thoughts, I realized incidentally that I have never really been aware of any of the price reductions that supposedly came along with GST on numerous items when the revised taxes first kicked in a few years ago. You’ve probably forgotten, too, since then, about the reductions that were supposed to reflect the 6% difference between the old Federal Sales Tax and the GST? Of course, I know those reductions are really all there in the end price, and have always been there. I know it’s no more than silly, culpable carelessness on my part that I’m unaware of precisely where they are. The Government said they would be there, didn’t they?

But lets get back to my book and why it gave me fits. I looked at the price tag, then at the tax, and then I looked around at all the other junk being peddled in what’s supposed to be a book store but isn’t now, because too many people have stopped buying too-expensive books, and as I thought about what was involved in all of that, I realized that we’re being taxed for being able to read, and I found myself visualizing a conversation that must have taken place several years ago, deep in the caverns of mandarin Ottawa;

“Hey, did you know that 25% of Canadians are functionally illiterate?”


“Functionally illiterate… They don’t read books.”

“No kiddin’? Does anybody?”

“Yeah, some people do, I know for a fact.”

“Get away! Who?”

“Intellectuals. Teachers . . . students . . . guys like that.”

“Geeze! Where d’ they get them? The books?”

“How should I know? They buy them, I guess.”

Buy them? Have you seen the price of those things?”

“Yeah. Lotta money in books. Maybe we should tax ’em.”

“Hey! Great idea! Who do these guys think they are, anyway? What’ll we call it, the tax?”

“How about a literacy tax? That’ll teach ’em to be smart, eh?