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Jan Wong: Why the LCBO—the antiquated, paternalistic monopoly that’s deliberately gouging us—has got to go

Body Politics

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I stopped by the LCBO’s flagship Summerhill store.
A glorious 35,000 square feet of creamy Italian porcelain floors and sparkling lights, the refurbished Canadian Pacific Railway station is adjacent to a cluster of gourmet shops that affluent shoppers call “The Five Thieves.” Here you pay dearly for ready-to-heat osso buco or a square of chocolate cake sprinkled with edible gold leaf. Despite its prime location, this outlet, the LCBO’s largest, is no pricier than any other location in the province. You pay the same fixed $12.60 for a 2009 Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône here as you would at Scarborough’s lowly Cedarbrae Mall.

Nice, huh? But wait—you and I are paying for those pot lights, the Martha Stewart–style test kitchen (used for cooking demos and wine appreciation classes) and the standalone tasting bar, not to mention the lease on this prime piece of real estate. We all pay—whether we’re teetotalers or boozehounds—because higher overhead reduces the annual dividend the LCBO remits to the province. That in turn means less money for everything from social services to infrastructure.

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The Informer

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Costco gas station is causing massive traffic snarls, proposes to fix things by making them worse

(Image: Michael)

Everybody knows what a Boxing Day door-crasher sale at a big box store is like, right? Now imagine that chaos, only with a crowd of SUVs and minivans instead of consumption-mad shoppers. That’s basically the scene at Warden and Ellesmere these days, thanks to Costco selling gas the same way they sell everything: with big, big discounts.

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A passage to India: how Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter became an unlikely best-seller

Secret Daughter, a debut novel by an untested author, went supernova after just four days on the shelves at Costco

It’s amazing what a little support from Costco can do for a writer’s career. When HarperCollins Canada published Toronto-born Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s debut novel, Secret Daughter, last March, its prospects were not good: the advertising budget was nil, and booksellers greeted it with shrugs. But then HarperCollins asked Costco’s book buyer, Catherine Bergeron, to look past the store’s best-seller bias and give the novel a shot. That was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, it was one of the top-selling titles in the country. Since then, the book—about an Indian woman forced to give up her daughter and the American couple that adopts the child—has been anointed a Heather’s Pick by Indigo, gone through more than a dozen printings, and sold 200,000-plus copies in Canada alone.

All this is doubly curious when you consider that the 40-year-old Gowda has been a U.S. citizen for the past five years. (She lives with her husband and two children in San Diego.) She sold the novel not to HarperCollins Canada, but to HarperCollins U.S. The Canadian arm initially intended to distribute the American edition, but when the Toronto sales office noticed Gowda’s Canadian roots, a paperback version was created for the domestic market. (Paperbacks are Costco’s preferred format and a factor in its decision to carry Secret Daughter before it went supernova.) In the much larger U.S. market, where the book has been available only as an expensive hardcover, sales have been comparatively modest: 10,000-odd copies to date.

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The Dish

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Eric Ripert’s forced shopping trip to Costco caught on camera

On the PBS television show Avec Eric, Le Bernardin’s head chef, Eric Ripert, retreats to nature looking for five-star meal ideas, then teaches the audience how to cook as though three Michelin stars depend on it. GQ recently put a joyous twist on this concept, sending Ripert and James Beard award–winning journalist Alan Richman down the canyon-like aisles of Costco, hoping to expose the world-class chef to how the other half (well, the other 95 per cent) eats. It is the first, and most likely last, episode of Avec Alan.

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