Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Authors of our own Misfortune: The Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto

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Only days after being named Specialty Bookseller of the Year by the Canadian Booksellers Association. Toronto's venerable Flying Dragon Bookshop, a well-known Bayview Avenue purveyor of books for children and adults, announced it would be closing its doors at the end of June.

This news met with the kind of hand-wringing that has become almost tediously predictable in Toronto. A much-loved bookshop that has struggled quietly for months -- or years -- goes out of business and the literary community -- authors, publishers, other booksellers -- gathers mournfully around the remains like mammoths awaiting their own doom. Book-buyers arrive in irregular clots, issuing condolences and looking for a discount on the dwindling stock.

This ritual of regret is performed every few months in Toronto, and the list of the fallen reads like a litany of literary loss: the Flying Dragon, This Ain't the Rosedale Library, McNally Robinson, Pages, David Mirvish Books, Ballenford Books. It is not even a new phenomenon: in the 1990s Toronto lost many of its independents, closed because they could not compete with corporate mega-chain Chapters-Indigo or the rising prominence of online book retailing.

Book-pundits have suggested there is reason for optimism. Toronto-based Book City has managed to keep five locations in business, most of them open for decades, and upstart indie Type Books appears to have made itself sustainable in the Trinity-Bellwoods and Forest Hill neighbourhoods. Second-hand booksellers (Abelard Books and Atticus Books in particular) who have closed their books-and-mortar locations have carried on in the digital realm. Other booksellers who have beaten long odds either by relocating or reinventing themselves include Bakka-Phoenix, Balfour Books, Swipe and the Toronto Women's Bookstore.

And yet, as a faithful reader and regular purchaser of books, I cannot help but see these stalwarts as resembling ships so relieved to have come through one storm that they cannot see the next one looming on the horizon. I wonder whether, ten years from now, any of these booksellers will continue to exist. And part of me wonders whether this is entirely a bad thing.

When I first returned to Toronto as an adult in the late 1990s, bookstores were closing all around the city, and I attended their wakes as a curious but respectful stranger. When the most recent wave of closures began a couple of years ago, they were all stores I had come to know well, and my response to their demise was more personal. When Pages announced it would close permanently if a suitable location could not be found to replace its Queen West address, I was dismayed. I cried when David Mirvish Books -- a place I loved to visit on rainy afternoons and almost never left empty-handed -- shut its doors. When This Ain't the Rosedale Library closed involuntarily, its doors chained shut by a bailiff, I started to respond more cynically. I began to wonder whether the city's booksellers actually wanted to remain in business.

The death of traditional print media -- newspapers and book publishing in particular -- has been forecast for nearly two decades. Learning from the music industry, which flailed around in the digital hemisphere for nearly a decade before finding its feet, most newspapers and news agencies have found ways to operate effectively online. They seem still to be working out the details, but nobody seriously expects the New York Times, the Guardian or even the Globe & Mail to go out of business.

When Harlequin Books -- one of the world's most successful publishers -- established its digital-only imprint, Carina Press, in the fall of 2009 as part of an effort to expand its offerings into other genres beyond romance fiction, the book press was skeptical -- until they saw the resounding success of Carina's titles. [I should add here that my mother's urban fantasy, Dark and Disorderly, was one of the first titles Carina published and has already earned far more in royalties than anything I'll likely ever see published.] When sales of e-readers took off last Christmas, other publishers knew the tide had turned and began following suit. Nearly every legitimate publisher (not to mention the swelling tide of start-up e-presses hoping to cash in on aspiring authors desperate to self-publish their work) now makes books available in e-editions -- or plans to start doing so in the near future. This shift seems to have revived the flagging fortunes of quite a few publishers, who are eagerly digitizing their back-lists and promoting electronic titles as eagerly as their print editions.

But whither booksellers? Can they make the same leap, or are books-and-mortar operations as doomed as the dinosaurs?

I love bookstores. The smell of books -- new and used -- makes me euphoric. No experience can surpass trolling in a bookstore and discovering something entirely new alongside something longed for. While researching the Imagining Toronto book, I spent upwards of $300 on books every month (one memorable orgy produced a thousand-dollar credit card bill) in new and second-hand bookstores all over the city. My regular book-trolling route stretched from the Junction east toward Yonge, and by bike I could reach half a dozen booksellers in a day. I made this trip on nearly a weekly basis.

At the same time, many of the books I sought were long out-of-print and, because second-hand booksellers are not always good at cataloging their stock, I began hunting down titles online via websites like Abebooks and Alibris. Where possible, I bought books offered by local booksellers operating online, but often this was not possible.

When my daughter was born, my regular trolling was curtailed and, given that the cost of transit would add $6.00 to the price of any book I might find in a bookstore commodious enough to accommodate a stroller, I began buying new books online as well. You know, from that place, where everything is discounted and ships in a day or two. I tried to restrict this practice to major press releases, buying small press books from publishers themselves, but the lure of click-through book buying proved irresistible. Once I was mobile again, I returned to book-buying-by-bike, but by that point most of my favourites had closed. I still pop into Book City on a weekly basis, and am developing an affection for Another Story on Roncesvalles, but some of the magic has gone.

What? You think it's all my fault?

No so fast. I've seen the cute pictures of your cats you post to your Facebook profiles, showing them lolling in a ... get this ... box labeled 'Amazon.' You post updates to Twitter bemoaning how long you've spent standing in line at Chapters/Indigo. And you upload snapshots of books (yours, mine and others) you've spied on the display tables of corporate booksellers all over the continent.

We all like to blame Heather for destroying the book business in Canada, but I have to say two things: first, we're all guilty of destroying the book business in Canada and, second, I think Heather has a few good ideas worth emulating.

Literary folks sneer at corporate bookstores selling candles and comforters alongside books, and object -- when we aren't grabbing a latte in one -- to in-store coffee franchises. And yet, they've proven enormously profitable to the chains.

But I wonder what will happen when the remaining indies realize they cannot make a sustainable go of it on books alone. I have a sneaking suspicion that local, independent bookstores of the future will look like nothing as much as coffee houses cum event spaces offering a few curated shelves of printed books (much like artworks in a gallery) and access to an online portal for the rest of their stock. In the future book enthusiasts may return to bookstores not for the books themselves but for the community they offer and their proprietors' areas of expertise. [Part of me wonders why Starbucks hasn't already capitalized upon this approach -- Starbooks, the revived operation might be called.] Indie booksellers may reply that they've always offered community and literary expertise -- and this is very true -- but they need something to replace the books that most book-buyers are now buying online.

As much as I lament the loss of Pages Books, I have a feeling Pages founder Marc Glassman had the remarkable foresight to foretell the death of books-and-mortar book-selling and hence made what appears to be a successful shift to book pimping via launches and other literary events.

I hope that the Toronto Women's Bookstore, which reinvented itself a year ago -- complete with a lovely cafe -- and is a popular event space, will continue to have a place for itself in the changing book market. I wonder what might have happened had This Ain't the Rosedale Library been able to do something similar. Plenty of literary folk would have been (and might yet be) willing to buy shares in a renewed operation that might function (as the TWB did for years) as a kind of collective.

I note that Type Books, which operates as an event space as much as it does as a bookstore, sells book-related accessories alongside its books, and have a feeling that in the future these are what will pay the rent.

For time immemorial bookstores have operated on an assumption that if their proprietors could get people in the door, they would buy books. Location mattered, as did the choice of stock, the personalities of the proprietors and the habits of their customers. But in an era when most book-buyers purchase by point-and-click, and buy more books for their e-readers than anything printed, storefront bookstores are a dying breed.

I've long wondered why books-and-mortar bookstores have been so slow to sell stock online. If indie publishers can do it -- and I buy most small press books directly from their publishers either via their websites or at launches -- there's no reason why local bookshops cannot follow suit. There's also no reason why publishers (or the OBPO, say) and book-sellers could not collaborate to put books into the hands of book buyers as directly as Amazon does.

At the very least it would be better than slouching in the doorway, waiting for the bookpocalypse to come to us.

8 comments

Hi everyone. Great conversation.

Blaming indies? One of the problems with this type of critical conversation is that the bookstore side/publishing side is so thin-skinned as to make it nearly impossible to make any progress.

I, most certainly, am not blaming indies for anything. I have worked with them from 89 to 07. I have seen the inside of various operations, worked very closely with publishers, customers, fellow booksellers and my motivation is not to 'blame' anyone. I try to be as honest as possible given the breadth and depth of my experience.

I want bookstores to thrive and that's not going to happen if people keep bulls*tting themselves about the realities of consumer behavior and the changing attitudes toward written content in the digital age.

Anyway, here's some thoughts about bookselling today:

Build the Relationships:

At the Real Vancouver Writers' Series in Vancouver and through my work with the W2 Community Media Arts group I am slowly building a bookselling component into the events that will hopefully develop into a small, agile bookshop over time.

One of the ways that I am trying to build relationships with writers is to offer them 20% from every book (that we've purchased from a publisher) sold during their event in cash at the end of the night.

We sold 104 books at Zsuzsi Gartner's recent launch. That's about $600 that went right back to Zsuzsi. I think that she donated it to a school library.

If the writer is bringing their own books to sell at the event - which they have purchased from their publisher themselves - then they get 100% of all sales.

I believe that this kind of model shows respect for the writers work and will over time help to increase their involvement in promoting the shows. Thus bringing in more people to the events and increasing word of mouth for the venue and the series.

Customers also know that their money is going directly to support the writer now as opposed to fractionally by cheque 18 months from now.

The Real Vancouver Series makes money by charging admission - $5 - and selling drinks.

We are obviously taking a long view towards sustainability. I believe that we'll get there.

ALSO: Re: Relationships:

We live in an active age. There needs to be a hustle happening that I rarely see in booksellers today. Opening a store and then going to stand behind the till waiting for the onslaught of cash-waving consumers is no longer working.

FOCUS The Stock:

Booksellers cannot be everything to everybody. Do something well - mystery, gardening, cookbooks, philosophy, whatever - and stock popular well-curated books along the periphery.

WIDEN the Margin:

A 40% margin - the standard mark-up in bookselling - won't pay the rent. Period. It won't pay for wage increases to keep talented staff in order to grow the business. It will barely stretch to pay for all of those January Returns!

Booksellers need to sell things that will make them money.

One of the best bookstores in Vancouver is called Pulp Fiction Books. Super cool store that sells a really great selection of second hand books and a bang-on hand picked front list of new books (some back list, too).

They have 2 locations in the city and they - wait for it... - use the internet to source pricing on their second hand books and even to sell their books.

They can keep doing what they're doing because they have a flexible model.

There are some ideas. As for the whole 'digital rights' conversation: whatever. Let Kobo worry about that. I think that there will be increasing developments in the area of Print of Demand that will be a huge leverage for indie booksellers in the future.

Ultimately the question of 'copyright in the digital age' and 'digital rights' will be consumer driven. The consumer will find the content that they want at the price that they're willing to pay. Often that price will be zero.

The job of the retailer is to offer the consumer that has the free content something worth paying for.

In that respect nothing much will have really changed.

Amy,

Rights are really what the whole ebook thing is about. Infrastructure could be more or less easily bought. I'd be happy to buy a dedicated server, a scanning station, or whatever the publishers require of me. But, of course, they aren't selling an object when they sell an ebook, they are selling the bookstore the right to offer a digital document to a customer, so ultimately they need to give us permission to manage who has the right to have it on their device. As of right now, no publisher has chosen to grant these rights to independent bookstores in Canada. We would need to be able to keep track of units sold in a way that they trust, and they seem to only trust big book chains to do at the moment. The publishers themselves don't have the infrastructure to track these things. They tend to interface with the proprietary software big companies (Apple, Indigo, Amazon, Google) have created. I'd be willing to bet that small publishers who sell ebooks directly are also using some not-in-house software to keep track of sales.

I would love for some conglomerate (the CBA? LitDistCo? The Ontario Media Development Corporation?) to help push things along. I'd like to see publishers agree upon a delivery method for independents and help indies roll it out. We're willing. But individually, we can't leverage any clout. I have personally been stonewalled by the big publishers I have spoken to - they tell us we don't have the right to sell the ebook and that's that.

In any case, I'd love to see this discussion shift from blaming indies for not adapting to blaming publishers for leaving us out of the loop. ;)

Sean: I'm very sorry you've worn the corpses of a number of booksellers. I'd love to hear your ideas about what might make bookstores sustainable. Perhaps one of the things that will change is the bookseller personality: many booksellers, I think, have traditionally gone into the trade because they loved books and conversations about them. In this era perhaps it demands a more business-focused or tech-savvy approach. Love, as they say, probably isn't going to be enough any longer.

And p.s. to all: I love print books and books-and-mortar bookstores. I do not even own an e-reader [yet] and will always be one of those people who will choose a bound copy of a beloved book over anything electronic. And as long as indie booksellers continue to exist, I'll stop by at least once a week!

Jack: You're better at diplomacy than I'll ever be.

I don't mean to castigate any of our beloved bookstores for closing. I agree that the circumstances surrounding their exists from the trade vary and are complex. But if there's any hope of having indie bookstores to visit a decade from now, I think it's vital to talk about what works and what does not. When I talk to booksellers as a customer, often I sense a kind of fatalism. Perhaps this is because most indie bookstores operate in a very isolated manner. TO my knowledge there is no effective member-driven organization to lobby for indie booksellers' interests. [I know the antiquarian dealers have an organization, but it seems geared more to book standards rather than business sustainability.]

My suggestions regarding Chapters/Indigo were meant a little tongue-in-cheek. But I think Heather Reisman deserves considerable credit for anticipating which way the landscape was going to tilt on a number of occasions. I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to make money from selling books (or the bric-a-brac that apparently subsidizes them). The point was to suggest that bookstores are going to have to look beyond print books. Whatever direction that might mean is beyond me -- I don;t have the guts to be a bookseller -- but anything that means books will still be sold a decade from now seems better to me than the alternative.

Shara; You raise a vital point: how can local, indie booksellers gain the rights and/or infrastructure to sell e-books? As long as Chapters/Indigo and Amazon have that market sealed up, I cannot see how physical bookstores will be able to sustain themselves. Already in many popular genres e-book sales exceed those of printed texts, and it's an easy guess that this shift will only accelerate.

I'd love to see the OBPO, the LPG or some similar organization work actively with booksellers to establish the necessary infrastructure (including the communications side vis a vis publishers), which is far less difficult than folks might imagine. Coach House seems to me like a good example of an indie press that promotes e-editions of its catalogue, and might be a model worth emulating.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by rights. If it's straight access to digital rights, I'd guess this is something that can be worked out with authors and publishers. Most of the authors I know would be eager to have indie bookstores carry digital editions of their work.

Given that digital rights are still a bit of a rugged frontier, it seems to me that there's a window of opportunity for indie booksellers to become part of the process. How that would work I do not know -- but as a reader and writer, I'd love to see it happen!

It bears mentioning that right now, in Canada, independent bookstores *can not* sell ebooks. (This is, at least, to the best of my knowledge as an independent Toronto bookseller who would love to sell ebooks). We don't have the "rights" or the infrastructure. Most ebooks are format-specific and proprietary (i.e. can only be sold via Amazon) or are being sold by the publisher to customers directly. "Open" options like Google ebooks are not yet available in Canada.

Great article, Amy.

I'm always made uncomfortable by really specific speculation about what brought down one small business or another. We never have the whole story and it's too easy to leap to conclusions. This Ain't, for example, hosted plenty of well-promoted events, and their location (directly next to Ideal Coffee) meant that they effectively already had their own cafe. Could Charlie and Jesse have made different choices? Of course. Would those have worked out any better? There's no way any of us can answer that.

I don't share your optimism that emulating the Indigo business model is an answer for independent stores. There appears to be a resurgence in indie bookselling in parts of the USA, and the brightest stars appear to be stores that, instead of emulating ailing chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, offer things that no big box store can. Where most of them do resonate with your suggestions is in offering goods or services that aren't books. Coffee isn't enough, though.

Really excellent piece of writing. Captures much of what I believe is true about modern bookselling.

The difficulty is that for many people their mentality towards what books are and their relationship to them socially is in transition. The reality is quite different today than it has been. Consumer behavior has changed/is changing and no amount of hand-wringing has thus far affected that development.

I have spent many years working in independent bookselling. None of the stores that I worked with are still operating.

In Vancouver recently we had another brick and mortar bookstore casualty.

Ardea Books appeared on the landscape in late 2010. About 6 months after the last Duthie Books store closed - they once operated as many as 11 stores in the city in the heyday of the early/mid 90's.

Ardea Books was opened in a spot near the same location as the last Duthie store and employed some of the same staff. A long-time Duthie Books manager was the proprietor.

6+ months in and they're done.

I don't know what to say about it. I feel like there was this supreme reluctance to really adapt in any meaningful way at the core of their philosophy and that there was a willful blindness to the realities of modern consumer behavior in an age of Amazon.

Few people can work a standard 40% margin into any kind of brick and mortar enterprise these days. It's just not wide enough.

Thanks for the clear-eyed view of the book store landscape.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page