Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Revenge of the Indie Bookstore

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by Vivek Shraya

In 2014, when I began booking my Crushes and Mountains US book tour with fellow Toronto-based writer Elisha Lim, I Googled “gay bookstore” or “independent bookstore” in cities we were planning to visit in search of possible venues. It was heartbreaking to tally how many had closed in recent years. Touring the bookstores that were still open was clouded by a sense of foreboding. I worried about the impending closure of these remaining bookstores, which had been, and still were, vital sites for community-building and activism.

Toronto bookstores were not immune to this trend. In my thirteen years in this city, I have seen the closing of some of my favourite bookstores, including Pages and Nicholas Hoare.

Recently, I have read and rejoiced in articles heralding the return of indie bookstores such as “Indie Bookstores Are Back, With a Passion” (The New York Times) and “'People are hungry for real bookstores': Judy Blume on why US indie booksellers are thriving” (The Guardian).

I was curious to learn whether indie bookstores in Toronto were feeling equally optimistic, so I interviewed staff at three of my favourite bookstores in the city--Another Story Bookshop (Anjula Gogia), Glad Day Bookshop (Michael Erickson) and Type Books (Serah-Marie McMahon)--to see what trends they were noticing, what strategies they have been employing to stay viable, and what book lovers can do to keep supporting our beloved indie bookstores.
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Vivek Shraya:

First, tell me a quirky fact about your store that few people know!

Glad Day Bookshop:

In the 80s and 90s, when Border Services was seizing, delaying and sometimes “accidentally” destroying LGBTQ books and magazines being shipped from the U.S., the store developed a creative solution. They would have the boxes shipped to a different address and label them as churches. So you would have a box of lesbian kink stories being shipped to a fake "St. Agnes of Assisi" - and they never figured it out!

Another Story Bookshop:

Another Story started in the basement of a house over thirty years ago. There was a side door entrance, and for three years anyone with a stroller would ring a bell and staff would come and carry their stroller downstairs.

Type Books:

On Sunday, a squirrel moved into the store and won't leave. It hides during daylight hours and comes out at around 10 - just in time to be photographed by a passerby and posted on social media. It's been... an interesting week.

Vivek Shraya:

There has a been a lot of discussion of the renewed interest in independent bookstores and the closing of Indigo in downtown Toronto (and across Canada). What trends are you noticing at your store?

Another Story Bookshop:

Sales are definitely going up. There is lots of community support, and we are hosting many, many more in-store events. We have a very loyal customer base.

Glad Day Bookshop:

The good news is we are selling more books than the store has in the last 10 years, but the percentage that booksellers get per book is the lowest in the retail sector. The bad news is that some folks take us for granted. People come in and use the store to find the books they want, but then buy them online where the price is cheaper because of questionable business and labour practices. I often joke that if people are going to get expert advice from our staff but then buy elsewhere, the least they can do is leave a tip!

Type Books:

Last year was Type's best ever! While seeing a bookstore close - any bookstore - makes me sad, I'm so happy to see independents thrive and grow across the city, the country, and the world.

Vivek Shraya:

What are creative strategies your store has been using in the recent 5 years to stay thriving?

Type Books:

Amazing artist (and part-time Type bookseller) Kalpna Patel creates amazing window displays that are loved the city over. We have interesting events, like our recent conversation between Leanne Shapton and Sheila Heti and our celebration for Authors for Indies.

Another Story Bookshop:

One of the financial cornerstones of Another Story is our relationship with the educational community. We have one of Toronto's best selections of books for children and youth with a focus on diversity, social justice and equity. We have signed contracts with several Boards of Education in the province to provide libraries and teachers with books. We go out to numerous book fairs across the province; we provide specialized lists and services to teachers and librarians; and we have a large number of schools purchasing from us directly.

We have also increased the number of book launches and events we hold in the store. This strategy has helped enhance our profile as a literary and political bookstore in Toronto. Events are a way of building support from customers, and for Another Story to support communities in Toronto.

Like any other good indie bookstore, we have a fantastic staff team. Our staff is a big part of who we are and how we operate. They are at the heart of what we do – they are highly trained, voracious, passionate readers who want to put the right book in your hands and will take the time to listen, find and make recommendations.

Glad Day Bookshop:

When we saved the store from closing in 2012, we focused on building human relationships and a digital presence. We are the world's oldest LGBTQ bookstore, and we continue to think of ourselves in a global context. In fact, 20-25% of our sales are to people who are visiting Toronto. In 2013, we built an independent, online store that now has over 1,800 books. We have recently added an ebook platform, and by the end of the summer we will have built a solid collection of LGBTQ ebooks & digital zines. Within the next year, we hope to have established the largest LGBTQ zine database in the world. We have steadily been building our presence on social network platforms.

We have developed reciprocal relationships with authors locally and globally - they spread the word about the store and we spread the word about them.

We would be nothing without our customers and our community. I think we have developed a responsive relationship with them. We really listen and we are constantly trying new things based on their feedback. Sometimes we are limited by funds, labour and time, but we don't ever say “no” if someone has an idea, a request or a recommendation. We try to find a way to make it work.

In 2015, we launched Naked Heart - The LGBTQ Festival of Words with over 125 authors at 45 events over a few days in October. In our first year, we are already the world's largest and most diverse LGBTQ literary festival and we plan on making this a yearly event.

You would think with all these innovations that Glad Day Bookshop would be financially stable, but we are actually very fragile. People think that our level of activity reflects our level of revenue but that is not the case. We rely on a significant amount of unpaid work by our owners, and it is an everyday struggle to keep the doors open.

Vivek Shraya:

Everyone knows that consumers need to support local indie bookstores by buying books from them but is there anything else book lovers can do to support indie bookstores?

Glad Day Bookshop:

Indie bookstores can't compete with the marketing budget of the monster stores. People share the books they love all the time online - next time you are sharing a book you love, share a link that directs people to an indie store that carries it. It might take a bit more time, but that simple act helps us exponentially. Ask your workplace or local library or school where they are buying their books from. Suggest that buying from a nearby store helps keep local funds circulating locally. If you can, come to an event and bring a friend. Supporting authors means supporting books and bookstores. When people show up to an author event, it is energizing and motivates the author to keep doing the tough, often solitary, work of writing. Start a book club! Book clubs are coming back in a big way and most indie bookshops will give book clubs 20% off their reading list.

Another Story Bookshop:

Yes! Keep shopping with us, special order, tell your friends, bring people out to events, tweet and retweet about us, and share our events and book posts on Facebook.

Type Books:

Attend events, give love on social media and by word of mouth, and read more books! Read books suggested by your local indie bookseller! It makes them happy.


Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. She is also one half of the music duo Too Attached and the Associate Editor of Heartbeats, a website that features racialized artists and stories. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail's Best Books of 2014, and will be followed by her debut collection of poetry, even this page is white, out this spring. Vivek has read and performed at shows, festivals and post-secondary institutions in­ter­nation­ally, sharing the stage with Tegan & Sara and Dragonette, and has appeared at NXNE, Word on the Street, and Yale University.

Vivek is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist, and a 2015 recipient of the Writers' Trust of Canada's Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. Vivek's first children's picture book, The Boy & the Bindi, will be published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2016. Her book on recording artist M.I.A. will be published in 2017 by ECW Press, as part of their Pop Classics series.

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