The Survivors: Toronto's Bookselling Landscape

There have been a number of good articles in the last few years about Toronto’s steadily disappearing bookstores (here are just a few, in The Toronto Star and the Toronto Review of Books). Bricks-and-mortar retail is struggling these days, and not just in the bookselling business, of course. But the disappearance of bookstores strikes a particular note of sadness. It may be an inevitable change, a product of the same forces that have nearly wiped out the rental video store: anything that can be dematerialized and delivered digitally will be, including all forms of entertainment and information, from books and newspapers to music and movies. But it is an odd feeling to walk down the major pedestrian thoroughfares of one’s city and find the thinking part of the culture physically unrepresented on the street.

The former locations of Pages Books on Queen, BookCity on Bloor, Nicholas Hoare on Front, and This Ain't The Rosedale Library on Church.

The most painful of these disappearances, perhaps, was the closing of Book City in the Annex (it remains open at 4 other locations), both because it was arguably the city’s best independent bookstore, and because it occupied a certain center of gravity in a neighbourhood that has traditionally been associated with intellectualism and artistic production, home to some of the city – and the country’s – most famous literary names (Jane Jacobs and Margaret Atwood being just two). How can a city that considers itself ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘world-class’ hold its head up with pride if even one of its wealthiest and most intellectually engaged neighbourhoods can’t sustain a first-rate bookstore?

That wealth, of course, is part of the problem. The simple fact is that as property values rise, so do rents, and while a sushi place or a nail salon that is busy all day every day may be able to sustain a commercial rent of $30,000 a month (as both the former Book City and Pages spaces are reputed to run), even a very good bookstore cannot. People just don’t spend that much on books anymore, at least not in bricks-and-mortar stores. But without them, neighbourhoods like the Annex start to lose the charm and the utility of being a ‘village within the city’, unable to sustain many of the smaller businesses that a real village requires. There is, after all, only so much sushi one can eat.

She Said Boom! on College, Doug Miller Books and BMV on Bloor, and Balfour Books on College - the best bookstore in the city for used large format art books.

And yet, even as first-run bookstores disappear, secondhand stores survive and seem to be thriving. Just footsteps away from the old Book City location on Bloor, Seekers Books (509 Bloor Street West) – an institution in its own right – continues to draw in curious collectors and casual book shoppers of all kinds. And, scarcely two blocks away in the other direction, there is the four-storey BMV – Books, Music, Video – a booklover’s mecca, selling at very reasonable prices publishers’ overstock and used books, as well as DVDs, board games, a dwindling number of CDs, and a fabulous array of comics and graphic novels on its third floor.

Not exactly immune to the shift to online shopping and e-books, secondhand bookstores nonetheless serve an important function within the book-buying and selling ecosystem: regardless of where people obtain their first-run books, they need somewhere to sell them again.

So how do these stores survive? It’s a cliché of current retail marketing wisdom that stores have to create an experience for the buyer, not just display and sell products. Bookstores have perhaps taken for granted that displaying books well creates an experience in and of itself, as it surely does. A good bookstore, like a good library, gives the impression of containing the entire world in miniature taking us from birth to death, to every continent of the globe, to every era ancient and modern, through every genre, and brings us up-to-the-minute news and views at the magazine and newspaper stand.

So let’s visit a few of these stores and find out how they are surviving, whether its by creating that unique experience, offering exceptional and personalized service, serving a specific and loyal community based on identity or locality, specializing in its offerings and thus becoming a destination store, or some combination of all of these.


She Said Boom!  (373 College Street)

As the name suggests, She Said Boom! is arguably the city’s hippest secondhand bookstore, and fits right into its location just outside Kensington market (there is another is at 393 Roncesvalles Ave.).

Bookseller Randy Harnett and his young, friendly, and exceedingly well-read staff are just as happy to swap notes with you about the relative merits of Proust vs. Knausgaard as they are to recommend a good read or direct you to the CD bins for that Tom Waits or Radiohead album you are looking for.

Like the neighbourhood, things here are always changing. The store thrives on a rapid turnover of high-quality, low-cost paperback (and some hardcover) fiction and non-fiction on its large front table. The latest Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein, Miranda July or Thomas Pynchon come and go daily. And if it’s not here today, it could very well be here later this week. So stop in often.

Far from snooty, the store also has a great selection of comic books, a children’s and YA corner, as well as a good selection of history, politics, biography, art books, philosophy and literary criticism (its proximity to the university no doubt helps bring some of this stuff in and sends it out again to its intellectually omnivorous browsers), all in a compact space with big front windows to showcase the ebb and flow of the old and new.

(For that reason, however, Harnett says he isn’t able to make much use of the online independent bookselling site ABE Books, which allows you to buy directly from independent bookstores around the world. As other booksellers have told me, it only pays if you have high-value rarities to sell. Otherwise, the burden of keeping an up-to-date electronic database of your stock is a task too huge for any small store to sustain, especially since stock comes in and goes out so quickly. And then there is the shipping cost – too prohibitively high to make it worthwhile for most paperback fiction – and all the trouble of packing and shipping the books, which also falls to the bookstore.)


Sellers & Newel Second-Hand Books (672 College Street)

Is it a case of nominative determinism that Peter Sellers, after a career in advertising, has turned bookseller in his semi-retirement? After filling three storage lockers full of books in his years as a collector, he opened Sellers & Newell four years ago, and has kitted his store out in some of the funkiest fixtures you’re likely to find in a used book emporium. His specialty is hardcover literary fiction. Fancy a Hemingway, an Irving, an Orwell, a Rushdie, a McEwan or a McCarthy? They're all here at reasonable prices, in great shape, complete with protective archival cellophane wrappers.

Sellers says his buyers are mostly younger people who live in the neighbourhood, some with children – so he’s expanded his selection of children’s books – and destination buyers coming for his extensive and high-quality collection of hardcover fiction, which other stores tend not to deal in, because they generally can’t sell it next to cheaper paperbacks.

But this breed of collector can’t always make it to the store, so Sellers does post books on ABE Books, usually first-edition hardcovers, sometimes signed by the author, which can go for hundreds and even thousands of dollars. But, Sellers notes, he’s selling most of his hardcovers for less than you’d pay for a new paperback of the same title. So if you’re collecting hardcovers, you know where to go. (Elliot’s on Yonge is also a good destination for the more antiquarian collector.)

He’s also an enthusiastic collector of literary horror, and displays the jewels of his for-sale collection in both a locked bookcase of ‘Weird Fiction’ behind the cash – stocked with Lovecraft and other pioneers of horror – and in a real European coffin, standing vertical, Dracula-style against the east wall of his store. A friend who is a pipefitter (and MMA fighter!) custom built a number of the bookshelves, which, along with the tin roof, gives the store an appealing SteamPunk vibe.

Like all the booksellers I have spoken to, Mr. Sellers enjoys good relationships with the other secondhand stores in the area, happily sending customers to them for things he doesn’t carry and vice versa. But he goes a step further, making his shop into a community hub by hosting live music, poetry and spoken word performances for a capacity crowd of 30, along with the more usual book launches.


Doug Miller Books (650 Bloor Street West)

You could scarcely ask to meet a more gregarious, or a more optimistic bookseller than Doug Miller of Doug Miller Books – no relation to the Bob Miller Book Room, by the way, as he’s asked a couple of times a day. He’s been selling books for going on 25 years at four different locations, first on Queen Street East, then Mount Pleasant, and now at Manning and Bloor in the heart of Koreatown. Prompted to move from the south side of Bloor by the sale of the previous building, he tells a funny story about a woman coming in the day they opened at the new north-side location and remarking how wonderful it was that the neighbourhood had a new bookstore. Miller pointed out that they’d been at Manning and Bloor for more than four years. “But this is Manning and Bloor,” the customer noted, a little confused. “That’s right.” The south side store just didn’t attract the same kind of foot traffic, which has now increased threefold, along with a doubling of the retail space itself. (The subway, of course, delivers pedestrians onto the north side of Bloor, and several small corner grocery stores on the bring out a steady flow of local shoppers.) The fact that he doesn’t have a sign yet – he’s building one out of Lego! – doesn’t seem to deter anyone from coming in.

Miller has seen and adapted to a number of changes over his bookselling career, and each new location has its quirks. When he started in the business, he catered more to collectors looking for autographed and hardcover first editions. His was a destination shop in which 95% of the customers bought something. He doesn’t deal much in hardcovers now. That kind of collector is fewer and farther between than they used to be. People want cheaper softcovers now, which they may not hang onto. A lot of his customers are younger browsers who wander in looking for nothing in particular, and a lower percentage of them actually buy. But he’s doing just fine.

Miller is happy to take orders, so long as customers understand that he has no control over when books come in. “The book might come in that afternoon, or it might come in a year from now, or 10 years from now.” So he’s pragmatic about losing sales to Amazon and other outlets when people need specific things fast.

Asked whether he thinks e-books are diminishing the supply of books available for resale, he says he no longer deals in the two genres most impacted by the e-book: Business books (which date and thus lose value quickly), and Romance fiction (which is read in such voluminous quantities by those who read it that the e-reader has rescued them from the growing piles of novels that previously accumulated about their houses).

Miller thinks that, to some extent, real estate trends drive the flow of books through the resale market. Decluttering experts on TV have persuaded many to view books as ‘clutter’, mere dust gatherers, and people have duly reduced their once significant personal libraries. When staging your house for sale, as well, books are seen as too personal – they interfere with the new buyer’s ability to imagine him or herself living there. And as the city grows denser with condo towers, more people are living in small spaces that won’t accommodate shelves and shelves of books, which is both good and bad news for resellers like him. If people own fewer books, it follows that they likely buy fewer books, unless they buy, read, pass on or resell them, which many of them do. (There’s also the Little Free Library movement, a new way to recycle books you no longer need.)

Miller’s store is worth a visit not only for its extensive selection of fiction and non-fiction, its $1 book wall, and a particularly robust selection of comics and graphic novels, but for the giant cash desk, made entirely of the buckets of Lego bricks that Miller collects, when he’s not amassing books. And keep your eyes out for his illuminated Lego store sign, sure to become an icon of the Bathurst to Christie strip.

Miller’s also excited about the new opportunities opening up for authors, including proliferating options for self-publishing. The future of book culture looks bright from where Miller is standing. Independent bookstores remain community hubs for book launches and other literary events where people can interact face-to-face with authors.

(For a similar take on the bright future of bookselling see Andrew Laties’ Rebel Bookseller from Seven Stories press, 2011.)

Indeed, Miller thinks the mainstream media may have done more harm than good by playing up the idea that bookstores are in a war with each other. Customers are pleased (if also puzzled) when he sends them to another store if he doesn’t have what they are looking for, even placing a call for them to find out who does. But as Miller sees it, they are not his competition because he doesn't have the stock. “There’s lots of room for everyone,” he says, including Chapters/Indigo.

The complaints against the big-box stores are obvious and well known. They stock large quantities of popular books for short periods of time and have a relatively thin stock of older titles that only sell one or two copies a year. There simply isn't the shelf space for them. They also tend to push a lot of books by celebrities who are known for other things, rather than authors in the first instance, and thus, have tended to accelerate the book publishing industry’s integrations with – or is it a transformation into? – simply an arm of the televisual and internet-based entertainment industry. Their business model, like most others, is based on volume and turnover, the scale of their operation making it possible to drive down prices for consumers, but also incomes for publishers and writers. And books don't pay the bills anyway. It's all those other tchotchkes and lifestyle items that keep the book-selling side of the business in the black – or is it grey, shading into red?

And yet, in many areas, as bookstores disappear, the big-box bookstore is one of the last bastions of something like literary culture. In smaller communities across the country, the local Chapters or Indigo might be the only bookstore left in town, and even at that, it is often hanging on by a thread.

So when the Chapters in Bloor West village closed recently, there was a distinct irony to the laments for its passing. When it had come in, in 1999, there were objections from the neighbours that it would drive out smaller shops. As the bigger-box store came under the general threat of indifference, rising costs, and declining sales that threaten all book stores, however, the neighbourhood that had come to embrace its Chapters as a de facto community centre mourned its passing as they had once lamented its arrival.

If some of the conversations I overhear when I am browsing the bigger-box places are any indication, the smaller bookshops' loses – in terms of knowledgeable, bookish personnel – may be the bigger stores' gain. A young woman was curious about whether she would enjoy David Lipsky's 'Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace' and the bookseller on-hand was able to fill her in on not just the recent film version, but the literary kinship between David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, who, conveniently, had a new book out. It was on display and on sale at the cash register for $25. I don't know if that is the result of clever merchandising decisions within the store, or just a small-scale demonstration of the way good booksellers – that is, actual humans – make the vast literary landscape intelligible and navigable to readers every day. The tragedy is that there are fewer and fewer face-to-face nodes in that delicate web – the community hubs we used to know as local bookshops.

A NOTE TO THE READER: By no means is this piece meant to serve as an exhaustive tour of Toronto’s bookselling scene. There are dozens of stores throughout the city, only a few of which have been named here. For more information on some of these, click here. INDEPENDENT FIRST-RUN BOOKSTORES: Book City (4 locations), Type Books (Queen Street), Ben McNally Books (366 Bay), Another Story Book Shop (315 Roncesvalles), Caversham Booksellers (Harbord), and many more… SPECIALTY BOOKSTORES: Good Egg (Kensington), The Beguiling (Markham Street), Page and Panel: The TCAF Shop (Toronto Reference Library), Glad Day Bookshop (Yonge), Another Booklist (Bathurst), ParentBooks (Harbord), Bob Miller Books (Bloor), U of T Bookstore (College), and many more…