Vancouver’s Duthie Books to close

January 19, 2010 by · 15 Comments 

In what is becoming a depressingly familiar cycle, the iconic Vancouver indie Duthie Books has announced that it will close its last remaining location on 4th Ave. in Kitsilano, citing untenable competition from a combination of big box stores, Amazon, and e-readers.

From The Vancouver Sun:

Facing pressure from online bookseller Amazon and multi-national chains such as Chapters, owner Cathy Duthie Legate has decided to pack it in and close the last of eight locations on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano.

The family-owned chain was founded in 1957 by Bill Duthie.

“I’m just not making it, so I’m going to close it down,” said Duthie Legate. “We are going to start our regular sale January 28, but it will be better, of course, with discounts of 40, 60 then 80 percent and I hope to have all the books out of here by the end of February.”

“Then I will tear down the store,” she said.

So, yet another independent falls victim to the price gouging online sellers, the tech evangelists, and the blockbuster mentality of the big box stores. And what really annoys me is that one day in the not-too-distant future, when the indies have vanished entirely, taking with them the most conscientious, knowledgeable, and dedicated booksellers in the business, all the people currently singing the praises of new technology and easier access to information will have no fucking idea what it is we’ve lost.


15 Responses to “Vancouver’s Duthie Books to close”
  1. That’s very sad news indeed. The first place I can distinctly remember shopping for books is the old Duthie’s on 10th Avenue and a pilgrimage to the Kits location has always been a ritual part of any trips I make back home.

    I wonder: is it impossible that there could be an “indie” sensibility (and expertise) in a web-based bookstore? I’m thinking for instance of the The Book Depository in the UK.

  2. LH says:

    Very sad. Can’t quite articulate the degree of sadness, really, and confusion, and a little anger at the long slow climb of the big boxes and their sucking away of the local. Then, having gobbled the local up and parsed off the profits those big boxes will likely also be sold, or tossed away for the next opportunity to make the same economic play. It’s just the inevitability of the cycle that irks me…but we must embrace change, right?

    On a positive note, soon the cycle will be at a low and we can look to new ventures starting up, no? What will the next generation book retailers look like? I like the idea of the Indie-web bookstore, but I really, really, really miss walking INTO a bookstore and getting my hands on the books. I don’t get a sense of the new books the way I once did. All I see are catalogs, and thankfully, folks like Jacob discussing the upcoming books on his blog.

  3. Sad news.

    As someone who worked at the original Duthie’s flagship store in downtown Vancouver back in the 90’s it’s hard for me to say that this is terribly surprising news. It was pretty clear from certain emanations that Cathy’s heart just wasn’t in it anymore and hadn’t been for quite some time.

    Every time that I had been in the store recently Cathy certainly looked like she was somewhere else.

    I’m sure that she’s known for a long, long time that this day was coming and it must have been an incredibly agonizing decision for her to make.

    It’s a very heavy legacy to put an end to.

    It’s easy to point fingers at all of the usual suspects and get puffed up in a righteous rage but to me, one who worked there when the franchise was at its peak in the mid 90’s and who has friends who lost their jobs there today, I think it’s more honest to say that the train had simply reached the end of the line.

    53 years is a long time and Cathy and Celia and Ria, my old buddy Mike Varty, Jane Sayers, Dina Del Bucchia and everyone else that prowls those aisles should be proud of what they’ve done.

    I’m going to go over there tomorrow and buy some books.

  4. LH says:

    Hi Sean,
    I’m not sure what righteous rage you’re referring to, but this is not only one store, it is many, across Canada and the US and England that are closing. It is also particularly this store, and its legacy, which is sad, and yes, perhaps the end of the line, as you say.

    Just to clarify.

    PS I wish I could go buy some books. I’ll go instead to The Word here in Montreal and buy some books.

  5. Hi LH

    No righteous rage specific to this conversation.

    Support independents when you can. That’s the game.

    I’ll do a photo essay on Duthie’s on 4th Avenue tomorrow after I come back from buying books and hanging out in the store.

  6. Steven W. Beattie says:

    I admit that I fired off this post in a fit of anger, but I really do think that we’re in danger of losing an entire ecology without understanding what it is that is disappearing. Duthie Books was my local indie when I lived in Vancouver and its loss will leave a hole in the neighbourhood. Bookstores of its kind are more than just holding pens for a specific commodity; they are communities, meeting places, and places of discovery and learning. And I do believe that Lemon Hound is right: this is not specific to the current news, sad though it may be. Britnell’s, Writers & Co., Frog Hollow, The Granville St. Book Company, Pages Books and Magazines, The Book Cellar, etc. I have yet to be convinced that each successive closure doesn’t leave us that much poorer, or that what we’re putting in their place is not fundamentally diminished.

  7. Not arguing with anything that you’ve written here, Steven. I completely agree with you.

    Every successive closure definitely leaves us poorer.

    As someone who grew up in independent stores this is a significant loss to me personally. Chapman Books in Dundas, Ontario, the store where I learned most everything that I know about books, closed three years ago and now this.

    My time at Duthies was a true highlight of my bookselling career. It was a truly amazing store and I met some of the best people in my life working there.

    (I also upsold Patrick Stewart a Modern Library Edition of Moby Dick during one particularly amazing summer afternoon on the floor.)

    I share you anger, Steve. I’m with you.

    Maybe it bit me harder when Chapman’s closed. I’m definitely feeling some familiar emotions right now.

    I can’t get mad at dumb beasts like Amazon, or Chapters/Indigo, discount chains, CostCo, publisher complicity in feeding these beasts, etc…

    I believe that we have to find a positive way through this. We have to make this into something.

  8. LH says:

    Yes, perhaps it’s time to think of all the bookstores over the years that have closed? Must be waves and waves of them? Remember Granville Books, in the mall? Read a lot of poetry there when I had no money to buy…and Octopus Books, and what was the one next to Joes on the drive?

    It does shake one’s sense of continuity (and community) but historically? What did we do before the big boxes made buying books seem, I don’t know, like a family outing?

  9. Finn Harvor says:

    Why don’t governments do more to help independent bookstores survive? A few years ago, a suggestion like this might have smacked of wet-noodle-ism, hand-me-out-ism, etc. But given the general movement, it is clear that this is not another decade in which some small stores go out of business, others take their place; it is a trend … and its implications for the culture are greater than simply a form of “evolution”.

    ‘Sides, seems to me there is now a precedent for gov’ts helping vital industries in peril. Tax breaks, assistance in holding onto real estate, etc., might all be beneficial if direct subsidies are politically unpalatable.

  10. Andrew S says:

    Not only are we likely to lose an entire ecosystem, as Steven puts it, but some of the predators that are wiping it out are themselves in for extinction. Big box bookselling is going to prove unsustainable before this decade is out, if e-book projections are half-assedly accurate. So Chapters and all its ilk will likely disappear soon after the independents enter the fossil record, at least in a bricks-and-mortar sense.

    And while it’s nice to think that the spirit of the independent bookstore will rise again online, the reality has been that big players, i.e. Amazon, get stronger and stronger and stamp on everyone else.

    The indies may come back to cater to those sad, nostalgic luddites who still want to collect books as physical objects, but this assumes we’ll have a culture worth collecting. I’m not optimistic.

  11. Finn Harvor says:

    BTW, “hand-me-out-ism” was a written-quickly-ism. Hand-out-ism is what I meant.

  12. I think something that is being missed here is personal accountability and recognizing that neighborhoods are not entitled to good bookstores but need to support them in many ways to ensure their survival.

    Also, as I mentioned in my blog post on Duthies, I really think that Cathy – the owner of the store – had reached the end of the line mentally, emotionally, financially.

    We can point to money, we can point to technological change, government hand outs, big box mentalities, etc… but I’d be willing to bet that this decision to close the Duthie store was equally about mental and emotional exhaustion as it was from financial depletion. Though, all of these things and more, inform each other.

    As we stand on the sidelines wringing our hands about the state of the ecosystem and wondering why the government isn’t saving the businesses that we can’t save with our patronage there’s an opportunity for people who are really committed to saving bookstore ecosystem to step forward and do something about it.

    I’m sure that if someone came forward with money and a plan to buy the Duthie store, Cathy would listen. I’m sure that if someone was willing to take on the 3 tonne wooly mammoth of running an independent bookstore in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Vancouver, she’d be happy to hand over the keys.

    But no one is going to do that because it is an impossible and thankless task.

    If it were otherwise we’d have occasional flares going up announcing the opening of a new bookstore in cities across the country.

    But we don’t.

    I don’t know what the solution is. I support Duthie Books when I can and I support Sophia Books and the People’s Co-op bookstore, too. And I recognize that all 3 of these stores could be gone within the next 8 months.

    The real problem for the owners of these stores isn’t this abstract notion of the ‘importance of the local bookstore’. It’s how they can justify putting their employees/friends out of work, how can they possibly break the news?

    That decision is something that they will refuse to make until it is made for them.

    And sooner or later it will be as the harsh realities of the modern age have their effect on this type of bookselling.

    We need to think about future solutions in a new way. We can not believe that what worked in 1995 will ever work today or tomorrow.

  13. DGM says:

    Honestly, I believe one of the factors necessary for reviving not only indie bookstores, but small and family-owned shops in general, is a transition from car culture back to pedestrian culture. Box stores like Chapters are prime destinations because of the surplus of free parking that many shoppers are dependent on having (or expect as a right, in many cases). You really have to want a book from an indie if you’re willing to drive downtown, find a space, and then go and do your shopping. On the other hand, big box stores and the large plazas that accommodate them are predicated on one-stop shopping for car-bound shoppers. Some people are lucky enough to live in walkable urban centres, but the majority are suburban dwellers for whom public transit is either a joke or else completely non-existent.

    However, gas prices are bound to go higher and higher over time — the development of the tar sands in Alberta would not have happened if easily-pumped fuel was as readily available as it was fifty years ago. It’s going to take decades for car culture to become too expensive to maintain. Only then, as cities are finally retrofitted for proper public transit systems and people stop buying houses in the middle of exurban nowhere, will the smaller stores come back. Internet shopping will hold the redevelopment back to a degree, of course, but with smaller, town-designed living spaces come smaller stores, including the book store.

    Unfortunately, we’re all in for a long wait to see how things pan out. My only hope is that the supply of oil doesn’t drop off too precipitously, or else the transition is going to be a whole lot rougher.

  14. Andrew S says:

    Why drive to Chapters, with all that free parking, when you can order the book online?

    The driving force not just in the book world but in our consumer culture as a whole is consumer convenience. We’ve killed the independents in almost every retail sector — it’s not just books. The incessant demand for greater convenience and lower prices is driving the economy as we knew it into the ground — and the world we’ll awaken to, I think, will leave us saying, “Be careful what you wish for.”

    We’re killing the buffalo, wiping out the whales, paving the wilderness all over again — and just as before, we’re only realizing it as it becomes too late. The sad fact is, we have no collective will to stop it.

  15. LH says:

    “I think something that is being missed here is personal accountability and recognizing that neighborhoods are not entitled to good bookstores but need to support them in many ways to ensure their survival.”

    Yes, that’s true. You get what you believe in. You can’t think one way, and live another. I believe in community, I value the local, but I’m ordering my books online because it’s cheaper, and so on. You do have to make a choice and make it happen.

    One idea that keeps coming to mind is some kind of mixed retail pricing. We know mixed use works, why not encourage a low rental portion in malls and what not for “cultural” retailers. Book stores being a kind of protected interest. With the high rents these stores are paying I’m not surprised they aren’t able to remain viable.