Tilling a disappearing field

April 1, 2014 by · 3 Comments 

When I was young, I spent untold hours poking around the bookstores in the heart of downtown Toronto. Many people who are now the age I was then – mid to late teens – will find it hard to believe, but there was a time when city bookstores were almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks coffee shops are today. In a two-block radius, a dedicated book lover could browse two Coles outlets near the intersection of Yonge and Dundas, Lichtman’s News and Books in the Atrium on Bay, and of course, the World’s Biggest Bookstore on Edward Street. If you were also into music, you were in luck, because right around the corner on Yonge were A&A’s and Sam the Record Man, doing a roaring trade on a block that also featured the Zanzibar strip club and a series of dodgy basement porn emporiums. (They helped keep the rent down in the area.)

Today, only the Zanzibar remains in business.

The World’s Biggest Bookstore, one of the icons of downtown Toronto retail, closed its doors on Sunday, after more than thirty years. On the same day, the Book City mini-chain shuttered its flagship location in the Annex; that store had operated for close to four decades.

Walking between the rows of empty shelves at the World’s Biggest Bookstore this past weekend – shelves that once held such promise of discovery for a young man who was just beginning to discover himself – was a melancholy experience. There was, first, a sense of grandeur: the store’s origin as a bowling alley was apparent in the sheer size of the space. But more, there was a pervading emptiness, not just physically but emotionally as well. It’s never easy to realize that the dreams and hopes and memories you’ve invested in a place are not shared by the rest of the world.

Skyrocketing rents put the World’s Biggest Bookstore out of business, along with a shift in buying habits from brick-and-mortar bookstores to online retail. “There was not the need for a 65,000-square-foot physical bookstore in the downtown core,” Indigo Books and Music CEO Heather Reisman told the National Post in advance of the store’s closing. Indigo took up ownership of the store in 2001, following a merger with Chapters, which had run it since 1994. The Post quotes Larry Stevenson, former Chapters CEO, as saying of the World’s Biggest Bookstore, “It was a very successful store when we bought it. Basically, our strategy was pretty simple: Don’t touch it, it’s not broken.”

Rachel Burden, an employee at the time responds, “One of the first things Chapters did was fire all our buyers.”

That seems to have as much to do with the disappearance of Toronto’s downtown bookstores as anything else: the will to continue is just not there. “There is 33,000 square feet of books in the Eaton Centre,” Reisman told the Post, referring to the mall’s Indigo store. “And there is another 36,000 square feet of books at Bay and Bloor.” This, of course is disingenuous: Reisman is counting the entire footprint of her Eaton Centre and Manulife Centre stores, much of which is dedicated not to books, but to Pilates balls and scented candles and stuffed toys.

Today, word came down that another Chapters location, this one in Festival Hall at the corner of John and Richmond Streets, would be closing its doors at the end of May. National Post books editor Mark Medley tweeted an official comment from Indigo about its strategy for the future:


The passing reference to downtown notwithstanding, the closure of the World’s Biggest Bookstore and the impending demise of the Festival Hall location would seem to indicate that Indigo has more or less abandoned the field, leaving only the Eaton Centre store to compete with Ben McNally Books, the sole independent outlier in the heart of the financial district.

Much the same thing is happening in Manhattan, according to The New York Times. Exorbitant rents are forcing booksellers to close stores in the downtown, and some are setting their sights on suburbs such as Brooklyn or Queens as more affordable alternatives. The NYT quotes author Robert Caro as saying, “Sometimes I feel as if I’m working in a field that’s disappearing right under my feet.”

It certainly feels that way to a man edging into his mid-forties, who can only look back on his younger days and recall hours spent bouncing from store to store in search of the next unexpected treasure.


3 Responses to “Tilling a disappearing field”
  1. Alexander says:

    And? I’m in my early forties and have the same memories you do. So what? Books don’t make economic sense to sell from a physical location in 2014. Things change. Indigo can’t sell enough books at Richmond/John to cover the costs of highly expensive and desirable real estate. I am just not sure what you are getting at with the article. Things change. If you want to say we’re worse off because I get to buy 40% more books because Amazon exists then sorry, not buying it. Books are just like tires, milk or office chairs. A consumer product that has to exist in the world of retail. Buyers are far better off today than when I was 15 and WBB was a thing.

  2. I agree. Just last week I ran out of milk and poured some Pynchon on my breakfast oats. Delicious and unsettling. Then, when I had a flat tire, a quick fix of Bradbury got me home safely, where I sat on a pile of books in front of my television (which was also a book) and screamed and screamed and screamed.

  3. Kerry Clare says:

    “Books are just like tires, milk or office chairs.”

    Oh, Alexander, you’re reading all the wrong books. The ones I cherish aren’t like chairs at all. Or tires. And only sometimes like milk.