Book city? Toronto loses another independent bookstore

January 17, 2014 by · 1 Comment 

Book_City_AnnexThis post has been updated.

“We agonized over the decision.”

That was how Ian Donker, general manager of Toronto’s Book City mini-chain, put it to Quill & Quire, referring to the indie bookseller’s announcement yesterday that it will shutter its iconic Annex flagship location in the spring. The store, with its easily recognizable yellow and black awning, has been a fixture in the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood for close to four decades. CanLit royalty – Atwood, Ondaatje, Gibson – number among its patrons. Poet Paul Vermeersch and novelists Derek McCormack and Suzanne Sutherland have worked the till. Perusing the shelves on any given weekend, one could expect to run into writers Cary Fagan, Susan Swan, Russell Smith, or Stacey May Fowles, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, journalists Ian Brown or Emily M. Keeler, publisher Alana Wilcox. Like the erstwhile Pages Books and Magazines on Queen Street, Book City in the Annex was more than a store, it was a meeting place, a cultural salon, and a nexus of discovery.

How easy it is to slip into the past tense when referring to the store (which, it should be pointed out, remains open at the time of this writing). How easy to add its name to the list of Toronto independents that have closed their doors: Pages, of course, along with the Albert Britnell Bookstore (now a Starbucks), Writers & Company, The Book Cellar, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, The Toronto Women’s Bookstore, Lichtman’s News and Books, Nicholas Hoare, and, in a few weeks, The World’s Biggest Bookstore. Torontonians of a certain age won’t remember, but there was a time when book lovers had a banquet of options to choose from, any one of which could be counted on to serve up something idiosyncratic, unexpected, or delightful. A few holdouts notwithstanding (the mini-chain Type Books, Ben McNally Books, Another Story Book Shop on Roncesvalles, along with the three remaining Book City locations and a handful of specialty shops such as Sleuth of Baker Street and Mabel’s Fables), Toronto no longer feels like a book city.

This sensation must be even more acute for the fourteen employees of the Annex store who stand to lose their jobs. These include John Snyder, the affable and knowledgeable store manager, who was one of Book City’s first hires thirty-eight years ago.

What has brought us to this state of affairs? Speaking to Quill, Donker cites a number of factors that led to the decision to close. “You name it and it has chipped away at the Annex location. It’s an evolving, changing neighbourhood like every other neighbourhood in Toronto. Rent goes up every single year. Sales have slipped for a number of years, through no fault of the staff or our efforts.”

Skyrocketing rents are no doubt a challenge for booksellers, but higher sales would go some way to mitigating this challenge. By all accounts, the 2013 Christmas season was one of the most prosperous in recent memory for bricks-and-mortar bookstores, bolstered by popular blockbusters such as superstar astronaut Chris Hadfield’s memoir, but also by strong selling literary fare such as The Orenda by Joseph Boyden and Eleanor Catton’s multiple award winner, The Luminaries. Yet it was still not sufficient to save Book City in the Annex.

The general public has been educated by the steep discounts offered by online retailers and big-box sellers like Indigo, Walmart, and Costco; they no longer feel that they should have to pay full price for a book. Selling books at more than forty percent off their cover price may work for a company like Amazon, which sees them as a loss leader, but these numbers are unfeasible for a small independent. Quoted in the Toronto Star, Frans Donker, the owner of the Book City chain (and father of Ian), says of the Annex neighbourhood, “Now it’s all fast food joints. The area has changed rapidly in the last seven to eight years. And that is affecting our business.” What he doesn’t mention is that the evolution of the area included the 2006 opening of a massive BMV Books location mere steps away from Book City. BMV is Toronto’s largest used book chain; their Bloor Street location offered students and bargain hunters a cut-rate alternative to the more expensive fare on offer a few doors west.

Bookselling, like writing and publishing, is not something one does to get rich. It’s something one does out of love, and because of a deep seated belief that books, and the culture they espouse, matter. But booksellers have to be able to subsist. And subsistence isn’t possible in the face of consumer demand that sellers offer their wares at unsustainable prices.

When the news about Book City’s Annex store closing broke on Twitter yesterday afternoon, the reaction was swift and predictable: much weeping and gnashing of teeth and bemoaning the loss of yet another indie bookseller in a city that likes to pride itself (rightly or wrongly) on its cultural diversity and sophistication. But the reality remains: if more people were willing to pay market value for a product they claim to love, fewer of these closures would occur. Chris Hadfield notwithstanding, this isn’t rocket science.

Update: While I stand by the idea that the glut of big box and online retailers offering cut-rate product as loss leaders is taking a significant toll on the book industry (not just booksellers, mind you, but writers and publishers as well), the poet Jacob McArthur Mooney made a good point over on Facebook. With his permission, I’m reprinting his comment here.

I’m not sold on the “If more people bought books it’d be there still” argument. Was Book City profitable? The chain isn’t closing, so it’s not like they went bankrupt. The owner puts “changing neighbourhood” and “raising rents” ahead of sales as the reason behind it. Both Worlds Biggest and Pages closed because the real estate market wanted them to. I don’t think that guilting book lovers with admonishments that if they had just bought more copies of more books none of this would have happened gets the whole story. Important people make decisions that set the tone for what kind of neighbourhoods we’re going to have, and the little folks like you and me can only pull with or against the tide. Rent increases are a means of dictating the nature of the neighbourhood you own a part of. At some point you raise it too high for even a stable, consistent business to pay if that business is a bookstore (or coffeeshop, or vid place, or other similarly quaint-minded a moneymaker).