Thursday, 8 July 2010

Local independent bookstores under siege again

I know it's not exactly news that independent bookstores have been having a tough time as of late. Caught between big box stores that can buy in bulk and undersell them, plus Amazon and other online sources which can do the same, even more so. Now with Kindle taking books themselves out of circulation things are getting worse. And it's been a tough year in Toronto.
Last year the much loved icons Pages (on Queen) and Atticus (on Harbord) closed their doors, along with the only French bookstore in Toronto, Champlain's. Earlier this year The Toronto Women's Bookstore shut down after a desperate flurry of fund raising although they are now set to reopen in the fall. Everybody expects the Gay Bookstore Glad Day will be gone by the end of the year. Even long time local comic book stores Grey Region and Yesterday's Heroes are closed or closing as well.
The latest blow still came as a surprise when This Ain't The Rosedale Library, another local icon was suddenly locked out on June 19 by it's landlord in a dispute over unpaid rent.
After some confusion Rosedale owners Charlie and Jesse Huisken posted the following notice on June 23;
"Our situation, which could be told as a long story about the plight of bookstores in Toronto and in many North American cities, is really quite a simple one. At our new location in Kensington Market we found a space with lower rent and overheads which thus represented an enticing solution to the difficulty of inflated rents facing many stores of our kind. For a year we worked in this space happily, until the recession hit with full force and we began to fall behind with our rent. Our response to this situation was similar to that of any small retail business. We bought shrewdly, held regular events, did book tables for small press launches, conferences and author appearances, did not invest in advertising, fixtures, signage or renovations, kept only minimal staff (the store has one part-time staff person), and most importantly worked full-time or more with long store hours, while drawing the absolute minimum for our own rent and expenses. In this way we were able, albeit very gradually, to pay our back-rent, and maintain an amicable relationship with out landlord. While the space presented a number of challenges, including our basement flooding whenever there was heavy rain, and though we heard many stories of rent reductions in our own neighborhood we were not offered this option, but continued none-the-less to enjoy working at the store and feel inspired by our customers’ enthusiasm for the books that we were selling. Quite suddenly this changed. Our landlord became impatient with the rate at which we were able to pay her and made demands for large repayments, without providing a precise accounting of what was owing. In light of our workload and the proliferation of other causes in this city, a fundraiser remained only an idea. Instead we responded to these unrealistic demands with an informal proposal which would not have been profitable to us, but to our landlord. We received only further demands which we attempted to meet within our resources until the locks were changed on Friday June 19th. We are once again offering our landlord a choice which would be beneficial to her and allow us to re-open our doors, and are hoping that the outpouring of encouragement from the public might influence our situation. Along with this we are seeking help with organizing a fundraiser, and we are accepting PayPal donations. As we were living day-to-day, as many small business owners do for years after opening or relocating, our own livelihood has been erased, and our present situation is very uncertain. None-the-less we have seen that many people value what we do and are eager to help us, and thus remain hopeful that a resolution is around the corner.

Jesse & Charlie Huisken "

Followed by another post the next day;
"We are sincerely touched by the outpouring of sympathy and understanding that so many people have shown us over the last few days. It is overwhelming that such a diverse group of people all feel strongly about the books that we stock, the place that we create for them, and the way that we champion them. We offer our thanks to each one of you, and have trouble finding words to repay this kindness.

We are, however, in the disappointing position of having had our formal proposal to our landlord rejected. Our proposal to work for her to liquidate our stock was dismissed with the argument that the cost of paying security or a bailiff to observe the process would outweigh the gain. Our proposal did not include security or a bailiff’s presence during the process. Clearly we are not trusted. With no negotiation of our terms of payment available to us we have to accept that the store has no future at this location. This might seem anti-climactic, and some of our supporters may feel that there must be something else that we can do. We ask for your trust that we have, for some time now, considered all the options, and have had the support of a lawyer in formalizing them. Our only hope is to imagine that the store may reemerge in the long-term. At this point a fundraiser could only be a Pyrrhic victory. We encourage all those who have shown such enthusiasm for the store to consider helping us and stores of our kind but in the future.

While we are open to suggestions, we are hoping that our own unfortunate case might offer others the opportunity to seriously consider the factors which combine to make creating and running a bookstore such a challenge in North America. Predatory pricing of Amazon, inflated rents in urban centers, remaindering of excessive print-runs demanded by big-box stores and corporate publishing have had a devastating effect on smaller entrepreneurs. We are still of the feeling that without big changes the best and most satisfying way to support indies is to explore the stores in your city, browse their selection, trust your own curiosity, and buy gift certificates if nothing suits you.

We cannot help but feel guilty for disappointing everyone who has demonstrated their hope that we might resolve our difficulties in the short term. We invite anyone who might feel that we have breached their trust in this respect to contact us at

Jesse & Charlie Huisken"

There followed a previously scheduled set of reading held on the patio of the locked store and the usual talk of fundraisers, which the above posting dismisses. At this point there is no way of knowing what is going to happen but it is assumed they will at some point find a new location. We can certainly hope so. The Rosedale Library had been a fixture on the Toronto scene since 1979, originally on Queen street and then on Church Street from 1986 to 2008 when they made a move to Kensington Market as the Church street's "gay ghetto" became more upscale and the more Market's more bohemian low scale atmosphere seemed a better fit. Apparently it wasn't enough.

So what is an independent bookstore to do? The first posting lays out some of their attempts to meet the demands of a tougher climate. The Toronto Woman's Bookstore lays out some more.

The TWB is another longtime fixture having been around since 1973 although it is bit different than the library in that the TWB was a non-profit that relied on donations, volunteers and a deal to supply some books for woman's studies programs at the U of T. However times were tough even for the TWB and by December of 2008 they were complaining that sales were not covering costs and the TWB would have to start fund raising more desperately. A couple of months later they put out another call, and then a final call asking for a buyer by the end of April or the store would close. Then in May the TWB sent out the following notice;

"Dear TWB community,

We know you have been waiting to hear the latest update, and we finally have something to tell you - it has been a challenging process, but it looks like we have found a new owner for TWB! There are still some logistics & legalities to be worked out so unfortunately we can't give out much concrete information yet, but we can tell you that she is someone who has worked at the store in the past and intends to carry it on in the same tradition. We are expecting the transition to happen for June 1st, and we will let you know as soon as the details are confirmed.

Many of you have asked us how you can help and we have several projects in mind for late May which we will be asking for assistance with, but what we need most is for you to keep shopping at TWB and making donations to help us through this last month. There will be a lot of work and also hidden costs associated with winding down the non-profit business and transitioning to a new model, and we need your continued support in order to meet all of our ethical obligations and give the new TWB owner the best chance of success.

We want to thank you all for loving TWB so much and helping us through this year. As always, we couldn't have done it without you!

the TWB Staff & Board"

This is a little cryptic and doesn't even mention the new owner's name. As it turns out it's a former employee named Victoria Moreno who stepped in when fund raising failed to come up with enough to save the store.

According to a report in XTRA Magazine on June 3 2010;
"As of the sale in May, there were still some legal issues to work out, and the signing hadn’t happened yet. The store was closed for inventory during the last week of the month, and Moreno officially started work on June 1. The store will be closed until the second week in June.

So, where do things stand, financially?

“That’s a bit of a difficult question,” says Moreno. “I’m not too sure. I think the idea is that it will be at a point where it’s pretty close to zero, but we won’t know until the inventory is done.”

Because the store is not-for-profit, Moreno is not purchasing it. Rather, it’s a sale of the assets. She adds that the store’s accounting is outsourced and is currently being worked on.

Moreno has plans for the bookstore. Changes include adding a cafĂ©, which should be ready by the end of June, fixing up the backyard to have a nice garden and seating, and adding new signage. She also wants to revamp the website, increase online sales and add WiFi. To build a sense of community, she’ll have social nights and track customer purchases so staff can make recommendations. She also needs to reestablish some relationships, such as gaining the confidence of university professors so they will place orders for the store to carry their course books.

An official re-launch will likely happen in late summer or early fall.

“I want to keep this space as what everybody has known,” she said at the sale."

As I mentioned the TWB is not a perfect example for Rosdale or other independent bookstores. The TWB gets donations, they also have a deal with the U of T. However within the final paragraph lie the possible answer future for small scale bookstores, and it's in the past.

The TWB will be adding a cafe and garden (with WiFi) and "events" which I assume means more readings and lectures, perhaps acoustic music sets and film screenings. This is actually what many bookshops did back in the early 20th century when they became hubs for artists and other bohemians. They became coffee houses.

These coffee houses had their roots in 19th century London, Paris, Vienna and Edinburgh where they gave a home for writers and artists, impressionists, surrealists, dadaists, anarchists, marxists, and later beatniks be-boppers and folkies along with university students to learn debate and hone their art. They also offered a collection of books that were no available anywhere else. They usually served an assortment of non-alcoholic drinks (usually coffee or tea) and bagels and similar fare to keep people around longer. Add in wi-fi and you have the same basic idea.

There are some big differences today of course. The internet means that soon it will not matter if the big box stores carry the obscure book that you want or not. In fact just this month Indigo owner Heather Reisman announced that in their attempts to remain competitive Indigo/Chapters will be selling more non book related items such as music, dvd's and even toys. Future independent book sellers will have to develop skills they never gave much thought to before; promotion, networking, showmanship. Bookstores must be part of a cultural hub of writers, music and art. Pure retail will not be enough. They must promote an entire lifestyle in which reading is an integral part. The internet simply can not do this. The internet can not offer a sense of community the way being somewhere in person can. This is the opening that Bookstores, Music Clubs, Community Radio Stations and Art Galleries can exploit. But only if they sense that the opening is there at all.

I hope that they can find their way through this (look; it's a literary reference alert!) Brave New World. I have spent a collective amount of time haunting bookstores that must be measured in years at least. With only music taking more time. I wouldn't trade any of it for the internet.

And yes, I am aware of the irony of writing this in a blog. To that I can only say that actual publishing is too hard and costly for me, but we do what we can.

1 comment:

  1. Since writing this article it was announced that The Flying Dragon, an award winning children's bookstore in The Beaches, will be closing at the end of June. However it would appear that Atticus Books has quietly reopened on College st. Win some, lose some.