Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Perilous Future of Bookstores

The recent announcement that Vancouver’s Duthie Books, which has been in business for 52 years, is closing shop at the end of February, has shaken book lovers in that city. While Duthie’s Cathy Legate admitted not owning her store was a liability and also blamed the strengthening Canadian dollar for her store’s demise, it was Chapters / Indigo and the Internet that took the lion’s share of the blame for Duthie’s demise. This view was expressed by both the press and Duthie’s loyal patrons, even though Duthie’s overeager expansion first led the company, which once had ten outlets, to declare bankruptcy in 1999 before rebounding with the one Vancouver outlet that was left.

I can’t say exactly why Duthie’s went under – in its case, it may indeed have been largely the fault of the big box stores and their discounted book prices - but the assumption made by many that Chapters / Indigo and such websites as are the reason for all bookstore closings, and many do believe that, is simplistic. It also avoids the issue of the culpability of the readers themselves in the decline and death of so many new and used bookstores in the last decade.

Take Toronto, for example. While the arrival of Chapters and Indigo, which were once separate entities, did impact negatively on some bookstores, such as the fine Book Cellar in downtown Yorkville and the Lichtmans’ chain of book / magazine stores, which did not survive for long after they came onto the scene, other bookstores, such as the Book City chain staved off their onslaught and are still thriving today. And Pages, which had been around for 30 years, only went under late last year, because the landlord of the city owned property drastically raised the rent. Other specialty outlets such as Bakka – Phoenix (science fiction) and Sleuth of Baker Street (mystery) are still around as are general bookstores, including Nicholas Hoare Books, Ben McNally Books and The Book Mark in West Toronto.

The situation facing used bookstores in Toronto is another matter. Many of them are hurting, as I can attest from my stint working for A Good Read in Toronto, owned by a good friend of mine. Though the store, on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto, has a database of some 30,000 books, making it one of the largest such stores in the city, I cannot tell you how many times someone would come into A Good Read, only looking for a specific book. Sometimes we had it, and sometimes we didn’t which is normal, but in most cases that customer, whether they found the book they wanted or not, would not evince the slightest interest in the bookstore itself and the possibility of finding some other worthwhile reading material while on the store’s premises. The other galling scenario were the many customers who came into the spacious space that was A Good Read, claimed to be just browsing when asked if they wanted help with anything, and then left – five minutes later. How can you browse a bookstore with some 15,000 books on the shelves in such a short time? And why wouldn’t you also check out the place even if they didn’t have your first choice in books?

That benighted attitude, and for every customer I served, there are probably three others who weren’t even bothering coming down to the store to look for a book in person but choosing to order it online, is the real reason, I fear, that the future for most bookstores looks bleak. (There’s no reason to think that patrons of new bookstores are behaving any differently. In fact, since books there are more expensive than in used shops, they’re likely to be even more self centered in their purchasing.) And considering that Canada, unlike the U.S., doesn’t have a reduced rate for books ordered by mail, it should thus be all the more enticing for book lovers to check out the many used bookstores that still exist in Toronto. But they’re not.

Granted, books cost a lot and it’s tempting to only buy them at Indigo / Chapters, which offer all sorts of incentives to save on book purchases, but you could do, like I do, and split the difference and support both independent bookstores, such as Bakka – Phoenix, and the chain ones, too. In fact, sometimes, Indigo / Chapters are even preferable to the independents. They’re more likely, for one thing, to carry books from all sides of the political spectrum. Whereas none of the Book City stores carried Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? (2007), a gutsy attack on the immorality and political cowardice of much of the British and European Left, I found five copies of Cohen’s book on the shelves of a West End Chapters. It’s not that the nice folks at Book City would not order What’s Left? if I asked them to, it’s that they didn’t think to order it in the first place because the liberal book reviewers and publications they refer to when ordering books for their stores didn’t bother reviewing Cohen’s unfashionable tome. And people forget that often a Chapters or Indigo was established in locations, such as suburban neighbourhoods in Toronto and London, Ontario, where there weren’t any bookstores in the first place.

The inconvenient reality, and this applies to newspapers and CDs, too, is that people aren’t as interested in exploring the world of books as they used to be, even though library attendance and reading has gone up in the last year. Libraries are not the problem by the way; they’re invaluable but they’re not where many readers, whom I’m addressing in this column, get their books. Those readers often don’t have the time but more significantly they don’t have the will to get out there and look for books. It’s easier to go online and download or order them. But whichever way they get their books, it’s become less and less through their going to a bricks and mortar bookstore to interact with a proprietor, and perhaps get recommendations for other worthwhile reads at the same time. If bookstores face a perilous future and they do, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

1 comment:

  1. 'Whereas none of the Book City stores carried Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? (2007)'

    Good for them, it's full of smears, half-truths and outright lies.