Yay for Independent Bookstores

A good friend and I often remind each other how great it would be to open an independent bookstore, particularly when the day isn’t going so well. Everyone deserves to experience how I feel at Anderson’s Bookshop, my favorite independent bookstore. LISNEWS directed me to this wonderful article about the revenge of independent bookstores in Canada.

A good independent bookstore is a place you enter looking for the latest Dwell magazine, begin flipping through Types of Canadian Women and of Women Who Are or Have Been Connected with Canada, Vol. 2, by K. I. Press (2006), strike up a conversation with a PhD student, and leave with Robertson Davies.

Such bookstores closed in droves in Toronto in the past decade, killed by the Chapters/Indigo juggernaut and Amazon.ca.

But something odd is happening in Toronto: New little bookstores are popping up like crocuses in the spring earth. Type, the eclectic bookshop that two Toronto scholars opened two years ago on Queen Street West across from Trinity-Bellwoods Park, last November opened a second store in a nook in Forest Hill Village. And two weeks ago, Book City, the 32-year-old chain of small bookstores, gave Type some competition of its own, opening a location on Queen West. Type and Book City share the same streetcar stop, Niagara Street.

Ben McNally opened a boutique bookstore on Bay Street last year, and next year Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson, Canada’s largest independent bookstore (No relation to Ben) is opening a location in Don Mills.

What gives? It appears that, Internet age be damned, a growing number of people like to read actual books, and seek them out in little shops with literate staff.

“I like that it’s small, not Indigo,” says Kyle Wyatt, 26, whom I meet browsing in Type in Forest Hill Village.

The whole strip here has a rustic feel; next door at the Forest Hill Barber Shop, a man is leaning back in an old steel chair while the barber lathers him up for a shave.

“It’s easier to find eclectic little titles,” Mr. Wyatt continues. “It’s so anonymous to just sit at home and surf the Internet and buy books. I come from a town of 1,800 people [Albion, Neb.] that was two hours from the nearest bookstore, so for me bookstores are really fantastic.”

He leaves with Katherine Barber’s Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do With Pigs, $16.95. Down on Queen West, Samara Walbohm, who founded Type with fellow University of Toronto Canlit PhD scholar Joanne Saul, is none too thrilled by the arrival of Book City two blocks away.

“It’s very early days,” she says of the new competition. “We think that we helped to build this community as a book-loving neighbourhood. We were definitely surprised that they decided to open shop so close. They saw the nice book community we created, that’s why they moved in.”

For Book City, the decision was simple: The firm last month closed its shop at Yonge and Charles streets, which had mostly lunchtime and weekday business, says staffer Jim Nicholson, and he and the books moved to this location, where locals have time to browse, especially weekends.

The new Book City has an improvised air: Unopened boxes of books fill part of the front, and signs reading “gift,” “art & photography” and “design & architecture” are written in felt pen on pieces of paper taped to the shelves.

“We really tried to bang out the store as quickly as possible,” says Ian Donker, 33, son of Book City founder Frans Donker. Irene Luxbacher, a children’s book author (The Jumbo Book of Art) is leafing through a kids’ book. She lives next to Type and is a regular there, she says.

“It’s nice to see that there’s another independent, smaller bookstore,” she says. She used to shop a lot at the original Book City, on Bloor Street in the Annex. How do Type and Book City compare?

“Type has a very nice selection of books. It’s edited well,” she says. “Book City, the hours are late, you can eavesdrop on some interesting conversations.”

Mr. Donker says the family isn’t in the book business to get rich. “You can make a living at it,” he says. “There’s better businesses to be in, like banking. We like our size at six stores.”

He says the rising Canadian dollar has forced publishers to charge closer to the U.S. price for books, cutting into margins. He doesn’t want to kill Type, he adds.
“It will be a great neighbourhood for book junkies,” he says.

In its basement, Type runs an after-school literacy program, Word/Play, Thursdays for 18 kids in Grades 4, 5 and 6 at three local schools. Volunteers feed the kids a snack and help them with reading. It would be nice to see Book City foster community spirit as well, rather than just sell hardcovers at 10% off.


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