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Your Friendly Neighbourhood Bookstore

Indie book culture in Toronto
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By Terese Saplys

In the past year, Toronto’s indie book culture has been besieged by stroke after stroke of bad luck. By the end of August 2009, Pages, a legendary indie bookstore and a central node in Toronto’s literary culture, had closed due to the skyrocketing rent on Queen Street West. Between August and December, two more beautiful stores — Mirvish Books, purveyor of art books in Mirvish Village, and Type on the Danforth — shut down in quick succession. Then, four months before its first anniversary at the Don Mills Community Centre, McNally Robinson fled Toronto and filed for bankruptcy, leaving a few poignant questions spinning in the draft behind it: what was killing Toronto’s indie bookstores, and what, if anything, would survive the wreckage?

Publishing geeks have heard a lot about the death of printed material, be it book, newspaper or magazine, and the blame often falls squarely on what may be the most popular publishing medium today: the World Wide Web. The Internet has brought us an inestimable amount of good, but its greatest strength — its convenience and speed as a research tool — comes with a condition that Marc Glassman, editor of POV Magazine and former owner of Pages, sees as a weakness: there is no element of surprise. He told me over the phone that

the people who know where to look will be able to access the books they want and the CDs they want and the DVDs they want. But younger people who don't know what they want or suddenly develop an interest in something that's new and unique to them will find it very hard, because there will probably be fewer and fewer shops that will be able to cater to those interests.

Big-box booksellers and Amazon capitalize on convenience and speed. For Chapters, this translates into putting what they know people like to read — genre fiction, big-name authors like Dan Brown and Oprah’s stamp of approval — at the front of the store and rotating out low sellers quickly; for Amazon, a search bar, low-cost shipping and ebooks serve the same function. The element of surprise simply does not generate the inflated profits that make these businesses tick. This is why Pages’s closing was so traumatizing: Glassman owned a huge store in the middle of the downtown shopping district, and he did the extraordinary thing of granting quirky new voices, small press literature and niche-market titles prime real estate — and they sold. Basically, Pages was the big, brainy, idealistic foundation on which Toronto’s indie book culture was built back in the ‘80s when Queen Street West was still a sketchhole.

Glassman seriously considered moving the store to a different location: for nearly two years before it closed, he said, he staked out neighbourhoods where Pages might find a new home. But the idea of making that kind of change unnerved him. “The great thing about Pages,” Glassman explained, “was that I could buy in a variety of different subjects and be pretty sure that people would come in who would actually be as interested and as fascinated by those subjects as I am. And that’s because it was right downtown.” He continued, “It's not the kind of thing you can take anywhere. [Pages] really wouldn't work if it were in Leaside or the Beaches. It could be a nice store, it could have a lot of interesting books, but it couldn't possibly have the same mix [of books] because the community wouldn't be there to support it.” He eventually gave up on the idea of moving because he considered Pages inseparable from the corner where it sprang up. “I could have moved the store somewhere else and called it Pages, and still have had some of the staff and still have had the books.” He pauses, correcting himself: “Some of the books. Probably, initially, all of the books. But my feeling about it is that if I opened up a Pages in Parkdale it sure would be a lovely store but it wouldn't be the same Pages.”

However, the downtown that Glassman considered Pages a part of moved west long before Pages closed, and some decidedly suburban neighbours — the Gap, Le Chateau, Aritzia and the dreaded Chapters — had become mainstays on the Queen Street strip. Glassman, meanwhile, had never intended to turn a profit from Pages; his goal was “simply to make enough to sustain a kind of idealistic thing and to be able to pay a staff reasonably well.” Bookselling wasn’t a business for him: it was an art. His dedication was to the concept of selling books as he envisioned it. No doubt taking note of the neighbouring cash cows, however, City Hall decided to raise the local rent by another hundred thousand dollars, pushing Pages out and bringing home the fact that the shady, artsy and fiercely independent downtown where Glassman’s baby grew up had, unlike the store itself, relocated.

Glassman was hard-pressed to name a store that could fill the void left by Pages, but he finally tossed off a name that “carries some of the same stuff Pages did”: Type on Queen, the healthier, bigger sister of the ill-fated Danforth store (there is also a second, smaller store in Forest Hill). Joanna Saul, one half of Type’s ownership team, remarks on the Danforth debacle as the sacrifice that was necessary to sustain the other two stores, where they were more heavily invested. “It [keeping the Danforth store] could've worked, but it just so happened that we were given the chance of first refusal for the back room [at the Queen Street location], and we've also had our eyes on a place — a bigger place — up in the [Forest Hill] Village. It happened that these two things — the possibility to expand here and there — came at the same time, and we didn't think we'd be able to do it with the Danforth as well.”

Pages may have captured the spirit of Queen West a decade ago or more, but Saul’s enterprise is a beacon of hope for indie culture in Toronto right now: the small, quirky store that buys broadly, expands cautiously and serves its local market well (Saul casually dubs this the phenomenon of the “friendly neighbourhood bookstore”). Even in combination, the two Types are much smaller than Pages, but that may be their strength: they will (cross your fingers) withstand fattening rents for a longer time, and they could act as buffers for each other economically.

Saul insists that another key factor — maybe the key factor — in her bookstore’s future is community involvement:

To me the absolute underpinning of a community is its schools, so for us it was a no-brainer to offer a free story-telling program. It makes [the Queen Street store] a gathering place for kids. Same with book launches, readings, art exhibits and all of those sorts of things that build community and, of course, a customer base. [Bookselling] is a tough business, so to try to expand the concept of the bookstore beyond simply retail, I mean, it sounds sort of utopic. Obviously the bottom line is the bottom line — we have to pay our rent and pay our staff — and that’s pretty much all we pay! But I think the reason people will shop at a local, independent bookstore is because of the other stuff that they offer the community.

Pages, of course, began the enormously popular This Is Not a Reading Series that has survived it, but it didn’t actively bring in children and young families. Pages was for adults, teenagers and some precocious pre-teens. None of this is to say that Pages could have saved itself by reaching out to families, but it did become disconnected from its immediate surroundings. Type is in the centre of a rapidly commercializing hipster playground, but it’s in a better position to stay there: it buys adventurously, but it’s small in size, and it’s humming with the indie girls that have now become indie moms — and building a new customer base literally from the ground up. Maybe the period of the bookseller as artist-curator, black-clad and owl-eyed, is over; maybe the bookseller as indie cheerleader — a young mother, like Saul, who wears flannels and toques to work — is what works in Toronto right now.

Of course, there is still the ebook to worry about: its mobile purchasing functionality embodies the convenience and competitive pricing that stores on Queen Street West have thrived on. But Stan Bevington has something to say about the ebook takeover: it’s rubbish. The venerable pioneer of Toronto’s indie book scene was honoured with the Order of Canada last summer for creating and (somewhat miraculously) sustaining the cultural hub that is Coach House Books, Toronto’s best-known independent press. Though Coach House sells ebooks, Bevington insists that printed books are simply not replaceable, convenient though it can be to have 50 of them (digitally) in your pocket at once. Basically: the internet may be having a moment, but technology cannot replace the object. “The argument is always a simplistic either/or,” Bevington says of the prophets of print’s doom, “But there is and/also. To put it otherwise is foolhardy.” Google and Amazon are here to stay, but so are books — and, here’s hoping, indie bookstores, too. Like Saul says, “you can’t get your friendly neighbourhood bookstore on a Kindle.”

Terese Saplys

Terese Saplys is the Arts & Life and Toronto editor at The Mark News. Her writing has appeared in This Magazine, Torontoist and Bad Day Magazine. Lately, she has been dreaming of spring travel and scavenging for industrial objects to use as furniture in her home.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
2 comments

Yes, good article. I think quirky and indie bookstores also play an important role in developing writers: writers have to read, to understand the possibilities of their art, and often unexpected/accidental books provide the catalyst they need to start doing things in a different and better way. Chapters has a lot of books, but a visit there is the equivalent of a walk through Yorkdale Mall: lots of gloss, not much depth.
John Oughton

Great piece, Terese. Thanks for all those fine years Marc.

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