April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, but this year, according to Canadian independent booksellers and the shoppers who love them, March might get the title as a spate of prominent indie closures were announced across the country. Vancouver is losing its remaining four Book Warehouse locations. Nicholas Hoare is closing both his Montreal and Ottawa stores. And in Toronto, the Book City minichain closed one of its five stores.
But there were signs of trouble before last month. In the past year, there has been plenty of bad news to go around. Right after accepting its Libris award from the Canadian Booksellers Association for specialty bookstore of the year last June, the Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto announced it would close. London, Ont., lost its Upper Room Book Store in the same month. Aqua Books in Winnipeg announced in August that it would close, but narrowly escaped that fate by finding a new location. And in January, Toronto lost one of its oldest independents when the Book Mark closed.
What’s behind the closures? Book Warehouse owner Sharman King plans to retire and decided with his partners to close the business over the next couple of months rather than sell. But in the other cases, a tough economy, competition from online sales, and now the growing popularity of e-books all played a role. Nicholas Hoare says his stores, which specialize in British literature, were weathering most of those pressures, but rising real estate prices changed everything. When the longtime owners of his Montreal store sold the building, he knew the new landlord, who paid more than $4 million for the properties, was going to want more rent than he could afford. What he didn’t expect was that the National Capital Commission, a Crown corporation owned by the federal government, was also going to ask for a 90% increase in rent for the downtown Ottawa location where he’d run a store for 16 years. “When this thing came through it was a bombshell,” he says. Despite a public outcry—Hoare has received more than 500 e-mails and did 23 interviews for newspapers and television in one day—the NCC has not relented. Hoare will continue to operate his Montreal warehouse, which serves the library market as well as his own stores. He also has plans to expand the remaining Toronto store and to “soup up” the Web site.
“It’s not easy being independent in a relatively low margin business if they start jacking up the rents,” says HarperCollins Canada president and CEO David Kent. “They are being challenged by pricing because of e-books and because of the exchange rate. We’ve all lowered our list prices.” And, he adds, “Certain categories that were very steady categories for bookstores are migrating over to e-books.... The smarter independents have been really looking at the product mix in their stores,” focusing on categories such as children’s books that are still selling well in print, as opposed to others such as reference, which is losing out to things like Internet dictionaries.
CBA president Mark Lefebvre says he hasn’t seen a dramatic drop in membership, though there are always changes as bookstores are sold, opened, and closed. He takes heart that new bookstores are still opening, such as a new one in Hamilton, Ont. “Against all odds in a really scary dark season, there they are,” he says. (CBA estimates that 300 bookstores have closed in Canada in the last decade, leaving about 1,500 outlets in the country.)
Lefebvre says just as independents survived the coming of big box stores and online bookselling, they will survive the rise of e-books. “There’s always the core groups of people who will value and support the independent businesses.” He added that he’s encouraged to see Google partnering with independent booksellers and new initiatives such as the beta-testing of Alberta-based Enthrill’s gift card for e-books that can be merchandised in stores.
Sarah MacLachlan, president of House of Anansi Press in Toronto, says independent booksellers are essential in the industry, but she’s concerned. “I’m worried for all of us, frankly. We’re in such a big state of change.” Anansi has seen diminishing numbers on the physical book side, she said, but “nice sales on the e-book side.”
Kent says the great advantage independents have is that they can be nimble and find creative ways to become integral parts of their communities. Hoare says his creative efforts have paid off and he plans to expand on them. “The little three-minute video [book reviews on the Web site],... in which I dress up in formal clothes and sit in front of a camera and waffle, have been hugely successful. Those are going to be mushroomed out of all proportion,” he says.
Not every bookseller has Hoare’s flare for the dramatic, but it may be essential for each indie bookseller to find what they do best and capitalize on it in order to survive.