Independent bookstores across Canada reported that sales in 2014 were generally up, or at least comparable to 2013. Several booksellers also mentioned that the very public Amazon-Hachette dispute convinced some readers of the importance of shopping locally, instead of buying from the online behemoth.
Ben McNally, owner of Toronto’s Ben McNally Books, said the store had a double-digit percentage increase in book sales compared to 2013. “I think that the standoff between Hachette and Amazon might have focused people’s attention on the fact that they want independent bookstores to stay in business,” McNally said. “My customers were fairly conscious of it. For the most part, they come in and reaffirm their support for independent bookstores.”
Toronto’s Type Books depends on a number of creative marketing efforts to attract customers—its elaborate window displays, created by local artist Kalpna Patel, have become a calling card. This year Type Books tried something new: co-owner Joanne Saul invited bestselling author Miriam Toews, who happens to be a regular customer at the store, to come in to their Queen Street West location as a bookseller a few days before Christmas. “She was so incredibly charming and wonderful about it and agreed immediately,” said Saul.
In Waterloo, Ontario, Words Worth Books had sales that were the same or slightly better than recent years. “After several years of paddling upstream, I think things are turning a corner. We’re starting to feel like maybe we can experiment a little, take a chance or two,” said co-owner David Worsley.
He also mentioned taking advantage of the Amazon-Hachette dispute: “Amazon shooting itself in the foot didn’t hurt,” Worsley said. “And thanks again to Stephen Colbert for sticking a knife in Jeff Bezos’s ribs, that was a lovely thing. We got a bunch of his ‘I didn’t buy it on Amazon’ stickers and made them available to a whole whack of other indies in the province.”
On Canada’s west coast, Black Bond Books, a chain with 10 locations in British Columbia, opened a new location in downtown Vancouver this past year. Cathy Jesson, president, noted that sales were up at eight of the 10 locations, and the latter part of the year was especially successful. Some of the bestselling titles at Black Bond Books, and at bookstores across the country, included Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, John Cleese’s memoir So, Anyway, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and B.J. Novak’s children’s book, The Book with No Pictures.
At Munro’s Books in nearby Victoria, B.C., co-owner Jessica Walker said her store’s increase in sales was “no mean feat,” considering that 2013 marked both their 50th anniversary and the year Canadian author Alice Munro—a cofounder of the store—won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Walker attributed the store’s success partly to the city’s thriving bookstore culture and the prevailing belief in shopping locally. “People are trying to spend their money more consciously,” she said. “Quite often we get people saying, ‘I shop online, but I wanted to buy this from you.’ So obviously people are putting a bit of thought into what they’re buying.” One of their bestselling regional titles was Ian McAllister’s Great Bear Wild: Dispatches from a Northern Rainforest.
Steve Budnarchuk, co-owner of Audrey’s Books in Edmonton, Alberta, said the store’s 2014 sales were flat overall, but he was encouraged by an increase in walk-in business. He said that the store is ramping up its social media presence and hosting lots of in-store author events, as well as going out of store for conferences, conventions, author appearances, and other special events. “Survival these days depends on pursuing every avenue,” he said.
Bestsellers at Audrey’s Books included Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and You Are Here, which both saw a “huge surge in sales” after Hadfield—who has more than one million Twitter followers—tweeted about the signed copies available at the store. But in a sentiment echoed by several independent bookstores, Budnarchuk emphasized that local authors—such as At Home in Old Strathcona author Gwen Molnar—are critical to the store’s success, as they bring in big crowds of friends, family, and local supporters.
At McNally Robinson—with locations in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg, Manitoba—books sales in 2014 were roughly flat with 2013 sales, but the stores also offer a wide range of other events and services: community classrooms, full-service restaurants, fine-art exhibits, and the Espresso Book Machine, which can print books on demand in eight minutes. In addition, the store ramped up its social media presence and hosted high-profile author events with Ann Marie McDonald (Adult Onset), Conrad Black (Rise to Greatness), Miriam Toews (All My Puny Sorrows), and Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea (Where I Belong). “Books used to be strong enough to be the draw on their own, and that’s just not the case anymore, so we draw people in with everything we do,” said inventory manager Chris Hall.
One book that appeared to have notably negligible sales at many of the stores that spoke to PW was Sean Michaels’s Giller Prize–winning novel Us Conductors. While Munro’s Books did “quite well” with it and Bookmark in Charlottetown, P.E.I., did “reasonably well,” many stores reported very low sales compared to the usual “Giller Effect” experienced by winning titles.
Hall suggested sales may have been affected by Random House Canada’s decision to publish the reprint in hardcover after it won the Giller. “For them to reverse the direction really hampered sales,” said Hall. “Their argument was it was only a dollar difference, but my argument back is customers don’t even look at the price on a hardcover; they’re just going to assume [it will be more expensive].”
In eastern Canada, higher store sales overall were reported at Bookmark in Charlottetown, P.E.I.; Woozles Children’s Bookstore in Halifax, Nova Scotia; and the Inside Story in Greenwood, Nova Scotia. All three stores mentioned that the mild weather in December was a huge relief, compared to the 2013 ice storm that caused power outages and forced stores to close several times during the crucial days before Christmas. “Last winter was really brutal in this region,” noted Woozles comanager Lisa Doucet.
Woozles launched a number of new initiatives in the past year, including its new online bookstore and a free weekly delivery service for customers in the Halifax region. This past December, a new central library opened half a block away from the store, which also attracted a lot of attention and positive energy,
according to Doucet: “We’ve felt busy and alive and full of good vibes, so I hope that we see that continuing into 2015.”