Speaking to independent booksellers across Canada, it seems as if they’ve been feeling pinched and proud in equal measure. Even as the country moves into a new stage of the pandemic—one without mask mandates or much in the way of gathering limits—many of the same troubles that have plagued bookselling over the past two-plus years persist.
For some, like Canadian Independent Booksellers Association board member Lori Cheverie, the issues start with the supply chain. Cheverie is store manager of Prince Edward Island’s Bookmark and chair of CIBA’s supply chain committee. She said that stores have shifted their strategy away from asking for a few copies of a broad variety of books and toward placing larger orders of fewer books earlier and earlier.
Cathy Jesson, president and co-owner of British Columbia–based Black Bond Books, said pricing for the fall is what’s causing her concerns. “When I’m looking at a C$42 Grisham, I’m thinking, where is the tipping point going to finally be?” she said. “And to me, C$41, C$42 fiction and close to C$50 nonfiction is really pushing it.”
Despite the myriad issues that have come with the pandemic, some bookstores, like Penny University in Regina, Saskatchewan, have found ways to build their businesses. Owner Annabel Townsend said that opening in fall 2020 after the province’s first large-scale lockdown provided some advantages, namely a hungry customer base. “Suddenly everybody was actually tackling their to-be-read piles,” Townsend said. “And I do think people suddenly started reading a lot more when they were stuck at home. For the first six months or so, while I was waiting to get the doors open, I started doing this book subscription service, and doing contactless delivery, and delivering random books to people around the city.”
Still, unexpected challenges remained, including flooding in British Columbia. “Our shipments from anywhere other than inside Canada all go through the port in Richmond, and that was very, very stressful,” Townsend said. “I think our big Christmas order turned up on the 21st of December.”
Lots of in-store events had to be changed because of store capacity restrictions and other pandemic challenges. “We’ve only recently been able to do those events properly,” Townsend noted. She also worries about the lack of communication between publishers and booksellers. Her advice to publishers, especially local ones, is to communicate earlier and better with independent bookstores so that books can end up on shelves.
Townsend isn’t alone in starting a bookstore during the pandemic. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Willow Press founder Meghan Malcolm expanded the company’s business to include a bookstore in September 2021. Malcolm said part of their mission, particularly with offerings for young readers, is to spark conversations about lived experiences that aren’t often represented in publishing. It’s a mission that’s informed by their own story.
“We have a family that is not like, mom, dad, brother, sister. I have a girlfriend,” Malcolm said. “Me and my kids are white, but my girlfriend is Black; they have another home. So something we ran into a lot was not being able to find books that show a family like theirs, or even just books that start conversations the way that I would like to talk about things with them.”
Malcolm recommends the First Conversation Series from Penguin Random House to others seeking books in this vein. The project includes books by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli for young readers about race, gender, and consent, with titles on love and bodies forthcoming in 2023. Malcolm said that their wider goal, given that their store has such a small footprint, is to be intentional about their selections and suggestions for customers. For adult readers, that means recommending titles like Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut and Jessica Fern’s Polysecure, books that Malcolm said sell as quickly as they can stock them. In fiction, Malcolm recommends Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun and Katherena Vermette’s The Strangers.
Malcolm is working on an expansion that will allow them to hold workshops and events in the shop. Still, they believe that the store’s small size has been a strength. “I can’t carry everything, but that’s kind of turned into why it’s special to people,” they said, “because I bring in really, really select things.”
Support from near and far
Local support is also important for Calgary’s Shelf Life Books. Manager Karlene Nicolajsen said that the store’s founders, retailer William Lawrence and English professor, writer, and Thistledown Press publisher JoAnn McCaig, have focused on community since Shelf Life opened in 2010. “JoAnn’s very firmly rooted in the Can Lit scene,” Nicolajsen said. “And the goal, then and now, was to make sure the space carried a lot of Canadian content, a lot of small press, and just serve its surrounding community and the city at large.”
Nicolajsen estimates that around half of her store’s bestsellers over the past year have been titles by Indigenous authors, including Drew Hayden Taylor’s Me Tomorrow: Indigenous Views on the Fugure and Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians. She said some of the store’s most anticipated titles thus far in 2022, like Canada Reads winner Joshua Whitehead’s recently released debut nonfiction book Making Love with the Land, reflect readers’ interest in Indigenous stories and histories. It’s a trend she’s glad is continuing. “That’s something that’s really important to us,” she said.
Cheverie said her store in Charlottetown, a tourist destination on Prince Edward Island, is seeing the return of traffic that was absent the previous two summers. “Our tourism has certainly bounced back this year,” she noted. “And we’re seeing numbers higher than 2019, which was a record year then.”
According to Cheverie, during the earlier stages of the pandemic, her customers were focused on hyperlocal books and authors, but interests have since broadened. Many of the books she’s excited about this fall—such as David Adams Richards’s The Tragedy of Eva Mott, Wayne Johnston’s Jennie’s Boy: A Newfoundland Childhood, and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fayne—are Canadian. She is still concerned about whether the forces of the publishing world will derail her timeline, however. “If the planets align and they actually can ship the books, it’ll be great,” she said.
Like in the U.S., Canadian bookstores have all seen an uptick in sales of books promoted on TikTok—particularly those for teens and young adults. In addition, titles like Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient are fueling what Black Bond Books’ Jesson called a “mystery wave.” Much like Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Indigo, Canada’s dominant bookstore chain, launched a dedicated TikTok book club and focuses a part of its online store on titles made popular by the social media platform. Jesson said booksellers and publishers need to recognize that the trend is building new readers.
“TikTok titles are bringing people into the stores whom we’ve never seen before,” Jesson said. “I sometimes think that maybe reading wasn’t high on their list until all of a sudden it is. They are spending a lot of money.” Alongside mysteries, romantic comedies have also been driving engagement in new groups, largely teens and those in their early 20s, and that it’s leading to a boon in sales.
For younger readers, Cheverie said titles like Dog Man and Cat Kid by Dav Pilkey are also big sellers. There again, though, Jesson is concerned about the prices she’s seeing. She called children’s hardcovers priced at C$25 a “hard sell,” noting, “If publishers are smart, and they do them in a trade paper edition, we can sell that, but it’s becoming really, really clear to us what’s not working with our massive returns on [hardcovers].”
The benefits of CIBA
Chris Hall, CIBA board president and co-owner of McNally Robinson in Winnipeg and Saskatoon, said that one of the benefits of the organization is its ability to bring booksellers together to concentrate on their collective issues. “Instead of having 100-plus individual voices, it allows us to speak in a coordinated way and share our solutions with each other and our frustrations with each other,” he explained, “but then also bring that into a coherent conversation with publishers in such a way that they can respond to that.”
One win Hall said CIBA was involved in was securing federal government funding specifically for booksellers—a C$32 million ($25 million) package that came to pass in March. In terms of titles he’s seen fly off shelves, he mentioned Manitoba author Miriam Toews’s Fight Night; he also expects high sales for two upcoming titles: The Theory of Crows by David Alexander Robertson and Tasha Pillett-Sumner’s Beautiful You, Beautiful Me.
Hall said that while the ongoing rise of Indigenous authors is a welcome sign, publishers must continue to focus on not just publishing these titles but putting marketing budgets behind them. “That’s the challenge that remains,” he said. “And from being face-to-face with customers, my sense is that they are willing and anxious to read a wide number of perspectives on what it’s like to be living.”
One thing appears to be clear when it comes to Canada’s indie booksellers: just like their U.S. counterparts, they are sailing stormy seas while surviving similar waves.
John Loeppky, a frequent contributor to PW, is a disabled writer and editor who lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.