Closed for Business

This month, The Town Crier investigates the long, slow decline of bookstores in North America. Curated by Jason Freure, the Crier‘s April offerings will include essays, interviews, and editorial pieces examining the current crisis in bookstore culture.

Your favourite bookstore is closing. Why? In all of the bookstore obituaries, eulogies, and state-of-the-industry pieces published every year, two of the most popular explanations for the rampant closure of bookshops are rising rents and digital sales, represented by online retailers and ebook formats. There was a time in the 2000s when Amazon was enemy number one. British media outlets like The Guardian still write about the online retailer as the chief nemesis facing both chain and independent bookstores on the UK’s High Street. Meanwhile, North American publications like The New York Times and The Toronto Star are increasingly using rent to explain the “last straw” in the death of a bookstore.

When Nicholas Hoare closed down all three of his stores in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, he placed the blame squarely on rent, especially when it came to his Ottawa location. His landlord on Sussex Drive, the National Capital Commission, raised his rent by 72 percent, apparently in keeping with its goal “to ensure that Canada’s Capital Region is a source of national pride and significance.”

Julie Bosman’s article, “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” in The New York Times covered the situation in Manhattan, where those bookstores that aren’t closing are moving to Brooklyn and New Jersey. In Manhattan, the crisis of bookstores has also led to a crisis of identity. The publishing centre of North America lost one third of its bookstores between 2000 and 2012. The retreat of chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders from urban centres means there are few booksellers left in New York City that can bear Midtown rents. Some called for New York City’s larger publishing houses, headquartered in the bookstore desert of Midtown, to fill the gap with their own stores, as Doubleday once did on Fifth Avenue.

There are at least two Canadian publishers that already operate their own storefronts. Both Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly and Windsor’s Biblioasis operate storefronts, selling their own titles and those of other presses. The most successful small presses are their own brands, brands that can make unknowns exciting, that can convince readers to take risks with their book budget. Drawn & Quarterly is one such press, and its storefront makes browsing the catalogue recreational shopping. There is no better way for small and mid-sized publishers to guarantee their titles have floor space than in-house retailing.

One San Francisco bookstore has recently bucked the trends of blaming Amazon and rent for its closure by claiming that San Francisco’s new $15 minimum wage will put it out of business. Owner Alan Beatts says that he still supports the wage hike, as well as a living wage. Nonetheless, the wage increase will put his business in the red. His conundrum exposes one of the issues the book trade faces that most other industries avoid: it’s easier to cut the price of a book than raise it. The price is printed on the cover (US $14.95 / CDN 18.99), and it’s the same across North America, regardless of the state or provincial minimum wage, or the local price tag of a square foot of commercial real estate. Meanwhile, online retailers are free to open their distribution centres in the cheapest possible states.

Optimistically, no one blames the closure of bookstores on literacy. A CBC story on the closure of Montreal’s Ste-Catherine Street Chapters even quotes Simon Dardick, editor at Véhicule Press, as saying, “There are more people reading than ever.” And there are numbers to back Dardick up. As the National Reading Campaign reported, “Canadians borrow or buy 3.4 million books a week.”

In terms of hard numbers, people still read, and books are still selling. In a piece on Canadian publishing in 2013, Canadian Business reported that 10,000 Canadian-authored books are published annually, that there three times as many Canadian-owned publishers now as there were in 1990, and that publishers’ profit margins remain a consistent 11 per cent. Canadian Business also wrote that 20 percent of Canadian publishers’ sales are now digital. Online ordering has become a way for publishers to go straight to the reader, which not only reduces returns of its titles from retailers, but provides the writer with a greater share of the royalties on the sale, too.

Unfortunately, that leaves bookstores out of the loop.

One thing that hasn’t been asked often in all of the obituaries and analyses is how responsible bookstores are for their own demise. When a business can’t pay its bills, that is usually a sign that the business is not working. It is either outmoded or losing to the competition. Culture industries can skirt around the issue by deferring to their societal value and appealing to the nostalgia, sentiment, or “nobility” of continuing in an unprofitable trade (think Canadian television). They are industries all the same. I, for one, am always wary of the comment that bookstores in the future will cater to an elect few who still love the mouldy redolence of paper, and that they’ll never truly go away. There are still shoe repairmen out there; for those who aren’t well-heeled, it’s usually smarter to buy a new pair.

Bosman, on the other hand, claims that the future of the book trade lies in clothing and lifestyle retailers like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie. Wal-Mart and Shoppers Drug Mart already stock romances and mysteries, but literary fiction is finding its way onto the periphery of lifestyle retailing, and it may someday have its lifeblood there in tough times for bookstores.

For the month of April, The Town Crier will ask, and hopefully answer, more questions about the crisis of bookstores. Why are bookstores closing? Are there any solutions? Which stores are succeeding, and how do they do it? In the end, are they just another business, or are they cultural ventures that deserve government protection or subsidies? Bookstore Month at The Town Crier will be about more than bookstores closing. It will be about the details of the bookselling trade, about the relationship stores have with publishers, readers, and writers, and about bookstores across North America. It will also happily indulge in unabashed fandom for bookstores, and the pleasure of finding oneself faced with thousands of book spines up, down, left, and right. There is a romance to bookstores in their look, their smell, and the tension between the quiet atmosphere and the adventures hidden on the shelves. If it weren’t for that romance, I, at least, suspect that many more would be content to let the bookstore go the way of the video rental.


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