By Dimitra Chronopoulos
How do independent bookstores in Toronto survive and thrive in today’s day and age? By knowing and caring about their customers, participating in conferences and community events, hosting events, and specializing. These were just some of the answers Editors Toronto and PWAC members heard during Editors Toronto’s inaugural bookstore crawl on Saturday, November 19, 2016.
We started at Ben McNally Books (366 Bay Street), a handsome and inviting space intentionally designed to accommodate special events. The dark wooden shelves and tables showcase history, biography, and hardcover fiction, but the store is known for carrying books you can’t find anywhere else and for fulfilling special orders. The staff know their customers and they listen carefully to match readers to the right books. Owner Ben McNally shared so much with us: what it’s like to have a TV show film in the store, why prices are printed on books (against the wishes and better interests of so many), how the economic downturn in 2008 affected his business, and why he fears Amazon but not Indigo (Indigo and McNally’s are in the same business and complement each other; Amazon is “a threat to neighbourhood culture”). One challenge of operating a bookstore in the downtown core? The lack of parking. The solution? Bookstore staff will stand on the sidewalk and hand orders to customers who drive past. Now that’s service.
Our second stop was Page & Panel: The TCAF Shop (789 Yonge Street). TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival) takes place annually at the Toronto Reference Library. In 2014, the shop opened as a pop-up in the library, but it is now here to stay. Comics and graphic novels are the focus, but the store’s location in a public library means that they have to offer more. That includes books about books; books by Torontonians and Toronto-related merchandise; T-shirts and sweaters featuring out-of-print book covers; and things you might need while you’re in the library, such as pens, pencils, and notebooks. TCAF’s managing director Miles Baker talked about the advantages and disadvantages of being located in the library. When we asked him what’s behind the rise in the popularity, availability, and diversity of comics, he gave us a fascinating summary of factors going back to the 1980s, with the release of works by Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman, and The Watchmen series from DC Comics. As we milled about the store, we saw the diversity for ourselves—as well as the treats, edible and literary, that store staff bring back from buying trips to Japan.
If you want a book by a Canadian writer of Caribbean or African heritage, the staff at A Different Booklist (746 Bathurst Street, ) can help you. Requests for books by Canadians of diverse backgrounds are common at this shop, which has been an important part of the community for nearly 20 years. It was a tight squeeze as our group crammed into the warm and colourful yet tiny space to speak with Geeta. Customers browsed the shelves around us and an author stopped by to pick up a box of her books. To learn more about the store, read Amanda Parris’ profile for CBC Arts. The redevelopment of Honest Ed’s and Mirvish Village means that A Different Booklist will be relocating to 777–779 Bathurst Street in 2017.
Caversham Booksellers (98 Harbord Street) specializes in books on psychology, mental health, and related disciplines. It’s the largest such store in the world—and the only one in North America! Never heard of it? Neither had I. Nor, perhaps, have many in Toronto. As store staff like to say, “You don’t know we’re here until you need us.” Staff members Samantha and Vivian talked about how helping people is more important than pushing a sale. They spoke about feeling akin to bartenders because of how much they hear about the lives of their customers, which include students, professionals, clinicians, and hospital outpatients. Store staff spend a lot of time packing and unpacking boxes of books to take to conferences and ship to customers. March is a particularly busy time, as institutions scramble to spend budgets before year-end. This wasn’t the largest store on our tour, but it may have held the most books: every bookshelf was full, and all the books were spine out!
Our last stop, Bakka Phoenix Books (84 Harbord Street), is a Toronto institution specializing in fantasy and science fiction. Staff read and love these genres, and many sci-fi and fantasy writers have worked here over the years and still do. Store manager Chris Szego told us about the history of the store and the events they participate in. She described the typical sci-fi and fantasy customer: he or she (it used to be predominantly he but it isn’t any more) reads a lot, is university educated, and is in well-paying employment. Finally, she introduced us to some best-selling and notable titles and authors, such as Diana Wynne Jones; Naomi Novik; Cixin Liu, the first Asian to win the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel; and Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette), author of The Goblin Emperor, the counterpoint to the “grimdark” fantasy subgenre popularized by Game of Thrones.
The enthusiasm, knowledge, and entrepreneurial spirit we encountered at every stop were inspiring. I learned about some genres I rarely read and discovered new places to shop. The best part was sharing the experience with fellow wordsmiths and book lovers. We oohed and aahed over titles and trinkets, shared recommendations and reviews, and got to know each other as we travelled between stops. Information, inspiration, and networking, all rolled into one. Let’s do it again, shall we?
Dimitra Chronopoulos enjoys working with others to create value and beauty, in objects and experiences. When she isn’t editing, she’s coordinating volunteers, planning events, or teaching Sunday school.
This post was copy edited by Nicole North.