By Brian Joseph Davis
Even though it seems like the entire publishing industry in 2009 has become like Abe Simpson, exclaiming "Death!" with slightest cause, some aren't worried at all and a few, especially in the small press, are thriving. One bookstore doing well in the shrinking market is Toronto's This Ain't the Rosedale Library.
Founded in 1979 by Charlie Huisken, the store flourished when it moved to its Church and Wellesley home in 1986, operating as part-radical bookshop and part-meeting space, even making it onto The Guardian's list of best bookstores in the world. Yet, last year the slow skewing of Toronto's LGBT neighbourhood towards moneyed tastes had conferred enough painful relevancy to the store's jokey name that Huisken moved his store again, this time to Kensington Market, a place with such sustained pluralism that William Gibson called its streets "virtually ungentrifiable." Whether that holds or not remains to be seen, but for now This Ain't the Rosedale Library has eased perfectly into its new home. Huisken has brought his son Jesse into the business and their store continues to include both expected alternative fare and titles barely distributed and so bold in execution as to attain the designation of "rare" upon publication.
As the store heads into its 30th anniversary year, I asked the Huiskens about what it takes to stay in business for three decades.
BJD: Not only did you move spaces last year, you changed neighbourhoods. Why the big jump?
TATRL: We moved from one neighbourhood going through changes to another neighbourhood going through changes of a different sort. Kensington Market has been an entry point for waves of immigration -- Jewish, Portuguese, Jamaican, Vietnamese, El Salvadorian, which creates an amazing climate that is unique, maybe in the world, and we want to be a part of it. The other part of the picture is that in recent history Kensington has been home to Who's Emma? bookstore, Penny Arcade printing, Uprising bookstore, Lion Heart rehearsing and recording studio and now a new wave of places like Kid Icarus printing, Function13 design bookstore, Hot Shots Gallery, The Good Egg cookbook store and 6 Nassau rehearsing and recording studio. This neighbourhood has become the most comfortable area in the city for artists, writers and musicians and their fans to live and to encounter each other in an accidental fashion.
BJD: Your store specializes in the small press but you don't have the tables of Sue Grafton as back up, like most other independent stores. How is this model working?
TATRL: Our first bestsellers [in 1979]were The Boy Looked at Johnny by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, Seventh Heaven by Patti Smith, so we've always had a degree of specialization that makes us different from other stores. When your staff and customers are erudite and inspired readers, finding these alternative best sellers is just part of staying inspired with literature, not pandering, or becoming cynical in the way you look at selling books. That said, our store is full of books that are more entertaining than a lot of the titles that are given extra display space in other shops.
BJD: You've been going 30 years. What are you doing right?
TATRL: Too much attention has been paid to literary prizes, which are only as good as the juries that select from the current crops. Too much attention has been paid to market research in the cultural realm. In our case we enjoy, perhaps even a little too much, the work of researching culture on our own. We go to readings, we take recommendations from customers (many of whom are writers) and, especially, we aren't afraid to look backwards at books that were published in the past but still deserve a place on our customers' shelves. When we're traveling, we check out as many bookstores, galleries and readings as we possibly can. As a natural result of our enthusiasm we are happy to billet out-of-town poets, and keep abreast with the cutting edge in the areas of film, music, and especially visual art. All this demystifies the whole idea of marketing books and brings it down to earth, turning it back into a pleasure for all involved.