The decline of the small independent bookshop has been one of the sad stories of my lifetime. It was well under way before Amazon and e-books turned us all into compulsive scrollers, squared-eyed with LCD-screen-related insomnia. The death knell began clanging decades ago, back when I was a sullen, chain-smoking teenager, hanging around the Book City outlet on Bloor Street West in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, chatting up the friendly guy who worked there and (it was rumoured) wrote brilliant minimalist novellas about twisted gay sex when he wasn’t standing behind the till recommending I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
Back then, we lovers of small independent bookstores believed superstore chains were the apocalypse. How naive we were! Sure the big boxes did their damage, but soon Amazon had decimated them in turn (Borders closed, Chapters consolidated and Indigo eventually relegated to the jasmine-scented candle and throw-blanket business, with the odd copy of Gardening Life thrown in for show).
Across Canada now, as well as in the United States and Britain, the old-fashioned main street with its butcher, baker and candlestick maker is mostly a thing of the past. Soon, the cynics say, there will be nothing but Tim Hortons and cheap nail salons, and that’s only because you can’t get a double-double or a pedicure on the Internet (yet). In the near future, the story goes, our main streets will be nothing but online shopping pick-up points and badly lit sizing depots – miserable places filled with grey consumer zombies itching to get back to home to their iPads so they can buy some more crap they don’t need. A world without shops to poke in. No more places for patient gay intellectuals to recommend novels to sullen teenage girls.
Except – to my delight – there’s another story brewing. It’s a side narrative to the larger (admittedly grim and unstoppable) trend of the whole world basically going to hell, but it’s a happy tale indeed. And that is the return of the small independent bookseller.
The story starts just over 100 kilometres north of Toronto in the village of Creemore, Ont., also known as the quaint little place my mother now lives. It’s tiny but she loves it, and for good reason too. Creemore, unlike many little towns of its size, has a famous microbrewery, a local/organic food shop, two great cafés, an old-fashioned newspaper and a very good bookstore called Curiosity House Books & Art Gallery. It also has a disproportionately large population of relatively affluent, educated professionals who have retired there, and because of this, when the owners of Curiosity House announced last year they were closing shop because their building was being sold, the town rose up and tried to stop it. A group of book-loving locals wrote articles in the local newspaper, held feverish meetings and made calls to rich friends asking for money. When the money materialized but the collective investment model proved too complicated, Ralph Hicks, a local sculptor and businessman, swooped in and bought the place on a whim.
It was an impulse buy, he told me in an e-mail interview from Mustique, where he’s on holiday, “rather like a Mars bar … I didn’t even look at the financials beforehand, but just guessed that if the previous owners had been able to run it at break-even for 17 years, I ought to be able to do the same.”
Interestingly, the novelist Ann Patchett recently did precisely the same thing with a couple of friends in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Like Curiosity House (which bills itself as “the best little bookstore in Canada”), Patchett’s Parnassus Books is more than just a place to buy the new Zadie Smith or Alice Munro. As she outlines in her essay The Bookstore Strikes Back in December’s issue of the Atlantic magazine, her bookshop, and others like it, represent much of what we have lost as a consumer culture: “the community centre, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.”
Just to be clear, the reimagined independent bookshop is not really a money-making outfit. While these shops might break even, in some cases turn a small profit, it is only because their customers override their instinct to act like consumers and act like good citizens instead, paying full price when they could get a discount by crossing the street or just clicking a mouse. At Curiosity House, Hicks got locals to sign a contract saying they wouldn’t shop on Amazon – for the most part, it’s worked. Patchett went on The Colbert Report and asked viewers from across the country to buy her book at full price from her shop’s website – and they did, in the thousands.
Even here in the U.K., there are stories of citizens taking over their local libraries and bookstores, and operating them on a collective, volunteer basis. And in Ottawa, just recently, another local independent store, Books on Beechwood, was saved by an angel investor like Hicks. But for every rescue story there is also a loss: Collected Works, another Ottawa independent, failed to find funding and closed this month.
The decline of the independent bookstore is an old story, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. Maybe the solution is to stop viewing such places simply as businesses that must succeed or fail according to the market, like doughnut shops or nail salons. A really good bookstore is not a doughnut shop; it is a social good. As citizens – and even potential investors – we need to put our money where our moany old mouths are. Or as Ralph Hicks puts it, “any community-driven effort to save a bookstore should focus on finding an idiot like me.”
Lucky for one little bookstore, it did.