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A new character on Toronto's bookstore scene Add to ...

The independent bookstore is a dying species - at least, that's the conventional wisdom. Heavyweight retailers dominate the space, and many of Toronto's smaller venues - Pages, Third World Books and Crafts, David Mirvish Books, Book Cellar, Longhouse Books, Britnell's and McNally-Robinson - are now urban history.

But if launching a new independent bookstore seems a doomed, quixotic enterprise, try telling that to Jason Rovito.

Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below - his improbably named bookstore - will open next month at 283 College St., near Spadina, above a convenience outlet.

Madness? Not necessarily. Mr. Rovito may just have discovered how to breathe new life into the embattled business of independent bookselling.

His plan: to sublet parts of his 2,000-square-foot, two-storey space to like-minded entities. His first cohabiters include Public, the journal of art, culture and ideas (Mr. Rovito is co-editor); a pair of urban research groups; and the new Toronto New School of Writing, which will hold workshops in a room on the third floor. The school, under the directorship of Jenny Sampirisi and Jay MillAr will focus on avant-garde and experimental writing.

The store's name has its origins in a medieval bestiary. The swallow, Mr. Rovito explains, is an urban bird that intuitively would leave its nest in any building that was about to collapse. "So I started by playing with that idea and the notion that we will be above ground."

Swallows will have a Web presence as well - with the more practical domain name 283college.ca - but won't sell books there, initially. Instead, the site will act as the storefront portal, augmenting the various communal and co-operative ventures Mr. Rovito hopes to house upstairs.

Perched on the doorstep of the University of Toronto, the store will essentially sell scholarly second-hand books (many of them purchased, along with the shelves, from Atticus owner Michael Freedman, whose store now lives online only), but without, Mr. Rovito says, "the stodginess" often attached to academic tomes.

It was research for his PhD dissertation on the medieval origins of universities that led him to the bookstore idea. He was exploring "the relationship between space and knowledge - what it takes for a question mark to take place" - and found a resonance with contemporary rhetoric about the creative city.

The first books, he notes, came out of monasteries and gave rise organically to the first universities and the first bookstores, even before there were designs in place for what they would look like.

Although Mr. Rovito was well aware that booksellers were closing in Toronto - a function of higher rents and the availability of cheaper product online - he still sensed "a desire for something. So then the question became: 'Can you surround the books with related activities, things that can't be translated into electronic exchange?' "

The division of his space into bookselling, publishing and intellectual discourse is only a rough schemata, he concedes. "Who knows how it will work out? It's an experiment. But we will have a network that can publicize the store."

The myth that independent bookstores can't survive is premised, he notes, on a very limited model of bookselling, only developed after the Second World War and the emergence of mass-market paperbacks. Today, the book-buying audience is vast - certainly vast enough to permit the emergence of specialized niche bookstores. "It doesn't have to be something that everybody starts coming to."

In similar experimental ventures, such as New York's 16 Beaver or Chicago's Mess Hall - multi-dimensional cultural co-operatives - there's an implicit aversion to commerce and the for-profit motive. But Mr. Rovito, who teaches part-time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, finds that too limited. "When you make a profit off a book, it's symptomatic of the fact that ideas have been circulated."

How will he adapt to Google's omnivorous quest to digitize every book ever published? That remains to be seen, he says. "Perhaps bookstores will have to be defined as a place that sells things not otherwise available."

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Finding a niche

Jason Rovito isn't the only intrepid entrepreneur. In recent years, other independent booksellers have dared to defy the odds and the marketplace by opening boutique stores. Among them:

Type

Stores at 883 Queen St. W. and 394 Spadina Rd. In its basement on Queen Street, Type hosts a gallery featuring of art by neighbourhood artists and runs an after-school literacy program, Word-Play, for kids from three local schools.

Ben McNally Books

366 Bay St. A general-interest bookstore run by Ben McNally, formerly of Nicholas Hoare.

Monkey's Paw

1229 Dundas St. W. Monkey's Paw sells books in four categories: beautiful, arcane, macabre or absurd. "An ideal Monkey's Paw book is all four," says owner Stephen Fowler. "It has to be at least one, or I wouldn't buy it."

 

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