Are bookstores doomed, headed the way of the video store and the Great Auk? Scan the headlines and it can seem that way. World’s Biggest Bookstore. Gone. Book City in the Annex. Gone. The Cookbook Store. Gone. Steven Temple Books. Gone.
Other much-loved independents from This Ain’t the Rosedale Library to Nicholas Hoare to The Book Mark all have disappeared from the city bookscape in recent years. Now comes the news that even the big Chapters Indigo store at John and Richmond streets will close at the end of May.
But all is not lost. If you are feeling low about the fate of the bookstore, just step through the door of Type Books on Queen Street West. Despite competition from ebooks and the giant bookselling chains, this brilliant little chocolate box for bibliophiles is thriving. Its sales are good. Its customers are loyal. The smart, friendly, learned people who work there are far from giving up the ghost.
From behind the cashier’s desk, Serah-Marie McMahon scoffs at the notion that bookstores will vanish from the face of the city. She lists all the independent booksellers that are still in business, from Swipe (specializing in architecture and design) to Bakka Phoenix (science fiction and fantasy) to Theatre Books (theatre, film, opera and dance).
“I can think of three specialized kids-only bookstores in Toronto – three, in one city,” she says. “Like, come on, let’s calm down.”
Type co-owner Joanne Saul is just as upbeat. When she founded the store in 2006 with Samara Walbohm, people told the University of Toronto English teacher that she was crazy. Three or four Toronto bookstores had just gone out of business. Amazon was threatening to flatten everything in its path. Just as now, “there was this sense that the future was bleak.”
She went ahead anyway, damn the torpedoes, and the narrow store opposite Trinity Bellwoods Park soon became an essential part of the city’s book scene. At Christmas the line-up for the cashier runs to the rear of the store. Type opened a second location in Forest Hill Village six years ago.
Editor and photographer Matthew Kudelka has been coming to the Queen Street store for years, drawn by for the good selection and the “personal vibe” of the place, which always has an artful book display in the front window. Yes, he reads ebooks, but “there is nothing like an actual room full of books.”
One reason Type succeeds is the service. One staffer is a novelist who knows all about art and design books. Another is a poet who has his own record label. In one corner of the store is a display of books that staffers recommend, with their names printed on red book marks. Derek liked The n-Body Problem, Becky liked Shovel Ready.
Ms. Saul says that customers enjoy coming to a place where they are “recognized and called by name and told, ‘Hey, I put aside a book I think you would really like.’”
Type is not just a store but a neighbourhood literary hub, hosting readings, book launches and storytelling for children. As part of her job as Type’s community manager, Ms. McMahon is working on connecting with customers and neighbours on the web and social media, too.
Then, of course, there are the books. In the store’s toothsome array of attractively displayed titles, you can find everything from The Letters of Samuel Beckett to The Oxford Companion to Beer to A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting. The store has strong sections on cooking and urban affairs and poetry. Parents who want to cuddle up to their kids with a paper book instead of an iPad bring them to Type’s excellent children’s room, created from what used to be an old apartment in the back.
Ms. Saul is not blind to the challenges. The bookstore business is tough. Type opened a store on the Danforth in 2008 but it closed after only a year, succumbing to the economic crisis of the time.
Rising downtown rents are squeezing many bookstores out of attractive locations on busy retail strips. Book lovers still lament the closure of the wonderful Pages, a few blocks to the east of Type, which closed in 2009 when faced with a doubling of its rent. Ms. Saul admits she isn’t sure what will happen when the Queen Street store’s own lease comes up in three years.
Ebooks are an obvious threat, too. I have to admit here that as much as I love a good bookstore, I download most of my books these days. But as Type reminds us in a popular video on its website, “There’s nothing quite like a real book.”
The video shows battalions of books marching and dancing around the shuttered store after dark. With magical places like Type Books to play the music, they will dance for a long while yet.