Bookseller emeritus Nicholas Hoare doesn’t want to create vacuums. “I want to fill one,” he says, sipping white wine from a plastic glass while hosting loyal customers on his last day in business.
So he worries about how Canadians will obtain the latest British releases after he closes the last of the three stores in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto that once carried his name. “Who’s going to replace that stuff?” he asks. “Who’s going to see that that fascinating book on Enoch Powell really is worth the 750 pages?”
The question captures in a nutshell the idiosyncratic selection process that made Mr. Hoare’s stores so distinctive and beloved by bibliophiles.
“All the books are picked by review,” Mr. Hoare adds, the present tense prevailing despite the circumstances. “We don’t buy from catalogues, and the result is that each book is a little bit odder than its neighbour. Every single book was hand-curated.”
Middle-aged customers thronged the Toronto store on Monday, its last day – not shopping for bargains, because nothing was marked down – but to fill their arms with memories, write heartfelt comments in the guest book and shake hands with one of the very last of the old-time booksellers.
Bookstore closings have become so common they often pass unremarked, but the domino-like fall of three top-tier stores in a single year in Eastern Canada has been a shock.
The retreat began a year ago, when Mr. Hoare decided to close his Ottawa store in a rent dispute with his landlord, the National Capital Commission, then decided to follow suit in Montreal. He had just signed a five-year lease for his 4,500-square-foot Toronto flagship store when he and his wife, Margot Stevenson, decided to pack it in.
“It has nothing to do with Amazon or Kobo or Kybo and all those nonsenses,” Mr. Hoare says, attributing the closing to a family decision to move to Annapolis Royal, N.S., where they have a grand old house. “It’s bucolic, genteel and countrified, all of which I enjoy enormously,” he said.
But the push was real, and Mr. Hoare’s combined retail and wholesale trade had shrunk dramatically from its 20th-century heyday.
“In a way, it feels like three deaths in one year,” Ms. Stevenson says. “We really thought the Toronto store would keep going.”
But the flagship was almost “artificially successful,” according to Ms. Stevenson, due to her husband’s round-the-clock devotion to it. And such characters are in short supply these days. “You have to be a bit of a creative lunatic,” she says.
Traces of lunacy remain in the beautiful millwork on which Mr. Hoare once displayed his wares, almost 40 per cent of which were hard-to-get titles imported directly from his native Britain. Freestanding display shelves have cornices decorated with tiny Gothic arches, while shelves lining the walls are subtly tipped back to keep their contents from spilling over.
Mr. Hoare first set up business in the 1970s as a Montreal-based distributor of English-language books, and became a retailer to circumvent a nationalist law that banned standalone wholesalers in Quebec. “We cooked the books, basically,” he says, setting up a retail bookstore in Westmount to secure the licence he needed to continue wholesaling.
“At first, it was a thorn in our side, but then it started to take off,” he says. “The thing went off like a Roman candle. It was just amazing.”
The Toronto store followed in 1989, setting a new standard for amenity and elegance in what was then a thriving retail trade. Now only memories survive.
“The store has had some golden years,” Mr. Hoare says cheerily. “We’ve had an amazing run for our money. The customers have enjoyed it, we’ve enjoyed it. It’s not been a job, it’s been a passion.”