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Will the last bookstore please turn out the lights?

In a recent Regina Leader-Post story about the imminent demise of his 30-year-old bookstore, Book & Brier Patch co-owner John Cress is quoted as saying that, "Any bookseller that thinks there is a hope is dreaming."

Is he right? Is there really no hope? Do dedicated booksellers have no choice but to lock the doors, open a long-saved bottle of wine and wait for the cultural tidal wave to wash them away, aged feline store mascot and all?

Pessimism is often thought to be bred right into the genes of booksellers, who, after all, often watch helplessly as their charmingly shabby neighbourhoods go upscale, dragging rents up with them, or as the building they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars maintaining is rendered obsolete by behemoth online retailers who need never worry about either leaky plumbing or unsold stock. Even worse, they must listen as the very item they have handled, recommended, sold and loved for so many years - the bound book, the gift of Gutenberg - is given its terminal diagnosis over and over again. No one wants to be the last store specializing in 8-track tapes.

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For her sake, Ria Bleumer - who will soon open Vancouver's newest (and largest) full-service bookstore, Sitka Books & Arts - is sick of the doom and gloom. Bleumer, who managed the beloved Duthie Books for 16 years until it closed last February after more than half a century in business, says that the flurry of recent stories about smaller, independent bookstore closings has resulted in people walking into their neighbourhood store asking, "Well, why are you still here?" This despite the fact, that, from her own experience, bookstores are selling more books than ever. (Duthie, Bleumer says, was having no trouble selling books; what it couldn't do was keep pace with rising rents.)

One source of Bleumer's optimism is the "ferocious" level of reading she sees going on among young people. Those ferocious readers will be the regular book buyers of the future. What stores need to do, she insists, is not only focus on old-fashioned face-to-face customer service, but also remain flexible enough to adapt to whatever comes along in the years to come.

Christopher Smith, manager of Ottawa's Collected Works, agrees with the notion that independent stores must evolve or die. He sees two streams of bookselling emerging. In one, bookstores will "transform themselves from mere book purveyors to cultural emporiums or meeting places." Each store will be a "place for minds and activity. … In a way, the bookstore could be become the new 'salon'" - albeit a salon that offers not only books, but art, music, gift items, coffee and maybe even food and wine. In the other stream, he sees a "new breed of small, specialized book retailers. Bookstores selling books and books alone. Stores that focus on the 'classic' notion of what a bookshop is. Bespoke bookselling, so to speak."

Which isn't to say Smith doesn't have an eye on the e-horizon. He says he daydreams "that in the future I will finish a hand-sell by asking my customer, 'And how would you like that - hardcover, paperback, audio or e-book?'"

Mark Lefebvre has the same dream, seeing the advent of e-books as more complementary than apocalyptic. Lefebvre, who manages Hamilton's McMaster University bookstore and is vice-president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, says he often jokes "that the transistor radio is going to kill the book." In most cases, he says, that "a new technology seems to come into play, and infuse itself in the culture and become a part of the culture." Booksellers will have to adapt to this new e-book infused reality, but what shouldn't change is a bookseller's "curatorial" role, finding the exact right books for the people who want to read them, amid the barrage of options.

Ben McNally of Toronto's Ben McNally Books McNally says he is "unbelievably optimistic about what I do for a living." The reality is, he says - contra Cress -"nobody would be in this business at all if they were not optimistic by nature." Though he admits that he is "notably unable to see into the future," he does offer the possibility that non-digital books "are going to become more expensive and better produced. And they may, in fact, end up being produced in smaller numbers." What the bookselling needs to do in the face of that, he says, is to end the practice of discounting. "The sooner we get back to letting people know that books are great value at regular price," he says, "the better off everything's going to be."

So the smaller, independent booksellers are surprisingly bullish, all things considered. Smith even goes so far as to predict that big-box bookstores are a dying breed. "It is simply not a sustainable model," he says. "The swath they cut through communities is now ready to be filled by a new breed of individuals inspired and driven by the localism movement."

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But how do those same big-box retailers see the future?

Joel Silver, president of Indigo-Chapters as well as a member of board for Kobo, the e-book service and reader that recently partnered with Borders in the U.S., is, like most booksellers, reluctant to predict the shape of things to come. The industry, he says, "is completely dynamic right now." Silver states that, "the threat of the e-book is a very powerful tool to mobilize a lot of parties in the industry to some new and innovative things." All the same, he comes off like an idealistic indie when he talks about the enduring qualities of a bricks-and-mortar store: "There's a certain energy that a bookstore gives off if it's done well.".

And that, at least, is something that is not likely to change any time soon.

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