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Martha Sharpe, left, owner of Flying Books, speaks with employee Ally Shap, centre, and customer Hadiya Roderique at the store’s location on College Street in Toronto, on Oct. 28.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

To someone like myself, the air inside an independent bookstore can seem slightly pressurized. Perhaps it is the knotted anxiety of looking face-to-face at the bookseller upon entry, uncertain of what to say. You may wipe your palms before lifting a book from a display table, raising it to your thoughtful visage. “Why yes,” the pose says, “I do know how to read.”

Unlike the big chain bookstores – Chapters and Indigo in Canada, Barnes & Noble in the U.S. – local indie bookshops are unavoidably human spaces. No walkie-talkies or headsets, no escalators and nary a loungewear section to lose yourself in. There are few places to hide inside a small bookshop, and every item seems meaningful in its placement. “The writer Michael Hingston always says that a good independent bookstore is like looking into the owner’s psyche,” says Jason Purcell, a writer, musician and co-owner of Edmonton’s Glass Bookshop.

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In 1995, the appearance of decimated the indie bookstore population, writes Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli in a 2020 paper on the subject, and the sector’s demise was widely predicted. The landscape in our cities changed, with many small bookstores disappearing, and the bigger ones like Indigo in Canada becoming ever more homogenized and mall-like to compete with Amazon.

Now, when so many of our needs are unified and algorithm-prompted by online retail, independent bookstores offer person-to-person customization. Something, it turns out, that we are craving despite the ease of online shopping. “Between 2009 and 2018, independent bookstores proved to be far more resilient than expected,” writes Raffaelli, tracking a 49-per-cent growth in the number of indie bookstores – nearly 15 years after it seemed Amazon would put them all out of business.

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Jason Purcell, co-owner of Edmonton's Glass bookshop, sits in the store. The store's catalogue speaks to the concerns of Purcell, their colleagues, and the community.Tatiana Zagorac/Handout

Raffaelli’s research was instrumental in inspiring Purcell and Matthew Stepanic to open Glass Bookshop in late 2019, just months before the pandemic. “We need to be a united front against places like Amazon or Indigo, because independent bookstores are so important to individual communities,” says Purcell.

Glass Bookshop’s catalogue speaks particularly to the concerns of Purcell, their colleagues and community. In-store and on the beautiful website, you can browse categories such as Books by Black and Indigenous Writers, Queerest of the Queer, Disability Activism, About Residential Schools, and Free Palestine.

Although doors have opened to events again, attendance can feel sparse. “There’s a reticence to get back,” Purcell explains. “That might just be the nature of who our customers are. Our niche here in Edmonton is a lot of queer, disabled and racialized folks. People who are, I think, already primed to be careful when it comes to issues of public safety and care for others.”

In the wake of this, bookstores such as Glass Bookshop and Montreal’s Librairie Saint-Henri Books have created podcasts (like LSHB’s Weird Era, also a literary journal), and joined the Instagram-based queer book club Gay Writes. “James, who runs @gay_writes, had been working at Type Books when it started. With the pandemic, it migrated online,” explains Purcell.

Gay Writes brings together indie bookstores from across the country, like Type and Queen Books in Toronto, Saint-Henri Books in Montreal and Shelf Life in Calgary. “There are so many folks who James embraced to create this network around reading a book a month, getting online and talking about it. It also opens up so many things around accessibility,” says Purcell.

While events are vital to independent-bookstore culture, they also require a lot effort – not all of which can be easily offset. Priced out by commercial rent costs, Purcell moved Glass Bookshop to a new pop-up location in mid-November, aided by their current business partner, Julie King-Yerex, and a devoted community of readers and writers. “We had 50 or 60 people say that they’d help pack, move, unpack, drive – whatever we needed. It was very touching.”

The impact of independent bookstores extends well beyond local communities and into Canada’s publishing industry, too. James Lindsay, a Type and Book City alumnus who now works as Coach House Books’ sales and marketing co-ordinator, publicist,and podcast host, attributes his current career to working at indies. “I don’t have an MFA. I don’t even have a BA. My education was working at bookstores, being around writers and reading as much as I could.”

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Indie publisher, Coach House Books in Toronto

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At a sun-drenched picnic bench outside the squat brick coach house that gives the publisher its name, Lindsay articulates how indies affect the book industry at large, and particularly, small publishers.

“If all the Indigos were suddenly to disappear tomorrow, we’d be okay. But if we lost the independent bookstores, our sales would plummet.”

Toronto’s Type Books on Queen Street West was one of the first in the new wave of independent bookstores to face the twin behemoths of online shopping and big-box bookstores, bringing in a defined sense of community and style. Currently celebrating their Sweet 16 with a chapbook made by writer and long-time store manager Kyle Buckley, owner Joanne Saul recalls how crazy people thought she and co-founder Samara Walbohm were when they first opened in 2006.

Now with three locations across the city, Type is a bellwether in the indie bookstore boom, leaders in giving booksellers the freedom to define a store by their own interests, expertise and relationships to the community, rather than what the market dictates. With its damask wallpaper and highly specific book categories, Type on Queen feels like a campy mansion attic – tight, bright and full of treasures. As Saul explains, it’s the shop staff that make it what it is.

Toronto artist Kalpna Patel has created the three shops’ beautiful window displays for more than a decade. As Type’s Junction neighbourhood manager, Patel also stocks the books there based on her particular ethos, producing a completely different form of enchantment than Type on Queen.

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Toronto's Type is a leader in the indie bookstore boom, giving booksellers the freedom to define a store by their own interests, expertise, and relationships to the community.

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This thoughtful, handmade approach extends to events as well. Claire Foster, a literary translator and Type’s event co-ordinator since 2020, speaks with excitement of the in-person events they’ve been able to restart this past summer. “Everyone benefits from free book events – we, as booksellers, are better for them, and we hope that attendees feel like there’s always a space for them at Type to listen, engage or fold inward, ask questions, press for better answers and turn pages.”

The increased interest in live events stretches across the city. “We used to get about five people for a Toronto author,” says Rachel Pisani, manager and event co-ordinator at Leslieville’s bustling Queen Books. “Now, a Toronto author will bring every single person they know, and we end up with 50 people in here. It’s amazing, and that never happened before the pandemic. It seems like people are showing up to the things they took for granted before.”

This enthusiasm is evident at Toronto’s nearly year-old Flying Books, as well – a shop, but also an active event space, publisher and writing school. What editor Martha Sharpe began in 2015 as a shelf of hand-selected titles at her friend Katharine Mulherin’s beloved Weekend Variety is now one of the newest brick-and-mortar indie bookstores to open in the city.

In the back room of Flying Books’ vibrant College Street space, trays of cling-wrapped cheese and meat sit on the table in advance of a meeting of publishing professionals, organized by the Toronto International Festival of Authors – just one of the events Sharpe may hold in a given week. “I don’t know if it was Farrar, Straus or Giroux, but one of them said something like ‘buy cheap wine and just enough,’” she says.

These fresh-blooded indies are satisfying something that we lost 25 years ago. In the early nineties, Sharpe recalls, there were six or seven indie bookstores within walking distance of her little Toronto apartment.

“We had Britnell’s and across the street, Lichtman’s; Book City and This Ain’t the Rosedale Library. There was the Book Cellar in Yorkville, and Edward’s Books & Art. I remember wandering into a mobbed event off the street – there was Margaret Atwood, sitting at a table.”

All but Book City are now gone. “Those stores were so important to me in Toronto,” says Sharpe. “I was also sort of scared of them.”

We are often scared of getting close to other living things, and not just because of airborne illness. There’s intimacy in bookstores, books a kind of vegetable technology that don’t offer the same glowing ease of a smartphone. You put your faith in the wisdom of the shop and its stewards. While the convenience of e-retail may be tempting, these days, I am choosing to scare myself. Despite the sweaty palms, it makes me feel a little bit more alive – and gratefully so.

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