Ben McNally Books, a cherished independent Toronto bookstore and a champion of Canadian authors, will close its doors some time next year to make way for a renovation of the building that has been its home since its launch in 2007 in the city’s Bay Street business district.
Proprietor Ben McNally and his son, Rupert, with whom he runs the business, hope to relocate the store, which customers praise for its inviting atmosphere and knowledgeable staff. But they acknowledged in separate interviews with The Globe and Mail that, if they do reopen, their new operation would likely not include many of the elements that have helped draw customers to the store, including its elegant design and open spaces that offer a welcoming setting for the hundreds of author events and book launches they play host to each year.
“It would be a very different sort of mentality,” Rupert said. “We opened this space up 12 years ago, when there was room to do a lot of book events, and it made sense [then] to give up as much floor space as we do, to host launches and stuff like that.”
“I think it’s going to be pretty expensive to maintain this much square footage,” Ben said. “In terms of actual books, we won’t need that much. We’ll have to see what the fiscal limitations are, going forward, to see what we can afford. We’re going to be running numbers in a whole different way than we did when we first opened up.”
The store’s lease expires at the end of August, 2020, although the McNallys said they may decamp some months earlier, depending on continuing negotiations with their landlord, Dream Office Management Corp.
Dream intends to replace the store with an open-air walkway that will cut from Bay Street to a north-south alleyway running from Richmond Street to Temperance Street.
The McNallys shared the news with The Globe before a planned announcement on Wednesday. When informed by The Globe on Tuesday, publishers reacted to the news with shock and dismay.
“It’s a heartbreak,” said Alana Wilcox, the editorial director of Coach House Books. “It would put a big hole in the middle of downtown Toronto. We’re not well-stocked in terms of bookstores in this city. Ben McNally is such an important part of the literary fabric in Toronto. It would be devastating to lose that store.”
Kevin Hanson, the president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Canada, said the elder McNally had “created a bit of a temple for books, and we as publishers really enjoyed launching our authors there, because it had that feeling of a place where authors are respected and books are cherished. So I think we’ll all be hoping he and Rupert find another location where they can recreate the magic.”
Kristin Cochrane, the chief executive of Penguin Random House Canada, noted that “Ben has created long-standing, deep connections with many of our authors – with one, Rachel Joyce, even basing a character in her novel [The Music Shop] on him. Every international publishing colleague who comes to Toronto is awed by a must-see visit to Ben’s store. It is without a doubt a booklover’s dream and they are wonderful booksellers who care deeply about authors and their books and their customers.
“The book industry without Ben is unthinkable for me.”
Ben worked at Nicholas Hoare Books, as well as Book City and Coles, before opening his eponymous shop,
Anna Porter, an author and the former publisher of Key Porter Books, praised the McNallys as “superb booksellers. They understand how people browse – not only for the books they’ve gone in to purchase, but people will look at other books if you say the right things to them.”
She noted that she and her husband, lawyer Julian Porter, regularly attend the semi-annual 45 Books in 45 Minutes event, in which Ben and Rupert race through a series of one-minute descriptions of books in front of a packed house. “You listen to what they have to say, and you walk out with a large bag full of books – which I need like a hole in the head, because I already have about 7,000 or 8,000 books in the house,” she said. “But it’s irresistible, and I think that is the key to a successful bookseller.”
Porter urged the McNallys’ landlord to find a suitable place for another bookstore in one of their buildings. “It’s essential for community. It’s part of who we are.”
An executive with Dream sounded a note of resignation about the changes in the market. “I think it’s well-known that rents all throughout the downtown core are definitely going up,” said Gordon Wadley, Dream’s senior vice-president of commercial properties. “I think there’s always a demand for quality books, and I think Ben provides a good service for the community. We would love to find a way to keep him in one of our other locations."
In a draft press release that he shared with The Globe, Rupert McNally wistfully observed the changes that have overtaken the neighbourhood since 2007. “There were three independent bookstores within walking distance when we opened: one specializing in travel books, one in business books, one in audio books – none of these remain.”
Hanson of Simon & Schuster offered a hopeful observation. “Ben has been a bookseller for north of 30 years, and if you talk to other book retailers in Toronto, they’re successful in part because they know their customers and their markets, and they’re nimble. So, I expect Ben will figure out this out, with his son, and continue to serve the market.”
Still, Ben noted that there are a number of considerations that may make him and Rupert gun-shy on signing a new lease. “There’s a certain reluctance on our part to say: Well, let’s go into [another] building if we think there’s a possibility it’s going to get knocked down within, like, 36 months. And, looking around, every place you look, you think: How long is that place going to be here?”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.