Walk the streets of a major Canadian city and you can buy food from every exotic port in the world, dozens of types of coffee brewed in countless ways, sneakers that cost more than appliances. The only thing that's hard to find is a book.
Independent booksellers are going down like bowling pins. In Toronto, the past few months have seen the death of at least three beloved bookstores. It's a countrywide malaise: Oscar's Art Books in Vancouver, Hull's in Winnipeg, Collected Works in Ottawa, Macondo Books in Guelph, Ont., the Nicholas Hoare mini-chain – all gone. Even the country's biggest chain, Chapters Indigo, is feeling the pinch. It's recently shut two Toronto locations and is about to close another.
"Extortionate rents and low sales," one publisher said succinctly when I asked her why she thought we were suddenly seeing the equivalent of a First World War battlefield. When I say "suddenly," of course, I mean, "on the horizon for a long time."
I wrote my first story about the death of independent bookstores in 1998, when I was this newspaper's publishing reporter. At that time, the Canadian Booksellers Association had 1,300 members and a huge annual convention. Now it doesn't even exist, folded into the Retail Council of Canada. The RCC doesn't keep track of the closures.
There are still excellent independent bookstores across the country, too numerous to name, and they thrive because they are canny, hyper-focused on their customers and as skilled at social media as Alice Munro is on the page. But they face price-slashing competition from Amazon, ever-slighter profit margins and a public with an attention span that makes a gnat seem monkishly devoted. Who wants to get lost in a bookstore for an hour when, in the same time period, you could buy a pair of shoes online, upload a holiday photo and find out what Muppet character you're most like?
Yet the experience of browsing, or stumbling upon an unexpected treasure, is precisely what we lose when bookstores close. Once, the clerk behind the counter knew you loved alternative-history thrillers and would pull out an obscure novel that perfectly suited your tastes, a storied transaction called "hand-selling." You can still try to find that human touch online, but the process is often clumsy or fraudulent.
"There's less browsing online than there is in a physical bookstore," says Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet Canada, which gathers research and sales data. People are less likely to buy impulsively online than they would confronted with a table of books with "2/3 off" stickers. In a shop, a customer might come in to buy a game or a birthday card and leave with a book as well. Their eye might be caught by a pretty cover or a blurb from another author. (Full disclosure: I have a novel coming out in June, and I'd prefer not to sell it out of the trunk of my car.)
There is a magical serendipity in bookselling. It was on a remainder table that I found one of my favourite books, Klaus Kinski's autobiography Kinski Uncut, a memoir unparalleled in its nuttiness, and possibly filled with lies. I cannot tell you what he thought of Werner Herzog because this is a family newspaper, and the printed page would burst into flames. The bookstore where I found it? Closed now.
The latest BookNet figures show that sales in Canada dropped 3.4 per cent between 2012 and 2013 (which is actually a relief after the 10-per-cent drop the year before). Those figures don't include downloads: BookNet estimates that about 17 per cent of purchases are e-books. When the e-book figures are added to physical book sales, Mr. Genner thinks it's likely we're reading as much as ever.
Ours is a nation of word people. Last year, the National Reading Campaign found that 82 per cent of Canadians read for pleasure as often as they did the year before (12 per cent were reading less.) But what happens when books aren't as visible on the horizon, as easy to get or as familiar to hold? What happens when you crave a book but can't find one? The craving passes, and you satisfy it with something else.
In Toronto, my favourite shop – the giant, overlit, garish World's Biggest Bookstore – recently closed. It will be replaced by restaurants. This seems fitting: a pleasure that takes commitment replaced by a pleasure easily consumed and forgotten. It's a transition for the age, though not necessarily for the better.