“We’re not dead yet!”
In a market where on-line book buying continues to flourish, independent bookstores and their loyal customers across Canada are asking: “Is the era of the ‘indie’ drawing to a close?” Are we seeing the extinction of an independent business model? The 2014 closure of Toronto’s iconic The World’s Biggest Bookstore, then, hot on its heels, the “going out of business” sign on the door of six other long-time Toronto ‘indies’ brought the crisis to a head. Was the hometown bookseller about to become an endangered species?
The Bookshelf of Guelph,
which opened its doors in 1973,
as the key to survival.
Findings published in The Book Retail Sector in Canada validate the worry. From the bookstore on every main street model of the 1970’s, statistics show that there are less than 2000 independent bookstores operating across Canada today. Information pulled from a recent informal survey of over 200 Waterloo-Wellington readers seem to back up the bad news. Overwhelmingly, by a score of 3 to 1, survey takers stated that Amazon, followed by Chapters/Indigo, is the choice when it comes to shelling out bucks for books. Trips to the local independent bookstore come in a distant third.
But three area independent bookstores – The Bookshelf in Guelph, the Book Express in Cambridge and Words Worth Books in Waterloo – are battling the tide, gamely piping up “not yet.” Each store offers Waterloo and Wellington-area bibliophiles a tempting menu of friendly, personal service, knowledgeable recommendations and the pleasure of feeling a good book in the hand. With a combined 112 years in business, these booksellers have braved the rolling tides of change: from the birth and growth of big-box Chapters/Indigo bookstores in the 1990’s; to the introduction of e-reader Kindle in 2007 and rival Kobo in 2010; to the voracious appetite of today’s largest seller of “stuff,” Amazon. This trio are pulling out all stops to grasp their share of the market.
A family of booksellers
The Bookshelf of Guelph, which opened its doors in 1973, touts diversification as the key to survival. In 1980, founders Barb and Doug Minett added a café to their bookstore, and the Bookshelf became the Bookshelf Café. It was Canada’s first combo bookstore and restaurant. Ironically, Guelph native Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Kobo, worked as a dishwasher at the Bookshelf Café in his high school years. A second floor cinema followed in 1989 and 10 years later came the Bookshelf’s e-Bar, where entertainment, topical discussion and celebration mix with book selling. Barb Minett suggests that they remain the world’s only bookstore/cinema/bar.
“After all ... hope is not
a business plan.”
Barb and Doug’s children, Ben and Hannah Minett, along with Ben’s wife Stephanie and Mike Vanstone are the Bookshelf’s current co-owners. Ben, a self-described “pull it all together guy,” offers a three-pronged recipe for survival in today’s rapidly-evolving book market. “Be creative, be nimble and be good at executing new ideas.”
One new idea, and a popular one at that, has been hatched to counter Amazon’s “buy-it-today-get-it-tomorrow” delivery service. “For phone or website orders, as long as we have the book in stock, we can guarantee delivery to customers in Guelph within an hour or two,” says Ben.
Keeping abreast of current social issues and linking them to just-published books also ranks high on the Bookshelf’s marketing strategies. Between 70 and 100 events book space at the popular e-Bar each year. They range from topical discussions and poetry readings to art and music presentations. And of course, the bookstore below is open to serve attenders during this time.
"As long as we have the
book in stock, we can
guarantee delivery to
customers in Guelph
within an hour or two”
Controversy about services for autistic children has proved serendipitous to both the Bookshelf and to author Michael McCreary, author of ‘Funny You Don’t look Autistic’. The Bookshelf jumped on the current brou-ha-ha to invite author McCreary to a Bookshelf e-Bar event. Copies of McCreary’s book, autographed, were available to purchase.
Another recent e-Bar event, focussing on the topic of 21st century masculinity brought out a crowd to hear authors Daemon Fairless, reading from his book ‘Mad Blood Stirring’ and Rachael Giese with her recent ‘Boys: What it Means to be a Man’. It was good publicity for the authors, great news for Bookshelf sales.
Cambridge couple concerned
With the December 2018 closing of Kitchener’s Gateway Park Chapters and its re-invention as two Indigo Books & Music stores, one on Fairway Road, Kitchener and the other on Hespeler Road in Cambridge, John Cheyne’s and Anne Laird’s Book Express at the Cambridge Centre Mall saw a dip of 20% in book sales. While that number has stabilized, the couple remains concerned for the future for their store, open since 1986. It’s a big change “from having an independent bookstore in pretty well every town in Canada 30 years ago,” Cheyne notes. “And while the freefall since the multiple Toronto closures in 2014 has slowed, attrition has continued.”
The loss goes further than empty commercial space. Closed businesses mean a loss of taxes being paid to municipalities points out Cheyne. “And remember… Amazon pays no local taxes which support our essential services such as fire and police services.” Cheyne predicts property taxes for both households and businesses will go up as on-line marketers like Amazon grow. “The shortfall has to come from someplace,” he warns.
“While the freefall since the
multiple Toronto closures in
2014 has slowed, attrition has
In his attractive and brightly-lit space of over 1800 square feet, holding more than 20,000 titles, spirited and imaginative book-selling stems the tide, says Cheyne. One of the best marketing tools is local author events. A recent Book Express gathering brought together five local authors: non-fiction writer Bob Burtt; fantasy writers Richard H. Stephens and Daryl Ball; children’s writer Lynda McKay and young adult writer Sherry LeClerc. A number of book buyers arrived too. Cheyne calls such events “good for the authors – all from the Cambridge area – and valuable exposure for their books.” Self-published books do well at Book Express, says Cheyne, and he’s delighted to stock them. Bob Burtt’s ‘rare Moments in Time’, which chronicles Cambridge’s rare Nature Preserve has been very popular with book buyers. Cambridge crime writer G.S. Marriott’s latest novel ‘The Devil’s Portrait’ has sold well, as has novelist and filmmaker Becca Blue’s ‘The Guardians of the Heart.’
“Progress” can be bad news
And in uptown Waterloo, at Words Worth Books, if competition from Amazon, with a market share estimated to be up to 40% of all e-book sales isn’t challenge enough, there’s transportation “progress” threatening scuttle sales. David Worsley, the bookstore’s co-owner with Mandy Brouse, likens the life of an independent bookstore owner to trying to catch a dog on the run. “And the dog keeps getting faster and faster.”
That speedy pup seemed to be at its fastest with the news that the Region’s long-awaited rapid transit system, ION, would start closing streets in 2015. It was scheduled to begin chewing up King Street in front of Words Worth Books by spring 2016. Add that barrier to the already-limited parking spaces for shoppers who choose downtown instead of one of the area malls. The news sent Brouse, Worsley and their staff into survival mode. Worsley gives full credit to Brouse for preparing them for the battle ahead. “The first thing Mandy did was update our website, as well as our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. She laid it on the line, what we were facing as a business while construction was right outside our door. And she asked the community to help us.”
Brouse’s website updates included a map showing a route to the store when streets were closed and showed customers where to park.
The plan of opening up the store’s back door, inviting shoppers to enter that way and avoid the King Street construction chaos was the ingenious plan of Brouse and employee Kristen Hahn.
“We brought in musicians and entertainers to welcome them in the back door; we offered free gifts – you name it,” laughs Worsley. They also initiated a delivery service for shoppers who couldn’t pluck up courage to battle the King Street mess.
The loyalty of Words Worth’s clients was ignited with word of the impending crisis. “People used us to buy gift cards for friends and relatives; they bought Christmas gifts for teachers; a few offices even took up a collection,” says Worsley, with gratitude. “Our community rallied around us and we survived.”
Exchange asked independent booksellers what new books were bringing loyal shoppers into their stores. At Words Worth Books it was non-fiction. “Thank God for Michelle Obama,” enthuses Worsley, referring to Obama’s best-selling ‘Becoming’. “We sold 200 copies and could have sold 100 more after they were gone.” At the Bookshelf, Canadian Esi Edugan’s best-selling novel ‘Washington Black’ beat out Obama’s by a hair in sales. At the Book Express, it was Edugan and Obama again.
And while dollars and cents pay the bills and determine their survival, the emotional pay-off of dealing one on one with customers is just as important say our three local independent book retailers. “Over the past winter, I had three customers tell me they were moving to Guelph because of the Bookshelf,” says a delighted Barb Minett. For John Cheyne, selling books for over a quarter of a century indicates he still gets a thrill putting a good book into an appreciative reader’s hands. “Grateful” to have survived a challenging two years seems to be the operative feeling for the staff at Words Worth Books. “After all,” says David Worsley, “hope is not a business plan.”
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