Buy where you shop: Bookstores, libraries and intellectual locavores

Nice article by Vit Wagner in Sunday's Toronto Star, Tough times, but some bookstores have a different story.

A couple of different independent bookstore owners/managers in the Toronto area talk about some of the challenges faced in surviving and even thriving in what should be a period of death and decline for bricks and mortar bookstores.

But while some of the competition is retrenching or worse, BakkaPhoenix, which recorded a double-digit increase in sales last year, is expanding. In stark contrast to the recently shuttered This Ain't the Rosedale Library, BakkaPhoenix is readying a fall move from the Queen St. W. location it currently rents to the larger, two-storey Harbord St. digs it has purchased.

"One of the things we were looking for was space for our community," says Chris Szego, who has managed the store for the past decade. "We already have had science-fiction book clubs approach us to see if they can hold their meetings there.

"We want to schedule writing an reading workshops. That's something independent bookstores can be great at. We offer community."


Joanne Saul, co-owner of Type Books, is similarly upbeat. While the small chain decided to cut its losses by closing its Danforth outlet last year, the company has expanded its two remaining stores on Queen St. near Trinity Bellwoods and on Spadina Rd. in Forest Hill. Sales slumped for much of 2009, Saul says, but picked up at Christmas and have remained buoyant through the spring.

"A successful independent bookstore has to completely and utterly cater to its community," says Saul. "That's something we strive to do by getting engaged with the schools near us, offering literacy programs, having weekly story time for neighbourhood preschoolers. You have to make those connections with people who support you. It's a two-way street."


Glad Day, the landmark gay and lesbian themed bookseller, issued in an appeal for financial support in the spring. Its future remains uncertain.

"Things have improved a little bit but it's not beyond what we'd expect for the season, given that we're coming up to Pride Week," says owner John Scythes. "It's touch and go right now. I've had a few nice orders from academia, but that won't run the store. The walk-in trade hasn't changed. People come and browse here and then go home and order the book on the net."...

"I can't blame people," says Scythes. "It's the kind of culture we've created. But is it worth it if the consequence is destroying retail book selling?"


Taking an entirely different approach is Marc Glassman, the former proprietor of Pages Books & Magazines. Driven off Queen St. W. last year by escalating rents, the veteran bookseller has rebranded his business as Pages Beyond Bricks & Mortar.

Glassman has continued to sell books through This is Not a Reading Series, the program of regular author events he runs mainly out of the Gladstone Hotel. And, following the model established by New York's Mobile Libris, he is setting up shop at other events, including the recent Luminato and Subtle Technologies festivals. He has a contract to sell books and DVDs at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Very cool and very interesting and reminiscent of the article my friend Claude Lalumière wrote a while back that I blogged about, The Bookstore of the Future.

Tim O'Reilly's classic post Buy Where You Shop is probably the best encapsulation of why it makes sense to support local businesses. For many classes of products and services, they provide a kind of value for local shoppers that's hard to duplicate online. Using local business for browsing and research while buying online for price is unsustainable.

A few months ago, I was talking with one of my most loyal retail customers, a specialty computer bookstore in Massachusetts. "We survived the chains, and we survived Amazon," he said, "but I don't know if we're going to survive the online discounters. People come in here all the time, browse through the books on display, and then tell me as they leave that they can get a better price online."

Now, you might say, as the Hawaiian proverb notes, no one promised us tomorrow. Businesses, like individuals and species, must adapt or die. And if the Internet is bad for small, local retailers, it's good for the online resellers and it's good for customers, right?

But think a little more deeply, and you realize that my friend wasn't complaining that people were buying books elsewhere. He was complaining that people were taking a service from him--browsing the books in his store--and then buying elsewhere. There's a world of difference between those two statements. Online shopping is terrific: you can get detailed product information, recommendations from other customers, make a choice, and have the product delivered right to your door. But if you aren't satisfied with the online shopping experience, you want to look at the physical product, for example browsing through a book in the store, you owe it to the retailer--and to yourself--to buy it there, rather than going home and saving a few dollars by ordering it online.

Think about it for a minute: the retailer pays rent, orders and stocks the product, pays salespeople. You take advantage of all those services, and then give your money to someone else who can give you a better price because they don't incur the cost of those services you just used. Not only is this unfair; it's short-sighted, because it will only be so long before that retailer closes his or her doors, and you can no longer make use of those services you enjoy.

I'm not really sure yet how any of this applies to academic libraries directly, but I do see various strains running through. First of all the idea of intellectual infrastructure -- bookstores and libraries are part of a continuum that facilitates learning and discovery. Secondly, I do see the idea of a kind of intellectual locavore being somewhere in all this, that a physical place can connect people to ideas and facilitate learning. That learning communities are a part of that intellectual locavore infrastructure and libraries and bookstore can create, facilitate and nurture that infrastructure.

The ideas of learning commons and intellectual infrastructure will get increasing important as the content that students and scholars need for their work will get increasingly divorced from specific physical containers or reading devices.

Or I could be completely out to lunch on this one -- reaching too far and trying to hard to see the connection of retain bookstores to academic libraries and coming up with a lame concept like "intellectual locavores".

What say you?

(And yes, I shop at physical stores for books and music so I try and do as much of my buying there as possible. I also try and buy at Bakka as often as I can but it's not even remotely close to where I live or work. Although I only read a few magazines regularly, I do actually subscribe to them.)

(And I guess I have a question for Tim O'Reilly, if you're reading this. How would you update Buy where you shop for the coming world of ebooks?

Tim updates his original post here: Why Using ShopSavvy Might Not Be So Savvy)

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I think this is a valid comparison between the bookshops and academic libraries. The commercial pressures of book retailing means that they are a bit ahead of the curve, I think. The real question will be: what happens to the country's many academic libraries when there is a really good, comparable library equivalent to Amazon?

I'm thinking of something like Harvard (or some other big name, big resource institution) opens up all of its library resources to other students, perhaps on a fee basis. If students are given the choice for complete access to a Harvard type (or bigger) library for say $200/year (not much when compared to annual tuition bills of $5000 or more), will they keep using their local, smaller academic library?

Thanks, Bruce, I hadn't thought of that. Interesting that the most likely to start something like that might be Google. Google Books is at least a start on that sort of thing.