A lot of fuss has been made this week about the death of the independent bookstore, but how many of you have heard of The Book Mark before they decided to close their doors due to raising rent and taxes? Prior to having worked there for a short time in the spring of 2009, I was surprised as anyone to find that Toronto’s oldest independent bookstore resided in the very West-end Toronto neighbourhood of The Kingsway. When you think of a successful independent bookstore, what comes to mind isn’t the opulence or trendiness usually associated with that particular area of town— no, what comes to mind is a community-supported labour of love. Though it was loved by many, The Book Mark never quite drew the numbers it needed to carry on and before we get carried away with writing romantic eulogies in its memory, it’s important to understand exactly why they failed.
Though The Book Mark held it’s own, scraping by until their landlord raised their rent doesn’t exactly scream “success” either. The idea of a independent bookstore in The Kingsway was an ill-fit from the beginning for me, but once I actually started to work there, I was amazed by the fact that they were actually able to stay in business for as long as they had. Not only were they in a weird location, but they were directly competing with book retail giants like Shoppers Drug Mart, Costco and Indigo/Chapters. Nothing they did differentiated them from their competition, unlike Toronto’s other well-known bookstores at the time like The Toronto Women’s Bookstore or Pages. What reason would anyone east of Old Mill have to go all that way for books you could get anywhere else? Paying a first visit might be inspired by curiosity, but why go to The Kingsway when Bloor West Village is closer and has more available to it?
As the years went by and interests shifted to more populist tastes, The Book Mark’s Classics section grew smaller and smaller, making way for gift-shop goods like greeting cards and water bottles, echoing similar shifts in merchandise by Indigo and the like. Though following the leaders didn’t help identify The Book Mark as being a unique place to visit either.
To make matters worse, The Book Mark owner Sue Houghting really pushed the sale of Historical Fiction and Mystery novels, which moved well enough (considered “beach reading” by the Kingsway set), but also happened to be the most popular books being sold by the book giants who could buy product in bulk at a much lower cost, sell it for less, therefore making it extremely difficult for The Book Mark to compete at all. As long as book publishers offer little in the way of kick-backs for such small operations carrying their stock, independent bookstores will never gain proper footing to be able to compete.
The Book Mark tried to make up for their size by offering to order in any books that the store didn’t have on their shelves, a service that was in many ways their bread-and-butter. Unless a book was new (books would only be carried for about three months, and if they remained unsold, would be shipped back to the publisher at their expense), it would most-likely have to be ordered from the publisher, or online via Amazon. The tragic irony is that Amazon is probably one of the biggest culprits one could name in explaining why independent bookstores are slowly dying off; it’s scope and reach are completely unmatched. It’s also significant that the largest demographic of people ordering books through The Book Mark (as opposed to just doing it online) were 60+ and admittedly couldn’t do it without the help of Houghting & co. There was one particular customer, a doctor, who when it came time to pick up his orders, could singlehandedly make the day a profitable one. That the safety and success of the bookstore could be secured by the purchases of one man meant that The Book Mark’s strategy of ordering books for an ever-shrinking demographic was completely unsustainable.
If the size of certain sections is telling of a bookstore’s success or demand for such products, then The Book Mark’s pride and most popular section was definitely the Children’s/Young Adult area that dominated almost a third of the store. This section had it’s own expert and curator, a former school-teacher named Chris, who was the greatest at picking the right book for each child and keeping in tune with what books were going to sell. She’s the kind of salesperson you’d expect in an independent bookstore, knowledgable, in-touch, and most importantly, she cared. The space, however, wasn’t very kid-friendly. The store’s finished basement, on the other hand, would’ve been perfect for an expanded Children’s section, or even for doing the occasional story-time for the kids in the community. Unfortunately it was completely overrun with extra stock and early reading copies.
The basement became a book-limbo for a number of reasons: some books were waiting around to be mailed back to the publishers, others to be sold at the annual Kingsway Street Sale, donated to local churches, or for one of us employees to go through and throw the rest out.
While it sounds blasphemous, a great deal of print meets its end in a garbage bin. Mass market prints, the very thick paperbacks that usually make it to print once a book has reached a certain level of success, are so cheap to make that they are actually more expensive for the publishers to have sent back to them then they are to just throw out. If any mass market prints remain unsold after a period of three months, the established practice in that instance was to tear their covers off, express post those back to the publisher, and then toss the remainder of the books in recycling bins. Such a practice is not actually symptomatic of a failing bookstore but rather a industry built on unsustainability.
It’s no surprise that so many small independent bookstores are falling by the wayside while trying to sell a product so cheap that it’s more cost-effective for those stores to keep them in boxes in their basements, or send to landfill than it is to send them back to their publishers. Not only are the publishing giants preferring to sell their books in bulk, making it difficult for the small bookstores to compete with larger ones, they’re simultaneously drowning them in waste.
In its time, The Book Mark did little to foster a sense of identity for itself, beyond being a glorified Amazon order service. In doing so they missed many opportunities to build a stronger relationship with their notably fickle community. Though for all the problems that The Book Mark had, in terms of management and business those faults were worsened by the fact that it was indebted to an unsustainable business model. That Indigo is slowly shifting its focus to non-book items is indicative of there being a much larger problem at hand, and Indigo are the lucky ones:
Big booksellers able to evolve are the fortunate few. In February 2011, Borders Group Inc., the second-largest book chain in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy protection, and Australia’s major bookselling network, REDgroup Retail Inc., collapsed; Barnes & Noble Inc, the world’s biggest book retailer, has been searching for a buyer since last summer.
As more and more growth is seen in the e-book world, the future of book retailers big and small is in question. If publishers wish to continue to move physical copy to the check-out, they need to be more accountable for the products that they’re trying to sell. The book industry can learn a thing or two from the failing automotive and music industries, as both are trying to rebound after a rocky decade. Accountability starts by putting more value into the products themselves, which can easily be done by not printing garbage, and perhaps by printing less of it. I suggested in an earlier posting about Record Store Day that by making fewer pressings of records, you could easily drive up sales, and the same could be applied to books. If printing quality books is an expensive venture, use the sale of e-books to test the waters even before a book heads to the presses. The Book Mark was a victim of numerous bad ideas on both sides, but there’s lots that can be done before we start declaring this the “death of the independent bookstore.”