by Kait Fowlie
On their blog, Jesse and Charlie Huisken tell their fans that the story of their demise could be told as the plight of bookstores in Toronto. I use the term fan sincerely. This eccentric hub / literary epicentre in the market was a favourite among political lefty’s and artistic kindred spirits, and was so much more than a bookstore.
Lasting a year at their location in Kensington Market (previously at Church and Wellesley since 1979!!), the recession hit the small shop with brute force, and caused them to struggle with rent. They attempted to keep their heads above water with events like author appearances, conferences, skimping on things like advertising, and keeping a minimal staff, (one part timer, to be precise). Alas, according to their blog , a series of “unattainable demands” from their landlord landed them outside of the store, locks changed, on June 19th.
But they’re not giving up so easy. Still trying to make a deal with their landlord in hopes they can open their doors again and resume selling cutting edge books and magazines, they are reaching out to their clientele to find someone to help with organizing a fundraiser, as well as accepting paypal donations. At present, Jesse and Charlier Huisken’s business is looking bleak. They may be locked out, but their clientele just might have the minerals to come through and sweep them off their hard working, broke ass feet. Let’s hope so, because we’ve lost too many rad independent bookstores in the past few years. The impact is felt beyond each respective neighbourhood, and the literary community, but rather the dwindling selection of alternative materials – books, zines, art, music – effects the entire city.
And now, a brief timeline of the recent struggles of a few other indie bookstores…
April 2008 – Ballenford Books, an architectural bookstore on Markham Street was “forced into a corner” after 28 years by big box retailers and the shitty Canadian dollar in comparison with that of the US, to name a couple culprits. It used to distribute text books to Universities before being over taken by mega distributors.
August 2008 – Pages Bookstore at Queen and John threw in the towel last summer after a substantial lifespan of 29 years (it opened the same month This Aint the Rosedale Library did, in fact). Pages was granted a 6 month extension of their lease, during which they continually slashed the prices of their dwindling stock. Some reckoned the indie bookstore was toast when Chapters opened in the area 10 years ago, but Pages shone through the blinding success of the mainstream book giant and continued to serve a specialized, sub-culture seeking clientele. Now, that clientele has been reduced to a (still very active) online community – pagesbooks.ca.
March 2009 – David Mirvish Books forgoes its physical shop for abebooks.com. Located in the Annex and stocked with a slew of super rare books that one might only be able to find in Europe, David Mirvish Books was Canada’s oldest and probably most popular indie bookstore in its prime. It was around since 1974, selling obscure art and design reads, cookbooks, travel lit, and pretty much everything in between. Maybe this was thanks to theatre producer / art collector / art dealer David Mirvish, (who is also the son of Annex homeboy Honest Ed Mirvish, if you didn’t already gather that).
Present – Also affected, but not abolished by the recession last year, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is sticking it out, after a 36 year run of promoting innovative feminist lit, holding workshops and readings. They survived a devastating fire in 1983, controversy over their political buttons in 2002, and financial turmoil reaching a pinnacle in 2009. They were even run by a single volunteer employee for 6 months! In May, they found a new owner who thankfully has some brainiac ideas as to sustaining the life of this important institution on Harbord Street.
Present – Glad Day Bookshop has been providing glossy under the cover flashlight material as well as noteworthy civil rights reads for 40 years. But at the current rate of sales, they won’t make it past this summer. Until the end of August, Glad Day is inviting anyone and everyone to come support them by donating books, buying 7 dollar vintage porn zines, and telling your friends!
We talked to a few bookstore experts in the city and asked them their thoughts on the dwindling state of indie bookstores. Here’s what they said:
“It saddens me to see that other indie bookstores are struggling. People ask me why I chose to buy the TWB, considering all these stores are going under, and my answer is simple: this bookstore is an icon for the city, and I think it really is an important that this bookstore remain open for women and others, like transgendered people, but I do feel that as a feminist bookstore, this in itself is reason enough to be open. It’s not that the TWB hasn’t felt the effect of technology and competition, but I do feel that there is a place for this in Toronto; it’s also a matter of trying to keep up with how things are changing in the book industry. I’m adding a cafe, the bookstore presently would hold events and launches, I plan to increase the social component of the bookstore. Everything is done online now, I want to go back to being able to offer that space where we can discuss an interesting book and having readings, and events that will feed the soul. Those are the important things for me.”
-Victoria Moreno, director of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore (73 Harbord St.)
“I don’t think it’s ever a good time for independent bookstores to close. It distracts from there being a culture of independent retail, and also limits selection of literature, music and art. When you don’t have independent retail outlets making these kind of selections, then it’s sort of something that becomes a noticeable lack in the city. I think that’s what Toronto is in danger of, with the rash of closure of all these indie bookstores.”
Kyle Buckley. Writer, employee at Type (883 Queen St. West)
“I think (indie bookstores closing) has an enormously detrimental effect, what it means for how we support local businesses is one thing, but also in terms of how we navigate the city. Pages was the only space in that stretch of Queen Street where you could actually hang out. All bookstores I think, large and small, are a social space. Indie bookstores are so much more so, due to their intimate nature, a bookstore makes a neighbourhood in ways that other businesses don’t, and in a way that big box bookstores don’t. Chapters presence on the street is like a mall. It doesn’t contribute to the fabric of the neighbourhood, like This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, which occupied a small space in Kensington, and Pages, which was a store front. Small stores offer community space like big ones don’t, and the loss of them is a loss of that space, loss of that community and that intimate neighbourhood. As a queer bookstore, Glad Day provides a queer social space, a place for queer people to be safe and to find their own material. The community aspect is that much more concentrated.”
-Sholem Krishtalka. Co-manager of Glad Day (598A Yonge St.)
“It’s saddening and it’s kind of the fault of the bigger chain of bookstores. We’re a used bookstore so it doesn’t affect us really, but yeah, Pages was a great bookstore. (It had) better selection, (and its closure) seems that it narrows down what you’re able to find. Working in a used bookstore, I get stuff I find here”
– Bart Harnett. Co-owner of Zoinks (1019 Bloor St. West)
“I mean, if you look at who you’re talking to right now, I work at a conspiracy theory shop … the CEO of Chapters Indigo, the company that primarily makes up the book industry in Toronto, is a member of the of Builderberg Steering community, which is a group that meets in secret once a year and they have a lot of influence over different facets of life. She determines what books come into Canada. If she’s not ordering a book for any of her stores, and it’s up to the moms and pops shops to order it, they might just say screw it … they might not end up getting a title into Canada just because Heather Reisman decided not to get a title. They have so much more control now that smaller shops that might come from little different ideological background, the variety of the types of material are dwindling. So I guess with more and more indie shops falling by the wayside what that does is it just creates more of a control structure for the big chains dictating what type of material we have access to.”
– P.W. Mystery man at Conspiracy Culture (1696 Queen St. West)