Scary Days for Toronto Bookstores

Every time I tell people I want to open a bookstore I get weird looks that can be roughly translated as “have you really thought this through?”  Then they ask me if I know about ebooks and how I feel about having to compete with Chapters/Indigo.  I tell them about my business plans and assure them that ebooks will not drive the bricks-and mortar bookstore out of business. This has been a scary few weeks for bookstores in Toronto crossing all genre bounds.

Glad Day Bookshop for Sale
Glad Day Bookshop for Sale

Two weeks ago Glad Day Bookstore, which is considered one of the first LGBT bookstores worldwide (and definitely in Canada) announced that it was up for sale.  Last week The Book Mark, widely thought of as the oldest independent bookstores in Toronto, announced it will be closing.  Last night I found out that Dragon Lady Comics will be closing its store and moving to online sales at the end of the month.  Although I’ve only ever been to one of these three bookstores I know of them all by reputation and they are all widely regarded as high-quality bookstores which have great selections and knowledgeable staff.

Each owner has his or her own reasons for closing, but they all seem to boil down to one basic reason: it’s not financially sustainable to run an independent bookstore in Toronto these days.  The owner of Glad Day has said that he has needed to put his own savings into the store to keep it afloat.  The owner of the Book Mark cited a rent increase as the reason why the store was going to be closing for good, She did not feel that it was due to difficulty in competing with large chain stores and online retailers or ebooks.  Dragon Lady comics pins the reasons for closing the store on less foot-traffic, lower sales, and a rent increase.

The closing of these three Toronto mainstays in such quick succession is a worrying trend.  They make me question if its possible for an independent store, especially an independent bookstore, can survive in Toronto.  Toronto has lost a lot of bookstores over the past few years: This Ain’t the Rosedale Library closed in June 2010; Pages Bookstore closed in 2009.  David Mirvish Books decided to go into online-only sales in 2009 and has so far succeeded.  Flying Dragon Bookstore announced it was closing in May 2011 mere days after being named Bookseller of the Year by the Canadian Bookseller Association.  Even Borders, although this isn’t in Toronto, closed its doors last year, showing that not only small bookstores are vulnerable.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom, though.  There are still lots of independent bookstores in Toronto that are thriving.  Bakka-Phoenix Bookstore, the best (admittedly also the only) science fiction bookstore in Toronto is still open and seemingly going strong.  It’s moved into a new location, it’s fourth since I started shopping there 15 years ago, which is in my opinion it’s nicest.  Earlier today I was in there and it was the busiest I’ve ever seen it.  The staff were all busy with customers helping them find what they were looking for or offering some excellent advice and book recommendations.  A few years ago Toronto Women’s Bookstore was on the verge of closing until in 2010 it was bought by a former staff member there and has since been revitalized.  A new bookstore opened in Little Italy during the summer and so far has survived.  I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet but from what I’ve heard it’s a great store.  The Beguiling, a great comic store I’ve mentioned in the past due to its community involvement, has even opened a second store just around the corner from its main location dedicated solely to graphic novels and comic books for children called Little Island Comics.

This has been a scary few weeks (and years) for independent bookstores, but not all is lost.  Some are thriving, some are expanding, and it seems that most are at least managing to stay open.  There’s an oft-cited number that 9 out of 10 restaurants close within a year of opening.  I’m curious about what these equivalent numbers are for bookstores.  Some day soon I think I’m going to take a look at the numbers and report back here.

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  • Matthew,
    You beguile me with your opening line about opening a book store – and then nothing!

    New? Used? Antiquarian?
    Soon? Someday?

    I’m interested because I’m about to close my used bookstore and thought maybe we could work something out… (sylvan_bobathotmaildotcom).

    I used to live downtown Toronto in the 60s & 70s. Part of that time was at 40 Beverley St – near Queen and Spadina. At that time, That section of Queen W. was decidedly low rent and there were several used bookstores within a few blocks. Bakka was right around the corner from me, between Beverley and Soho. I think that was their first store.

    I’ve always assumed that the reason they were there was the low rents. Towards the time I left Toronto, about ’82, the area was starting to get a little upscale. The stores that were good enough or flexible enough to appeal to the changing local population were able to make enough to survive the higher rents.

    I’m out in the sticks, but I’ve always thought of used bookshops in the city as being in low-rent areas. I well understand that the higher rent areas bring in more customers and more dollars, but when the economy takes a dive, the rents stay high. I would hate to have to sell huge numbers of books just to pay the landlord.

    Maybe Toronto doesn’t really have ‘low-rent’ areas any more – just ‘really high rents’ and ‘even higher rents’.

    Not an environment that I’d attempt to survive in – way too much work just to stay afloat. Where I am, with the building paid for, a hundred dollar day makes me happy, and if nobody comes, then I get a lot of reading done and that makes me happy, too.

    • Bob, it sounds like you have achieved paradise (and for some unimaginable reason want to leave it)!

      A person who has maneuvered themselves into being happy about bringing in $100 a day has much to be thankful for and will be envied by most of us in the books business.

      I think you are right about used bookshops operators still thinking they can only survive if they are lucky enough to have low rent but in the cities low rentals rates are rare. We have been in business for just over 23 years and it was only 6 years ago we figured out that higher priced rental locations usually are worth what they cost.

      Just over 4 years ago we rented our fourth prime location at the height of the real estate boom in Calgary. In the first year our gross sales over and above rental costs were about $70,000 – and they have increased every year since then.

      The time of hobbyists entering the books business is almost passed but there still appears to be some room for people with good business heads and a strong work ethic.

      Good luck to all.

  • The main reason for closure, and the reason not given enough coverage, is the RENTS THAT ARE BEING CHARGED ARE TOO HIGH. Typically, the bookstore owner is paying rent and is not the owner of his building. This formula can never work because the landlord is forever trying to maximize his income from his rents. This force will always result in upward pressure in the rent, which will always act against the bookstore owner.

    I have interviewed hundreds of retail business owners and this COMMON THREAD FOR THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THEIR BUSINESS outflanks all other threats: rent increases endanger their business more than competition, e-books or other online purchases, the evolution of the neighborhood, etc.

    Nothing except an exceptionally generous and understanding landlord will ever change this situation. The only way to potentially avoid this threat is to negotiate a very long-term lease and any scheduled or unscheduled rent increases. Don’t ever tell your landlord how “well” you are doing because they will use that information to raise your rent. Their goals are different from yours — most do not care a stitch about your business. If you fail, they can use the improvements you’ve made to the building to raise the rents for the next tenant!

    • There is little doubt there are some greedy landlords out there but, by the same token, the books business seems to attract a disproportionate number of people who have an extremely high opinion of their own intelligence – thankfully they are often exclusively internet sellers – but not always.

      Shouldn’t landlords have a right to a fair return on the value of their property? Their investment is much more than that required to open a used books store.
      I suspect there are at least as many (probably more) lousy tenants than there are landlords.
      Good landlords don’t want to lose good tenants.

      When we have found ourselves in business in a place with a poor landlord (it has only happened thrice in 23 years – generally it has been one whose only interest is income with little sense of responsibility toward their property) – we either sublease that location or move as soon as we are legally able to!

      As business people it is our job to build a viable business with continuous growth and it just makes sense it is easiest to do this in high traffic locations and to willingly pay the going market’s rates – rather than look for stupid landlords.

      On the whole our rents are high and getting higher – but fair!

  • Agreed that low rents , or ownership of structure / building gives a book store of any stripe
    ; new , used , or mixed – specialty , an advantage.

    We closed our retail some years back , and the area that we formerly had an open shop in is void of street retail traffic and untenable for future retail in the future , unless some miracle occurs.

    Not far from us are entertainment venues , a casino , upscale restaurants , and a gaggle of liquor joints where the locals who live some miles away rumble into the City to drink and puke and then stumble home to the burbs.

    We are in the process of negotiating our rent severely downward or we will vacate this spring .

    Mind you , the impression the local newspaper of record and local media would give you is that of is that the City we work and reside in’s downtown is on an uptick , and everything is lovely.

    Not so , the retail is long gone downtown , replaced with a day face of Government offices , attorneys , and banks and an evening frat house fancy food culture.

    No place for us.

    Book stores that keep open doors these days seem to need to become either entertainment venues , wine , readings , comfy chairs , shmooze , or in lieu of that approach apply for a non profit status .

    I loved retail book selling , and it has been a loss to my fiscal bottom line and mental well being to have to adapt to this loss of contact with a community and hand book selling.

    No option however exists save a move to the edge of town or some other place where rents or a building is much cheaper , which is the backbone of a budget , and the bottom line in a ledger for profit or loss.

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