Annual Independent Bookstore Day shines a light on local indie bookshops
April 29 marks the annual Canadian Independent Bookstore Day, and 15 booksellers across the city are getting in on the action.
Participating stores will be hosting giveaways for customers, and may also have their own specific sales or events on. Additionally, anyone who buys a book at participating indies across Canada will be entered into a contest to win up to $1,000 to spend at their favourite bookshop.
Hilary Atleo, co-owner and operator of Iron Dog Books, says Vancouver’s indie bookstore scene is “really strong and vibrant,” and extends well beyond just the stores participating in the event.
“One of the things that strikes me… is how different we all are,” she enthuses to the Straight over the phone. “Bookshops are like thumbprints. Each one is its own. There are millions and millions of titles; you can’t fit them all into one storefront, and so what you wind up with is then a particular sort of curation.”
Besides Iron Dogs, other bookstores participating are Banyen Books & Sound; White Dwarf Books; Kidsbooks; Upstart & Crow; Hager Books; The Paper Hound Bookshop; Massy Books; Lucky’s Books & Comics; The People’s Co-op Bookstore; the three Pulpfiction locations on West Broadway, Main Street and Commercial; and the two Book Warehouse locations on Main Street and West Broadway.
There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ bookshop in Vancouver, Atleo says; it’s about what bookshop is the best for you. Indie stores, free from corporate committee decisions, can have clear ideas about the kind of books they want to carry.
And Iron Dog Books, co-owned by Atleo and her husband, Cliff—who are Anishinaabe from Curve Lake, and Nuu-chah-nulth (Ahousaht) and Tsimshian (Kitselas/Kitsumkalum) respectively—came about in part because the couple was disappointed by the lack of selection of Indigenous titles in other bookstores.
“At some point, I think we just realized that if we were ever going to really see ourselves and really have that experience of going in and finding the things we needed… we’d have to set it ourselves,” Atleo reflects.
Sunshine Coast-based Janie Chang, author of The Porcelain Moon and The Library of Legends, says that indie bookstores also serve as important cultural and community hubs. They help readers discover new titles, especially given the decline of magazines and papers that publish book reviews.
“If there was a pantheon of guardians for Canadian culture, independent bookstores would occupy a pedestal,” she tells the Straight over email.
Chang founded Authors for Indies, which ran from 2015 until 2017 as a precursor to Canadian Independent Bookstore Day. Local indies are vital in supporting local authors—whether through events or word-of-mouth sales.
“To independent bookstores, local authors are not noise and static. If they read and love one of our books, they will hand-sell it continuously—for years,” she says. “When an indie bookstore carries my titles, it’s a huge compliment. It means that even though they have limited shelf space, they’re giving me a vote of confidence.”
Running a bookstore in Vancouver has its challenges. Like every independent business, soaring rents pose a problem. “Property ownership and the intense increase in property values are the most problematic for having diverse and vibrant neighbourhoods,” Atleo notes.
On top of that, books cost set amounts, meaning indie stores can’t raise prices to account for high rents or slimmer profit margins. And books themselves are very specific; someone looking for Ducks by Kate Beaton might not want Maus by Art Spiegelman, Atleo explains. “It’s not an option in our industry to do that kind of substitution.”
But, despite the difficulties, indie bookstores survive due to the loyalty of customers—and the passion of the booksellers.
“The thing about doing bookselling for yourself is that even the worst day is better than the best day someplace else,” Atleo says. “I get to spend all my day around books, drinking coffee. It’s just everything I want.”
Independent Bookstore Day takes place on Saturday, April 29, with 15 stores across Vancouver participating. You can find out more here.