The announcement some weeks ago of the demise of the four remaining Book Warehouse outlets would seem to be the latest sign of the impending doom of the stand-alone bookstore.
The liquidation last year of the American chain Borders, the competition from e-books and online retail, and the increasing amount of floor space devoted to lifestyle products at big bookstore chains like Chapters also bode ill for the future of bookselling.
But at least one scrappy independent is bucking the trend.
Twelve years ago, Chris Brayshaw opened his first Pulpfiction Books location on Main; at the end of January this year, he opened his third, this one on Commercial Drive.
“Sales are up many hundreds of percent over previous years, particularly on new books,” says Brayshaw, whose stores sell both new and used.
Pulpfiction isn’t the only store that has weathered the changes. “It feels like a lot of independent booksellers are re-energized,” says Bryan Pike. As executive director of Rebus Creative, which oversees the B.C. Book Prizes, Pike travels the province, touring with authors and meeting and talking to booksellers.
“We’re getting more ballots back for the Booksellers’ Choice Award. And there are quite a few healthy independent booksellers in B.C.”
Bookstores are surviving by becoming more than just a place to buy. Books & Company in Prince George, which on its website bills itself as the town’s “living room”, is “a real hub of the community,” notes Pike. “The chess club meets there; there’s a coffee shop. There are still quite a few of those kinds of bookstores around.”
To some extent, independents have thrived in communities that have kept out the big-box stores, says Pike. But even in places that have let in the massive retailers, “people have their bookstores. It’s kind of their routine.”
Brayshaw has been lucky; he was on the frontline of the bookstore wars when Chapters moved in around the corner from where he worked at Granville Book Company, the independent seller in Granville Mall that closed in 2005, after 19 years in business. He could see what mistakes his employer and Duthie Books, also nearby, were making. The latter, he says, was stuck using a dated business plan, such as maintaining old store hours. “I would walk by Duthie’s on Robson just after 7, and it would be dark,” recalls Brayshaw. “Then I’d walk by Chapters and it would be packed.”
In some ways, however, Duthie Books was prescient—as Celia Duthie notes, the independent chain had the first major online database of books, long before the arrival of Amazon. “We envisioned it coming,” says the former bookstore owner. The last remaining store, on West 4th Avenue, closed two years ago. At one time, the bookseller had 10 branches in the Lower Mainland.
“It was no fun to lose the empire,” Duthie recalls. Now living on Salt Spring Island, she runs the Duthie Gallery, which showcases landscape art and studio furniture, mostly by Vancouver artists (“I’m dealing with much more tangible items that can’t be digitized,” she notes).
“I felt that we really cared about local books,” says Duthie. “The whole B.C. book industry came up around Duthie’s, and we were all extremely sad to see it go. But the future is here. The distribution of entertainment is quite different now.”
The independent bookstores that have survived she sees as mostly “hobby bookstores”.
“I don’t want to make gloomy prognostications,” she adds. “But there’s no question it [the book industry] is shaking down big time. I had a talk with Bill [William] Gibson not long ago about it, and he said, ‘All my smartest friends say the same thing—they don’t know what’s going to happen.’ ”
It may be that those “hobby bookstores” that have survived have seen the worst of the threats to their existence. Some, like Banyen Books, may have done this by remaining staunchly niche-oriented—although, as Brayshaw points out, that new-age bookseller also owns its property. And for every niche-oriented bookseller that has stayed afloat, another—like multilingual Sophia Books—has gone under.
If the closure of Borders and the lifestyle-item creep in Chapters are any indication, it’s the big-box bookstores that are now in danger.
“I think the days of the seven- to 10-thousand-square-foot superstore in the suburbs are definitely numbered,” says Brayshaw, who notes that he reads Chapters’ quarterly reports “with great interest”.
“The basic bookselling business appears to be profitable,” he says, “although the margins are not great. Chapters recently sold off their Kobo e-reading division. Otherwise, their sales would have been nothing to write home about.”
Independents still have something the chains lack, and which gains value as it becomes more scarce: the feeling that they’re run by book lovers and not algorithms. At Pulpfiction’s Main Street location, a couple of shelves hold staff picks—books that you might otherwise never have considered, much less come across.
“A lot of people are like, ‘I used to shop online because of the pricing, but your pricing is pretty much equal on most stuff, and you don’t charge me shipping, and I get to come into a local place and bullshit around with you guys,’ ” says Brayshaw.
Pulpfiction also seems immune to the rise of Kobos and Kindles. “The people I have lost to e-books I don’t think were my core customers,” says Brayshaw. “They were people who used the library or bought whatever the bestselling flavour-of-the-month was off a bargain table at Costco.”
Duthie sees e-readers differently, though. She finds the convenience of digital books to be an advantage over shopping at brick-and-mortar bookstores. “As a reader I always saw this as being a completely ideal situation—when you want something you can get it instantly.”
Brayshaw isn’t letting digitization or the general industry downturn get in the way of his ambitions, however. He says he hopes one day to be known for having not just the best bookstore in Vancouver, but one of the best in North America. Powell’s, the huge but homey Portland shrine to print, is an inspiration.
“I want to have that kind of feeling—a for-profit business that still makes you happy when you’re in it,” says Brayshaw. “As someone who’s involved with print culture, knowing it’s alive and healthy makes me happy. I’m buoyed up by the idea that a community can support a business that size, of that complexity and of that beauty. It’s like church to me.”