Vancouver's bookstores look to thrive in uncertain times

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      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.”



      Jamie Heppner

      Apr 12, 2012 at 9:32am

      I really am glad to read this kind of news for a change. I have often spoke of my own desire to open a book store, and perhaps one day I may still, if only as a place to spend my retirement. (And showcase my own work)

      Dave Skander

      Apr 12, 2012 at 10:15am

      Far too much overpriced "lit" at PF and not enough real books.
      Almost as bad as Chilliwack's fossil bookstore (The Bookman) where some "apprenticed"


      Apr 12, 2012 at 10:51am

      Well Dave Skander to the contrary, PF is the ONE place where I can still find real books--underpriced "lit" books that inspire and enlarge the mind. I hope Mr. Brayshaw is being very, very smart, and very, very nimble--e.g. what happens when the rent on his three locations doubles? Will he have the volume to make up for it?

      Powell's is indeed a great inspiration, but remember that it has only ONE location. I buy from PF whenever I can, but I can't do it alone, and I want McLeod's and others to survive as well.

      Ben Gazarra

      Apr 12, 2012 at 11:28am

      Ummmm not sure what Dave means. What exactly does "lit" imply? Real books? and who the fuck goes to Chilliwack?

      Pulp Fiction has been the place to go for paperbacks of serious "lit" in this town for a quite a few years. There are other places but PF is always a place to check regularly. I usually find myself surprised by how little I'm paying, especially for new books.

      Dave Skander hahaha, even your name sounds like the kind penciled in the front of a michael crichton hardcover.

      SkanderFAN, fan of DAVE SKANDER

      Apr 12, 2012 at 12:03pm

      Au Contraire, Ben Gazarra: Skander's damnation cannot be underestimated; his treatise 'On The Reality Of Books: What Makes Books Real' is a classic in the field, and his controversial essay 'Against Lit' was awarded the 2011 Northrop Frye award for Chilliwack Book Knowledge.
      Skander's finally weighing in on PFB's flagrant lack of "real" books, and their unjustified practice of sellling "lit", will surely lead to a general boycott and protest of all three locations by his legions of devout followers, culminating in a Main Street march and a not-necessarily-nonviolent occupation of Gregor Robertson's office.

      Lady In Red

      Apr 12, 2012 at 12:06pm

      "2012-02-21 05:14
      Dave Skander

      Hmm. Wasn't Vancouver's Jillian Harris, the 5th bachelorette a contestant on the much-talked-about Jason Mesnick season of The Bachelor. She finished in third place behind Molly Malaney and Melissa Rycroft. Jillian went on to star in her own season of The Bachelorette, which was set to air in May, 2009. And she claims that she is a Restaurant interior designer. And what has been the attitude to her?"


      Apr 12, 2012 at 2:51pm

      Let us not quibble. Anything--be it bookstore or policeman's baton--which can stem the tide of barbarity, is welcome.

      Book Lover

      Apr 12, 2012 at 8:21pm

      Hey, I wonder why the article didn't mention the other indie bookstores in Vancouver, the final few, so to speak.

      My personal favourite, Oscar's Art Books, which just celebrated its 22nd year in business.

      Hager's, Kidsbooks. Blackberry Books. ABC.


      Apr 13, 2012 at 8:09pm

      to the contrary, Hazlit, Powell's has 6 locations, double that of PF's current number. And to Skander, you must not buy many "lit" books if you think that PF is overpriced - btw, which store sells the same titles for less? Perhaps an unimportant question, since you only read 'real' books.

      Democritus Jr.

      Apr 15, 2012 at 10:23pm

      Pulpfiction is also very involved in the local literary scene - both as a venue for readings and as a distributor of Vancouver authors - in a way that the big chains tend not to be. It's an important cultural service.