High Dollar, Soaring Rents Impact Independent Booksellers

July 11, 2008 Updated: October 1, 2015

Banyen Books, an independent Vancouver bookstore that boosts business by selling a variety of items besides books. ()
Banyen Books, an independent Vancouver bookstore that boosts business by selling a variety of items besides books. ()
Having survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, Canada's oldest independent bookstore closed its doors at the end of March, giving up the struggle to stay afloat in a formidably competitive market.

But the fact that the Book Room in Halifax, which opened for business in 1839, could no longer compete in the digital age may not come as a surprise to many independent booksellers.

The Book Room faced many of the same obstacles that have surfaced for local independent booksellers across North America in the past decade, the ease of ordering books at discount prices over the internet being just one.

The arrival of the big chain bookstores with their large inventory and discount prices and the expansion of books into grocery and drugstores sounded the death knell for many independents both in Canada and south of the border.

Canadian booksellers have also had to cope with the dual pricing of books, with higher selling prices in Canada than in the U.S., as well as the Canadian/American dollar parity.

In Vancouver, skyrocketing rents have added to booksellers' woes, thanks to exorbitant leases fueled by a red-hot property market.

"Vancouver has lost an incredible amount of bookstores," says James Mullin, co-owner of Tanglewood Books, a popular used bookstore on West Broadway.

Tanglewood has already moved locations a few times due to rent increases, and Mullin says if he had to move again he wouldn't be able to rent in that area.

"I am literally in the last building in this area that I can afford, and it's not because of the revenue or that business is terribly poor, it's just that the cost of property tax and the amount that a lot of landlords are charging is just too high, which is true of almost any independently owned business in this city."

Since its last move, Tanglewood has found itself directly across from, and often competing with, Chapters, one of Canada's largest chain bookstores.

Duthie's Books, which has long been a Vancouver institution, started in 1957 with a single store downtown and eventually expanded to about 10 stores during the mid 1990's.

While at the time it seemed as though the growth would continue, the coming of the big box stores to western Canada caused a dramatic reversal of Duthie's fortunes.

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"It was an onslaught of a number of things, some of the stores were not being profitable and some were," says Ria Bleumer, manager of Duthie's.

"What really happened in the end was the arrival of the so called big box stores which hit the west coast. There was a lot more competition and it became incredibly difficult for independent bookstores."

Duthie's has managed to remain in business thanks to the personalized customer service found at the store and an increase in tourists dropping in, largely due to the recognition of its history and importance to Vancouver.
"We have quite a bit of stock and quite a bit of depth, and we're going on 17 years in this location. We've also become a destination store — I'm seeing a lot of new people into the store who are just in town for the day," says Bleumer.

 While some peg the number of local bookstore closures across the country at around 350 over the past decade, Nancy Frater, president of the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA), says she doesn't believe it's quite that high.

"Certainly these are trying times…but we're not a dying breed yet, there's a sense of optimism," says Frater, owner of Book Lore in Orangeville, an hour north of Toronto.

Independent bookstores often cater to niche markets largely ignored or underserved by the large retailers. They also provide a sense of community, a place where people can meet and spend time, which makes the potential loss of them so tragic.

"I think we're seen as the hub of a community," says Frater. "It's a family; you have your customers come in for years and years, and when you're ordering you order with their tastes in mind. And I know that all independents, myself included, will go to any lengths to get the right book for that customer."

Tanglewwod's Mullin says, "it's not just about the books, it's also the interaction with people because people themselves are walking stories."

A drawback in many cities is that landlords often no longer live in the community or even in the country, says Bill Ritchie, owner of Wet Wizard on Main and Broadway in Vancouver.

"Most of these businesses were owned by someone who lived in the neighbourhood. They lived two blocks away and were part of the community; it was in their vested interest to keep you," says Ritchie, adding that "the biggest challenge" he faces is high rent.  

However, one of the benefits is that there are two other bookstores within a block of Wet Wizard.

"To me actually the more bookstores the better, we all share about 80 per cent of the same customers. With three bookstores, instead of just my 4,000 books and his 5,000 books, a customer has 20,000 books to look at when he or she comes to Main & Broadway."

This is the thinking behind Sidney Booktown near Victoria on Vancouver Island. Fashioned on Hay-on-Wye, the original booktown in Wales, Sidney Booktown has 11 bookshops spanning four blocks in central Sidney and is Canada's only booktown.

Many independents have introduced other ways to boost business, such as catering to certain groups, selling online, holding poetry readings and mini-concerts, providing a used books section and stocking other items besides books.

"Only about half of what we sell is books. There's CD's, DVD's, and we have all kinds of magazines, statuary and altar items," says Kolin Lymworth, owner of Banyen Books located just down the street from Duthie's.

Started in 1970 in Kitsilano, Banyen is a specialty store and also has a rich history in Vancouver.

"I would say general bookstores face much greater challenges than we do. Our kinds of challenges are that there's so many books on so many different topics it's very difficult to have a comprehensive selection that's relevant to your community," says Lymworth.

Frater says the CBA, which represents 400 bookstores, is working on a new marketing campaign that's tying into the "localism movement" in which people are increasingly supporting local businesses which in turn boosts local communities.

"There's still people who want to shop at independents whatever the retail is so we're working on that," says Frater. "It brings vitality and life to our communities and I think a lot of people realize that those values in life are pretty important."