Mourning the death of a beautiful, small bookstore

There’s a wonderful bookstore in the nearby town of Owen Sound.  I discovered it quite by chance when I was perusing the website of Karen Connelly, one of my favourite Canadian writers, and saw that she was giving a reading at this bookstore.  Stunned to learn that there was even such a literary ‘happening’ spot in the area, I rushed to check it out.

It was love at first sight.

Rows of beautiful, brand-new books that smelled like paradise and looked like artwork, with their colourful spines and varying fonts and contrasting sizes.  A coffee bar at the back, selling a locally roasted brew.  Comfy chairs where talkative regulars sipped their steaming mugs and argued over Canadian foreign policy.  A cozy children’s section with wonderful titles on display and a toy box to distract the littlest ones.  A strange bathroom with two toilets, side by side – only one of which worked.  (The owner told me there was supposed to be a stall divider once upon a time, but it never got built.)  A piano.  A CD display with an eclectic mix of music from all around the world.  A fantastic array of cookbooks.  And a very friendly, very helpful man behind the desk who could answer every single one of my questions.

A beautiful bookstore in Portugal. This ain't no Chapters!

I was so impressed that I spent far more money on books than I should have.  At Christmastime, we bought books for almost every member of the family, not just because they’re book-lovers, too, but also because I couldn’t get enough of being in that store.  You see, I dream of owning a bookstore, of spending my days surrounded by these wonderful texts that make one’s life so much richer.  Books are an absolute necessity for my survival.

So, it struck me as odd this week when I called the bookstore multiple times and got no answer.  The phone rang and rang.  Finally, today, on the third day of trying, I went online.  There was a big notice on their website: “A heartfelt thank you to all who have patronized us over the past six years.  It was a grand adventure.”  My heart stopped briefly.  I felt a lump rise in my throat and blinked to keep tears away.

How can this be?  How can such a wonderful, stimulating, rich, and integral part of the town’s business community simply disappear like that?  There is a Coles bookstore in the mall – a chain store that lacks the personality and intimacy of my old favourite, whose prices aren’t as good, and whose selection is crap by comparison.  To think that a privately-owned bookstore that is so clearly well-managed and appealing to the public can’t make a go of it in a town of at least thirty thousand people is absolutely staggering, and very sad.  Obviously the majority of the local population doesn’t share my feelings.

Indigo Books at the Eaton Centre in Toronto... there's no comparison to the photo above!

I’ve heard from a number of sources, including a bookstore owner whose award-winning children’s bookstore recently closed in Toronto, that privately-owned bookstores are dying all over the country because they simply cannot compete with the big names like Chapters, Indigo, Barnes & Noble, etc.  Those chains not only have gigantic stores with every imaginable book in them, but also have websites with free shipping that make it very easy to order from home.  (Granted, this is a necessity for those of us who live in the middle of nowhere.)  Their prices are lower because they get books in large amounts from publishers and can return the unsold ones, unlike private sellers, who must front the money themselves to buy all merchandise.

Scenes like this make me melt with joy.

The thing is, though, that the diversity of titles in these larger stores is partly an illusion; they don’t carry many of the unusual, uncommon, and harder-to-find books that private sellers do, whose collections are hand-picked.  My favourite bookstore likely couldn’t keep up with the competition from Coles, despite the faithful patronage of the few locally-sworn shoppers.

This is just one example of the downtown cores of our towns gradually disintegrating and disappearing, with more and more empty storefronts popping up because they can’t compete with the chains.  I never lived in my current town before the arrival of Walmart, but I am surprised at how many empty windows line the main street, and can’t help but wonder if there’s a correlation.  I won’t go to Walmart on principle.  My philosophy is, “If I can get it from a small, local business, I either buy it there or don’t buy it at all.”

The loss of my bookstore saddens me because it represents a lack of caring on the part of today’s consumers.  It’s so easy to look at a price tag and make a decision based on that alone – and in some cases, that might be necessary – but for most of us who can afford to pay a small amount more for better quality things that will be replaced less often and whose purchase supports a healthy, vibrant, local economy, it’s well worth becoming a bit more discerning in our shopping choices.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe that my favourite bookstore would still be open if more people had made a conscious choice to shop there, rather than heading to Coles or Walmart for quick, cheap reads.  At the end of the day, a local, privately-owned business is going to care one heck of a lot more about the community than some corporate-owned mega-store.

In the meantime, since I can’t order the book I need, I’ll wait until my next trip to a town that does have a small bookstore and make my purchase then.  Who knows when that will be, but it’s worth the wait.

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10 thoughts on “Mourning the death of a beautiful, small bookstore

  1. Franchise and globalization are very new concepts. We now see the effects of both. They first seem good ideas that make the life easier, but the reality is that they mostly make us unhappy. The available goods are more than we need and can even imagine but the quality is not there. We travel a lot and change our home so many times that has as a result to feel lonely and not connected to our surroundings and people. I just hope that people will find ways to balance quantity with quality in their life. Right now I feel overwelmed by the quantity of everything around me and especially when I think that people in many other countries do not own anything and live in a tremedous poverty.

  2. ” I never lived in my current town before the arrival of Walmart, but I am surprised at how many empty windows line the main street, and can’t help but wonder if there’s a correlation.”- there is an absolute correlation.

    But with books it is bigger than that; I used to own part of an architectural bookstore in Toronto and we lost it because the books got too expensive and students could get everything online.

    Canada’s oldest bookstore, in Halifax, closed after the owner got an accidental delivery of a book from Amazon meant for a tenant upstairs. “The book was on our shelf, so they could have come down in two minutes and picked the book up, but they chose to order by computer and wait five [to] seven days for it to come in,” said the owner.

    1. That’s unbelievable. How could someone do that, living right above a bookstore?? With small stores like these, I think that people will only truly begin to appreciate them when most are gone, when we have no choice but to buy from the big box stores and the internet. Of course, I hope it never gets to that point, but already it’s becoming so difficult to find them.

  3. That’s terrible.
    I’ve always loved bookstores and have a couple in particular in my own town that I frequent pretty regularly (though less in the past year… Note to self: go more often!). I do know that they’re suffering some as well nowadays but the sad part is that I think this is more and more common everywhere. Plus being able to order pretty much EVERYTHING online, especially the off-beat and harder to find books is a real blow.
    Getting eclectic books also has limitations because you need to have enough mainstream stuff to get regular turnover too, but the run-of-the-mill “bestsellers” and otherwise read and throw books (as I like to call them) are the staple of the big stores who carry one, maybe two of the off-beat or cult favourite or excellent but not mainstream and that is annoying.
    I hope you find another one because no one should be without a bookstore to go to in my opinion and you should have a place to take your kids so they can get a feel for it too.
    Cheers!

    1. I love that description: “read and throw” books. Though I rarely get rid of books; I’m a mad book collector and enjoy watching my shelves fill up with a diverse library. Funny, because I’m totally averse to pack-rat tendencies in every other area of life! I do hope to find another great bookstore in the area. I’ve heard rumours about a great one in a nearby town that I’m dragging the whole family to visit tomorrow, so we’ll see if that satisfies.

      1. I have the same problem with my reading material – even though I CAN borrow from friends and libraries I want to buy the book and have the copy and read it at leisure and now and again come back to the really good ones. Unfortunately I never have enough space! 😀

  4. This one has been bothering me 🙂

    I have lived here before the Big Evil Walmart arrived and it was difficult! Paying more for the same products at the Local Evil Grocery store was painful, and we knew they were gouging us because they were the only show in town. I am so glad that Walmart came to give a bit of competition and drive the prices down to reasonable and comparable to neighbouring communities. Also, I’m curious, if you don’t purchase from large chains where do you get your groceries? Really, there is only the Independent (a large chain that treats its employees just as badly as the Evil WM – I should know, I’ve worked at both here) which sells the same products as WM just with more of a profit for the owner or the tiny grocery store on the main drag which does not have the selection we need as moms to fill our pantry’s with nutritious, fresh, fruits and vegetables.

    I haven’t driven down our main drag in a while. I used to walk it multiple times a week but haven’t much lately. I took a drive down the main drag yesterday on my way home just to see how many stores were empty. I counted 4 total (including the old movie store beside Macs) which to me is not overwhelming nor the prominent feature. I had to look closely and carefully. The downtown core is constantly changing and this is true in any town. We also have an old empty eatery/bar that is currently being renovated into 4 new shops – all filled – and slated to open this month with unique and local businesses. But we also have lots of unique and thriving stores along our main strip. Empty stores are there, sure, but they are not the common feature. We also have strip malls at both ends of town with vacancies, however, I don’t consider them part of the core and they require large chain commitments to fill their large retail spaces. Secretly I am hoping one of them becomes a space for a Bulk Barn!

    1. Thanks for commenting! I do love hearing other people’s opinions on my posts.

      I’ll admit that avoiding big chain stores is difficult. In fact, it can be a royal pain in the butt, and there are times that I do go to them in a pinch. I take particular exception to Walmart because of its notorious reputation throughout North America as a store that comes into small towns and utterly destroys local business, sells its products at dirt cheap, unsustainable prices that are ripping off consumers (because of poor quality) and labourers in the 3rd world countries that are making them, gives no consideration to the environmental impact of building their monster-footprint stores, and pays employees minimum wage. Okay, maybe it’s not a whole lot different than some other stores, but I prefer to avoid it altogether.

      As for my grocery shopping habits, I do the following: meat comes from the local butcher shop, eggs come from my friend Kim’s farm, and vegetables come from our year-round CSA share from an organic farm. In the summer, I pick bushels and bushels of berries at a local fruit farm and freeze them. I can Niagara peaches by the dozen. Apples are all locally-grown. I make all bread and yogurt from scratch. I buy fair-trade chocolate in bulk (multiple kilos at a time). Dairy is organic from the Independent, but at least Organic Meadows is all Ontario-produced. I go to No Frills for condiments, out-of-season fruit, baking needs, etc. It’s a lot of work, I know, and not everyone has the time. But I just pack the kids into the car and they think it’s a fun outing to gather up all aspects of our diet!

      As for our downtown, it’s true that there’s been a significant improvement just over the past couple of weeks. A bunch of empty stores have recently filled, and with that renovation at the corner, you’re right – it’s looking pretty good. The key, though, is whether these new start-ups will be able to continue. They’ll need regular patronage from consumers like us, or else they’ll just close down again at the end of the season. That requires a conscious choice on our part – whether we make the extra effort to drive/walk around to get what we need, or still opt for the one-stop shopping at the chain. Those choices do make a difference.

      And yes, I wouldn’t be too unhappy with the arrival of a Bulk Barn…

  5. It is very sad what is happening with all the little independents. More than once, I have mourned the closing of a little bookshop here in the Portland area, put out of business by the big chains or bought out and closed by a certain unscrupulous local businessman who has no soul when it comes to books… all he cares for is a big bloody profit!

    I have made it a firm policy that for every book I buy online or at a big store, I will buy at least two from a small indie bookshop. I get that the little indies can’t stock the same volume and selection as B&N or Amazon or Wal-Mart, and those giants can sell for less… two big motivators for a lot of people to frequent the biggies. I do feel a little twinge when I buy from one of them, but I know that I will make up for it the next time I visit an indie store.

    I know that it is impractical for a lot of people to shop only the indies, I get that too… but if we all made an effort to do at least some of out book business at these little shops… it really would make a difference.

    And, ask yourself this… when is the last time you were in Amazon or B&N or Wal-Mart and spent a half hour or so talking with a very knowledgeable salesperson, or even better… the store owner… over a freshly brewed cup of tea about your favorite authors?

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