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.
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.
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.
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.