Book City in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood is closing in the spring. This is sad, significant, and identity-changing for my old ’hood, as it is for any ’hood that has seen one of its independent bookstores close. Book City is one of the anchors of the Annex, along with the Wiener’s Hardware across the street, the Future Bakery, Seekers, Lee’s Palace, Kilgour’s, Pauper’s, the Country Style Hungarian Restaurant, and yes even the Brunswick House, etc. Book City and I are the same age, and in a few months it will not be there anymore.
I will miss their magazine section the most. It was at Book City that one could get a distillation of the country’s and the world’s literary journals. I will miss skulking through the fiction section and the tables piled with new releases and popular classics as I made my way back to the small but with-it poetry shelves.
I must, however, take a small bit of (the most respectful) issue with what owner Frans Donker stated as one of his reasons for closing the Annex location. This from the Toronto Star:
“The area is changing,” [Donker] said, explaining that, when the store opened in 1976, there were a variety of restaurants, markets and stores in the area. “Now it’s all fast food joints. The area has changed rapidly in the last seven to eight years. And that is affecting our business.”
Donker blames the street (in part) for Book City’s closure. I’m not sure I can totally agree with his assessment. I lived on Bloor Street, across the street from the BMV, for four years, up until this past September, and I’ve hung around in the Annex on and off since 2002. It was a feat to even push open my apartment’s front door on a weekend afternoon or, really, any afternoon or evening while the sun was out or the weather was warm. People hang out on Bloor Street in droves, and the lion’s share of them aren’t there for the “fast food” (unless by “fast food” Donker actually means the sushi, frozen yogurt, or coffee places along the strip). They come to stroll and shop and browse and eat and meet friends and be out on the street and interact with the neighbourhood and (on weekends) flee their suburb for the day. But they weren’t making the turn into Book City in the numbers Book City needed to survive there.
Of course, the personal observations of a resident of Bloor Street are not the same as a small business owner’s perspective of Bloor Street. And I am of course exhibiting a bias here. I love my old neighbourhood, and I miss it, and, even though there were problems with it, I am sensitive to people’s disparagement of it. I was so lucky to be able to ensconce myself in a cheap apartment on that street for as long as I did because I couldn’t technically afford to live in the Annex. This is the funny thing about that neighbourhood: the semi-detached bay-and-gables up and down the side streets between Spadina and Bathurst go for around a million bucks a pop, and one could easily drop two grand a month in rent for a one-bedroom in someone’s attic, yet the Annex is still considered a “student neighbourhood.” Yes, as Donker indicates, the chains have been moving in: there’s a Dollarama and a Popeye’s and a Starbucks and a Kinko’s and a Timmies and a Menchie’s. But Guu and Sushi on Bloor are lined up out the door nearly every day; Queen Video is a madhouse; the Bloor Superfresh specializes in ethical chocolate bars and eight-dollar, gluten-free crackers; it costs 80 bucks a month to work out at the JCC; the condo going up at Bloor and Bathurst got enough buyers to build; and yoga havens abound. The owner of the health- and bulk-food store next door to my old apartment revamped his place into a spa because his wife was making more money upstairs dying hair and waxing eyebrows than he was making downstairs peddling castor oil. To dismiss the Annex as “all fast food” is to ignore how well heeled the neighbourhood has become. And the sushi shops and the shawarma joints and the Big Fat Burrito are really busy too, of course. And yes, the latest string of owners of the Brunswick House turn that street into any self-respecting adult’s living nightmare at around 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. In an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning this morning, Donker brought up the preponderance of “very young kids” on the street “at night”; this is a direct reference to the Brunny. And I agree with Donker on that: the Brunswick House is a shitty, dangerous vortex on the corner of Bloor and Brunswick. But the Brunny has been causing the civic-minded to shake their heads in disgust since approximately the Victorian age, so I don’t know if that argument is airtight either. But I (sort of) digress.
Just like the Brunswick House (which has been standing for exactly one full century longer than Book City), Donker’s bookstore was one of the many axes on which Bloor Street turned. You could make an argument that Book City wasn’t reaching out to the neighbourhood as well as it used to or it could have been. I never saw kids’ books in the windows on the weekends (both for the suburbanites and the increasing number of younger families in the neighbourhood); I’ve never been to a reading there; I never saw them set out a table in the road during the summer festival; I’ve never had anyone say hello to me when I walked in the door. One got the sense that people were expected to come to them, if they cared to, if they cared, and I can see how that might not make the store perpetually successful. Maybe others have had different experiences. I am sad that more people didn’t come to them, and that people strayed away from them for the sake of a bargain elsewhere. I am sad and even a little panicked about the rate at which independent booksellers are folding. I can see how it would be draining and demeaning to be forced to find soul-sucking or ethos-defying ways to exist and justify existing. (That Chapters has so readily become half trinket-shop raises the already-raised bile of any book lover.) It of course shouldn’t be that way, but—of course—it is. And it’s only going to continue, it seems. It’s not just the street, or the store, or the customer, or the climate, or the internet that is to blame here. It’s an amalgam that’s very tricky to negotiate, let alone untangle. Independent bookstores have been pushed into totally new territory, with the game already rigged against them, and we expect them to stay afloat. Then we grow shocked and outraged when they cannot.
What about those neighbourhood folk, those who live around the corner in the (now) million-dollar row houses? Were they not frequenting their local bookseller? They, of all people, could maintain loyalty better than anyone, no? I would venture to guess that some of them were indeed very loyal. I can’t even count the number of times I saw Ken Finkleman or Leon Rooke or David Gilmour (I know, I know) step in or out of there. But I think the return of all those semi-detached homes from multi-unit or extended-family houses back to single-family dwellings has decreased the number of neighbourhood folk, period. There simply aren’t as many neighbours as there used to be. Jeet Heer mentioned in a tweet that “Jane Jacob’s [sic] neighborhood can’t support an independent bookstore. Think about it.” Here I would counter by saying that the density in Jane Jacobs’s neighbourhood was lower than she propounded when she lived there, and it’s even lower now. She did not live in a dense, urban Shangri-La. She did live close to a relatively healthy, diverse commercial street though, and that has not changed terribly much, except for the fact that, as they say, the rent is too goddamn high, for people and businesses alike, and that suburbanites tend to treat the place like a gritty shopping mall/undergrad puke receptacle.
I couldn’t have possibly bought all my books at Book City (and that is in part because I am in the business of making the wares Book City sells…). There was just no way I could’ve paid full price every time when half or more of my monthly wages were going to paying rent. Most times I had to look but not buy. I couldn’t help them much. And I am glad that while I lived there I also had Seekers and BMV and Ten Editions and Dan on the corner of Bloor & Brunswick and the Spadina and Palmerston branches of the library to go to. On Metro Morning, Donker mentioned that Book City’s sales are down 40% compared to “six or seven years ago.” Donker also mentioned how “at times you feel you’re a showroom for Amazon,” with people scanning barcodes on their phones “right in front of you.” Book City would have had to change into something we might not recognize in order to acquire the monetary loyalty of the barcode-scanners and the broke-ass writers and scholars. Society’s position toward the book (and what the bricks-and-mortar buildings that house and purvey them ought to be) would have to change. And even then it would be touch and go and ultimately might not work.
Again, as Donker mentions, it’s not only the street making that Book City location close. Chapters and Amazon need to be taken to task for enfeebling the whole industry. (But of course, they won’t be taken to task; see the sorry, desperate, short-buck federal government to which Canada has yoked itself. Can you see them prohibiting Chapters/Amazon from applying across-the-board discounts or offering free shipping for the sake of our independent bookstores?)
However, that Donker blames the street is unfortunate because Book City is that street, is part of that street’s identity. I get the feeling Book City hasn’t felt a part of that street for a while. I don’t want it to go. My better half has been lamenting the lack of decent philosophy and political science sections in any Toronto bookstore ever since Atticus Books on Harbord closed down. Presse Internationale could use some good competition in the realm of international newspapers or intelligent, general interest mags (although you’d have to be crazy…). How many people would’ve subscribed to a Book City reading series at the Bloor Cinema? Maybe every independent bookstore needs to pair up with an independent coffee shop and start aggressively encouraging loitering. Maybe there should be artisanal book-making workshops or hot yoga in bookstore basements. Maybe bookstores need to become non-profits. Maybe a new+used model could increase foot traffic. Maybe we need to start treating books as pieces of art. Or maybe not; maybe we’re all just doomed. Whatever the case, the snow is going to melt, and there will be a crater in the Annex where the Book City used to be. Unless some crazy group of kids, by some miracle, ignores all the warnings, pools together a vat of money, and decides to open up a bookstore.