(Words and images by Brendan Adam Zwelling)
Lichtman’s, Albert Britnell Books, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Pages—the casualty list from the book retail wars is laden with fallen champions of the indie bookstore. So it was with that sad roll call in mind that the Canadian Booksellers Association’s Independents’ Day campaign, which aims to strengthen the link between communities and their independent book stores, touched down on Saturday at Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles.
There was no gloom from owner Sheila Koffman, whose store has survived in a retail environment where Costco sells books as loss-leaders. “Personally, I haven’t felt extremely threatened by the big-box stores,” she says. To survive and thrive, the indies need to embrace specialization—as Another Story has with unconventional children’s and young adult titles—rather than expect to be able to compete directly with superstores. “The big guys will always lower the prices,” as she puts it. “I feel that the best thing for an independent bookstore to do is to have their niche market; we can’t be everything to everybody. Chapters and Indigo may try to be that, but they aren’t really. I’ve been in discussions with other independent owners and the consensus is that we have to find the books that the chain stores don’t necessarily carry but are really great and that we can promote. I think there are still a lot of really passionate readers, and we see them.”
After morning appearances from Mayor David Miller, promoting his Witness to a City, and Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged author Jody Nyasha Warner, there were readings from the latest works by veteran writers Cordelia Strube and Michael Winter. Strube’s Lemon carries the acid-humored legacy of Salingerist teenage outsider skepticism into the digital era, while Winter’s The Death of Donna Whalen traces the grim path of a real-life St. John’s homicide, dramatized from case details and the public record.
With two incisive novels by two charismatic authors the event was really more of a happening than a reading. Strube channeled the caustic verve of her protagonist’s inner monologue, post-millennial kid nuances and all, before facilitating an ad-hoc seminar on youth reading and writing culture. Winter mostly eschewed his own text and instead riffed on Maritime criminal justice with a raconteur’s flair and a stand-up’s command of the room.
“If you look in a big box store you’ll see more candles and soap,” Strube said afterwards while discussing her affection for independent book stores, places where she says they put your book in the window because they like it, not because a publisher has paid for it to be there. “I’ll never forget going into a megastore and asking somebody if they had [James Fenimore Cooper’s] The Last of the Mohicans, and they said, ‘There’s a book? I only know about the movie.’ The people working there aren’t necessarily into books, they’re just trying to make a living, so there’s none of the familiarity or sharing of information that you’ll find in a small independent bookstore.”
Winter agrees with Strube’s assessment: “The thing about independent bookstores is that the people who own them and the people they hire as employees have a real connoisseur’s taste for literature. They know the books; they love books.” Still, he’s open-minded about the future of book retailing. The prospect of formless e-books doesn’t put him off. “I think there’s a kind of humility that might come from that,” he reasons. “I remember asking somebody what they were reading on one of those e-readers and they said, “Oh, I can’t remember the name of it,” and I asked who wrote it, and they said, “Um, I can’t remember the name of the author, but it’s really good.’ So they didn’t know the author, didn’t know the name of the book – they were just reading, voraciously. And that’s kind of admirable: just read this—I don’t know who wrote it or what it’s called, but it’s really good.”