Do Vancouver Bookstores Have A Shelf Life?

Can we really claim international standing when we can’t even support a decent destination bookstore?

August 11, 2015

This article was originally published in Vancouver Magazine’s June 2013 print issue.

This is how much Sonya Wall loves books: when she got married, she held the ceremony in her own bookstore—in the mystery section. (A propos, it turned out when her marriage died years later, and only more so when she and her ex later remarried.) The next bump was fatal, though, when her store, Zebra Books, was murdered in 2000 by downloading and Costco discounting and unsupportive Toronto and American publishers who dismissed Vancouver as nothing but a distant colonial outpost. Yet while her marriage and business fluctuated, her love for books and bookstores never did. Being in a great bookstore, she says, is “unadulterated pure pleasure in every particle of my being. I feel happier, calmer, more hopeful. It’s never knowing what you’re going to find, the search for the treasure.” Like many—like me—she wonders why Vancouver can’t support a place like Munro’s in Victoria or Elliott Bay Books, the 40-year-old institution that Seattle Tourism lists as one of its city’s distinct attractions, or Powell’s City of Books, the Mecca for book lovers hundreds of miles around Portland. “It’s a notable gap,” agrees head of Tourism Vancouver Rick Antonson, an author and bibliophile himself, who doesn’t go to New York without hitting Rizzolli’s or Seattle without Elliott Bay. Staff at the tourism centre here end up sending visitors to Chapters.

What’s wrong with us? I set out to determine whether a city can make any claim to world classdom if it doesn’t have a must-visit bookstore. It turns out that there are so many opinions a person could write a book on the subject.

Vancouver is a chain-store city with no real culture, goes one theory. Others rebut that Vancouverites actually love books. The city’s library system has the most visits per capita in Canada, and our circulation per person—15 books a year—is three higher than the national average. It’s the cost of real estate that kills bookstores. Or…no, it’s Vancouverites themselves; we claim to be book lovers but all we do is download. Yet the most recent stats from BookNet Canada say only 15 percent of book sales in Canada were e-books. Everyone else is still buying the object. Or are we reading at all? People in Vancouver are shallow, beautiful but not very bright, critics charge. It’s the way this city is with everything: we can’t support big head offices or a major playhouse. We should at least be grateful for our terrific niche and neighbourhood bookstores, which are thriving. Unless…no, even those stores are being wiped out. In fact, the bookselling business for everyone—chains, independents, drugstores, you name it—is dying. It’s Amazon and the iPad, my friends. Stop living in a dream.

That last is the view of Celia Duthie, the woman whose family bookstores once dominated the city. “There’s no way anyone can compete,” says Duthie, who runs an art gallery on Salt Spring Island with husband Nick. Her father, Bill, founded Duthie Books in 1957, turning his Ron Thom-designed store at Robson and Hornby (now a Foot Locker) into the city’s fledging Elliott Bay. When he died suddenly, Celia was left to run the business. She computerized and expanded to 10 stores, a lock on bookselling on BC Ferries, 200 employees, the city’s highest-profile book events, and $20 million in sales. Yet it all came crashing down when Jimmy Pattison’s News Group got the ferries contract and Chapters invaded and Costco started selling books at deep discounts and Amazon arrived with free delivery and she found herself crippled by the costs of running at big store at what is now the London Drugs store at Georgia and Granville.

Duthie stayed peripherally involved in books after her family’s empire shrank to the one location next to Whole Foods on Fourth Avenue. (Her sister ran that until she, too, ran out of steam in 2010.) She sold hand-built wooden bookcases on Galiano Island, but no more. Nor is Celia Duthie buying many books from independent sellers. “When I travel, I put everything on my iPad.” And when she needed a book in a hurry while stopping off at a friend’s in London a couple of years ago, she ordered it from Amazon.co.uk. It was delivered the next morning. “That was the final realization,” says Duthie, who studied archaeology in school and describes the bookstores still operating in Vancouver as “living on borrowed time and the loyalty of people who will pay full price—little eddies of nostalgia.”

But Duthie is outnumbered by the enthusiasts operating the city’s remaining stores, who say that the public seems to have settled into a pattern that gives them hope. Yes, they’re buying some books online and some books at Costco. But many are turning to their neighbourhood stores or to destination specialty stores for things they aren’t finding elsewhere: the serendipity that the internet in all its information-overload glory can’t provide; knowledgeable clerks who can recommend a novel a picky and overwrought 14-year-old might actually read; personalized service that runs the gamut from home deliveries to help finding that childhood book you remember had a blue cover and was about a horse.

***

Kidsbooks has expanded its space on West Broadway several times since it opened in 1983, and also launched outposts in south Surrey and North Van. Co-owners Phyllis Simon and Kelly McKinnon have also mastered the art of the marketing tie-in, the special event, the hefty sale to institutional buyers, the networking with teachers and schools, and the benefit of careful diversification. When I visit one afternoon, a poster in the window announces an event with the author of Captain Underpants (sold out); inside, there are lots of children’s books, yes, but also a raft of creative toys and games likely to appeal to the kind of parent who buys high-quality children’s books. (And for that parent whiling away time while a child browses, there are also a couple of shelves of the latest higher-end books for adults.)

In Simon’s office upstairs, the onetime librarian, still elfin in spite of 30 years in the business, doesn’t kid herself about the challenges. But she’s intoxicatingly enthusiastic nonetheless. “If you’ve got a great concept and a good business plan, you’ve got a good start.” Those who are also selling into particular niches are using similar tactics. Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, near Granville Island, has cooking classes as well as cookbooks. Little Sister’s, in the West End, has added sex toys to its inventory of everything in print gay, lesbian, and transgendered, and in 2011 started an adult store on Broadway where the sex toys are the main part of the inventory.

It’s clear that Simon is not going to expand beyond her niche. She thinks having neighbourhood and specialty stores works well for Vancouver. So she won’t be running the next Powell’s. Nor will Andrea Davies at Hager Books. Sitting in the back office of her tiny shop on West 41st, which is a nest of stacked books, coffee cups, carvings, and a Dynamo Fan box, she says she’s been offered the chance to expand or branch out half a dozen times. She’s turned them all down. “You’ve just got to be cautious. It’s harder here because the real estate is atrocious. And rent hikes are tough on all businesses regardless of size.” Davies has been living in the world of bookstores since 1975; of late, she and assistant Sue Sutherland have become more optimistic. They’ve seen people coming to terms with e-readers, deciding that they won’t read some or any books on them. “You can’t duplicate those nice books on an electronic reader,” says Davies. “And people have found the travel books are the worst on e-books.”

I decide to try another tack: the city. Bibliophiles keep mentioning that places like Paris have taken up arms to protect their stores. As a detailed overview in the Atlantic Cities documented recently, Paris and Shanghai, with Taipei possibly to be added to the list, offer subsidies to independent bookstores. A 1981 law in France set book prices throughout the country, preventing chains from undercutting independents. Israel did the same recently. Any luck Vancouver—that promoter of creative industries—might do anything similar? After all, council just decided that it needed to contribute $100 million worth of land in order to support a major new art gallery on the premise that a flagship building would help the whole arts scene. Uh, no, says councillor Heather Deal. The city supports books, she says cautiously, by supporting the public library, which “makes it clear books have an important role in our city.” And, she points out, as have all the others, that Vancouver has great literary festivals. “Council doesn’t have the funds or resources to subsidize private business.”

As it turns out, the city is helping a little bit. The Association of Book Publishers and local publisher Arsenal Press got some money from the cultural planning department to explore the feasibility of developing a literary centre—a building that several publishers could jointly buy or rent in order to resist the need to keep moving. That centre would also have a retail component, says Arsenal’s Brian Lam. Whether it will ever come to pass and whether that retail front will develop into anything more are guesses at this point. He’d be happy if they could. “I’m of the view that we need a mother ship. We miss having a comprehensive bookstore.”

But, it turns out, there is one bookseller in town who thinks he might have a shot some day at running that kind of operation. Sure, it will be difficult. He doesn’t have the advantages that shops in other cities have had: a head start when the tailwinds were good, buying land when real estate was cheap. But he’s seen the worst of bookstore failures and thinks he knows how to avoid them. And he’s willing to try almost any strategy to make his business competitive.

Which is how I find myself on the road with Chris Brayshaw of Pulpfiction Books one Thursday morning, as he goes out delivering books to customers around the Lower Mainland. Brayshaw, who started Pulpfiction on Main Street in 1999 after cashing in his RRSPs and going on a weeks-long tour of small American towns to buy stock for his opening, now has two other branches, one in Kitsilano, one on Commercial. Unlike Kidsbooks or Hager Books, his prices are cheaper than Amazon or Indigo “90 percent of the time.” He takes orders by email and Twitter, with a promise to get the cheapest price out there—like having a travel agent scouring Priceline and Redtag for you. He has turned his store into a combination of used and new books. And when the occasion calls for it, he does deliveries. In his wine-coloured 1998 Subaru, we leave Vancouver at 7 a.m. to get Gary Geddes’s Art of Short Fiction and James Wood’s How Fiction Works to an older man in Maple Ridge. “I don’t understand why you would drive all this way,” says the bemused customer when we appear at his door shortly after 8, delayed by some wrong guesses about how to find the apartment building. For Brayshaw, it was important to show that local shopping was possible after this customer called up to order books for a writing course, then said he’d have to order them online since he couldn’t get into Vancouver. “I’m always interested in why people choose not to buy. When they sound regretful, I want to know what is the stumbling block.”

Brayshaw started out working at the Comic Shop on Fourth Avenue when he was in high school, moved on to the Book and Comic Emporium on Granville, and spent time in the ’90s working at the Granville Book Company while also holding down a day job as a curatorial assistant at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Granville Book Store experience was “stressful and distressing but, in retrospect, it was a good lesson in how retailers cope, or fail to cope, with complicated business problems.” But his meme of survival is not one many journalists are interested in telling, he’s discovered, though that inclination is changing as outlets from the Christian Science Monitor to the Wall Street Journal report the comeback of the small bookstore, partly as chain stores have fallen to the Amazon plague, partly with the backing of determined owners and communities. But he does acknowledge that Vancouver is a tough market. As do others. Sonya Wall says it suffers from being in the top left corner of the continent, far from publishers when it comes to author tours. “The American publishers felt everything stopped at the 49th parallel. I was always trying to get people doing readings at Elliott Bay to come up here and it was no-go. And trying to get them to come west from Toronto would be like pulling teeth.”

Mostly, though, the problem is the confluence of the daunting real-estate market—in other cities, the Elliott Bays, the Munro’s, and the Powell’s survived because they had bought their buildings long before and/or were sustained by wealthy people interested in keeping them going—combined with the collapse of the Duthie empire just as e-commerce took hold. “Duthie’s had a stranglehold on this market,” says Gordon Harris, once a development and retail consultant, now president of SFU’s community trust, which is developing UniverCity. Harris says when Duthie’s abandoned the field, there was no one in a position to try to take their place through the upheaval. He believes that Vancouver’s bookstores resemble the city’s corporations. It’s not a head-office town, so it doesn’t have a head-office-type bookstore. Instead, it has any number of small, excellent shops. (He buys at Hager’s in Kerrisdale, even though it’s a 20-kilometre drive from his home on the SFU hill.)

Brayshaw puts the real-estate factor at 80 percent when tallying up the challenges Vancouver has compared to other cities. “You can only run a truly amazing bookstore if you eliminate the landlord’s profit by buying your own storefront,” says Brayshaw, who rents. “So, you can do that in a smaller place, like Bellingham or Portland or Victoria, and you might be able to do it in Abbotsford or Kelowna. Doing it in Vancouver would be a real stretch for anyone who didn’t already have money, which I don’t. So I’m just trying to improve the business incrementally, and not spending lots of time worrying about why I’m not Powell’s yet.

That said, if my shop doesn’t look like Powell’s 20 years from now, I’ll be very disappointed. I’m always interested in why people choose not to buy. When they sound regretful, I want to know what is the stumbling block”

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