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January 16, 2014

The Saddest News

annex200A few years ago, I misread a headline that Book City in Bloor West Village was closing as my local Book City closing (Bloor Street in the Annex), and was devastated for a moment. The relief I felt upon realizing my mistake was absolutely epic, but I always suspected that the moment was a glimpse of things to come. I’ve been lucky to this long stay immune to the indie bookshop closure plague, but it seems that my luck is finally up with the announcement today that Book City’s flagship location would indeed be closing, and I cried and cried and cried.

Of course, one could say, the loss of a store is not a real thing. But then it is a real thing, which is the whole point of a proper bookshop. Real things are people, like Jen who phoned me yesterday afternoon to confirm my order for the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald. Like John, who has worked there since 1976, and everybody else who takes my special orders, rings through my giant stacks of books, rings through my customer discount without even seeing my card because they know my name. My husband went into Book City shortly after Iris’s birth, and came home with a present from Rachel. I have tweeted that I’m coming in for a particular book, and they’ll have it behind the counter for me by the time I’m at the shop. Such excellent, knowledgable, expert customer service, and all these people are going to be out of a job. I am so sad for each and every one of them.

We used to live in Little Italy, and it wasn’t until we moved nearly six years ago that I realized what I’d been missing all my life: a bookshop just around the corner. It is the ultimate destination. I do all my Christmas shopping there, and if I’ve ever given you a book for any other occasion, that’s where it’s come from. Any time Stuart and I go out on a date, we make a late-night stop in. We took Harriet trick-or-treating there on Halloween. After Harriet was born, it was the first place I ever ventured. During Harriet’s first year when I was bored and alone, I became a regular. The shop staff (Hi, Suzanne!) were some of the brightest spots in my life. Harriet wanders around the shop like she owns it, and I feel like she has grown up there. It makes me so sad that Iris won’t have that experience. I have bought so many books because someone has been smart enough to display it at the counter knowing it was precisely what I wanted/needed. So many bookish discussions at the counter. Running into bookish friends in their natural habitats. On lazy Saturdays when we have to go somewhere, it is generally where we go. I look around my library and see that most of my books have come from there. Memorable visits, like the day Harriet bought Wonder Woman. Pre-ordering Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith, and getting my mitts on those books the day they come out. When we were on austerity measures after Stuart lost his job 3 years ago, and for Mother’s Day my gift was to buy some books and it was such a pleasure. I love that whenever I’ve wanted a poetry book from a small press, I could be reasonably assured of seeing it on the shelf. I was so looking forward to The M Word being on sale there.

It has been an honour to pay full(ish–I had my customer discount after all) price for books in exchange for having an excellent independent book shop in my neighbourhood. I wish that more people could see how much we gain for such a transaction. Books cost money because they are items of value, and I think that in our society’s hunger for deals and discounts, in that we have made everything about dollar signs, we have forgotten what value is. Anyone who has let Chapters/Indigo drive out their local indies will soon be sorry when that whole enterprise shuts down and they’re left with no place to buy books at all. And then there is Amazon, who has seen fit to forfeit profit in order to ruin everybody else, but I promise you that their prices will no longer be so reasonable once they’ve finally achieved their grand monopoly. And how about conditions in their warehouses? Also, real things: Amazon does not qualify.

And I know I have been spoiled, to take for granted that I could walk around the corner and to pick up nearly any book I desired. There are those who will say I need to get with the times, who find my elitism repugnant, who find that Costco serves their book buying needs just fine, thank you very much. But those people must not know that they’re missing. These are not the people I want designing our society. People who have never known how a bookshop really can be the heart of a neighbourhood, and what a hole is left when one disappears. All this is partly sentimental, which I think is what they call it when I despair about the loss of things that make me happy, but it is also practical–where will I buy my books now? I am fortunate to have some excellent specialty bookshops in my neighbourhood still, but no place for new adult books unless I go out of my way. And I guess what I’ve always liked about my life and where we live is that I’ve never had to go out of my way to buy a book. Book-buying has always been right there on the main thoroughfare, along with Sweet Fantasies Ice Cream. In short, life has been complete. I have been so lucky. I am not sure this is a bad thing and think it should be wider-spread, not rare. Can you imagine how much better and smarter the world could be if everybody had such a place around the corner to go?

It is shameful that the Annex will no longer contain a proper bookstore–how far this storied neighbourhood has fallen. And I implore some brave soul with capital to make a new venture, please. I promise to come and spend lots of money.

See also: Jon Paul Fiorentino on the need for fixed book pricing in Canada: “FBP may seem, to some, to be counter intuitive to the free market sensibilities we have in North America, but consider this: The book marketplace is one of the only marketplaces where vendors can return merchandise to their suppliers for a full refund whenever they want. Books are clearly not typical merchandise. They are as much cultural artifacts as they are goods for sale. In fact, books represent the source of our cultural and intellectual reality. So why should they be treated with the same notion of disposability as jeans or candy bars? FBP is good for bookstores because it levels the playing field and eliminates undercutting. It’s good for independent publishers because it allows them to control their print runs, stay in competition with larger houses, and take risks on less popular but innovative and vital authors. It’s good for authors because it secures a level of remuneration with regard to the fixed net price their royalties will be paid out at, and it’s good for consumers because it diversifies the marketplace and gives them more options.”

15 thoughts on “The Saddest News”

  1. Lucas Fitch says:

    Hi Kerry,

    I worked on a regular basis at the Annex shop until very recently, and I still pull the odd shift there. I know everyone at BookCity will be just as grateful and as moved as I am for what you’ve written here. People like you and your family are a huge part of what made working at BookCity such a pleasure.


    Lucas Fitch

  2. Kiirstin says:

    My deepest condolences. I too have a local indie, and I would be absolutely heartbroken if we lost them, even if they aren’t really close enough for me to walk except if I am making a safari of it. They are a cultural fixture in my city, which is a city with too few cultural fixtures. Also:

    “It has been an honour to pay full(ish–I had my customer discount after all) price for books in exchange for having an excellent independent book shop in my neighbourhood. I wish that more people could see how much we gain for such a transaction. Books cost money because they are items of value…”

    Yes, that, exactly. It has been a little challenging for me to explain to some people why I’d rather pay full price for a title I could get 20% off at Amazon, but I value the books I buy tremendously, and the people who get those books to me, all the way from the author to the wonderful staff at the store.

  3. Gabriel says:

    I honestly can’t remember the last time I shopped at any other bookstore than this place (and I don’t even live locally!). This place was such a hub of knowledge, culture, and friendliness. Truly unique and special.

  4. Tanya says:

    Seeing Book City close is certainly sad. I’m kind of hoping they will move back into Bloor West Village since the Chapters there is closing. A neighborhood without a bookstore isn’t really a neighborhood, is it?

  5. Joyce Grant says:

    Kerry, this is a wonderful essay. You’ve nailed, exactly, the experience of having a great neighborhood bookstore you can rely on. I’m sorry for your loss.

  6. Laura Walton says:

    Loved Book City. Missing it a lot. There are not many stores that you just want to hang out in, and this was one of them.

    Thanks for the article!

  7. theresa says:

    Years ago when my son was at the UofT, we would visit him regularly. We always liked to go to a Nepalese restaurant on Bloor Street and then we’d amble over to Book City to browse (and buy). An enviable thing — to have such a place in your own neighbourhood. And what a loss.

  8. As the employee of an independent bookstore, it warms my heart that a customer could write such a thoughtful and poignant goodbye essay. I am very sorry that you have lost your bookstore. I hope you are able to find a bit of a replacement even though you will not be able to walk there. I just know your two kids would love Mabel’s Fables on Mount Pleasant Rd just south of Eglinton. It even has a small adult section that may help to fill the void.

  9. Maia says:

    Sincere condolences from Vancouver, where we’ve had too many of these losses. I wish I had an entrepreneurial bone in my body because I’d love to help fill the void…

  10. Jen says:

    Thank you again, Kerry, for your beautiful words. We’ll miss your wonderful family. Thank you for your support.

    – Book Citizen Jen

  11. Genevieve says:

    I am so sorry, Kerry! Having lost my neighborhood indie just blocks from my house in Virginia, I understand how sad it feels.

    On my visit to Toronto, I went to your Annex Book City on your recommendation, and loved it so much. Had wonderful chat with the seller, who even recommended a good place for lunch. Toronto is rich in indie bookstores, and part of my trip was going to 5 of them with great delight. I’m so sorry that this one is disappearing.

  12. Kristie says:

    Great blog entry about a real loss to a neighbourhood. You inspired me to visit our local indy bookshop today and buy a book! Wellington (NZ) has shown an interesting trend in that it has been the big box bookstores that have struggled, while the indies (so far) have been hanging in there. I think this has been (largely) due to the fact that they offer people something a little bit different. They aren’t just a physical representation of an online bookstore.

  13. Crestfallen says:

    I’ve lived in the Annex for only a year, but in that time I’ve purchased well over 50 books from this store. The selection, the staff, the price; They are the definition of a great bookstore. I suppose the Danforth Location is just a Subway ride away. Still, going to that bookstore was one of life’s small pleasures. It made me smile after a long hard day.

    Its became part of my ritual. Heavy work week – Go to bank – Reward with Book City.

    It scares me that some people will only know a bookstore as a place that sells toys and house wears with a coffee shop inside. That place in the mall where you kill time before a movie. A place that’s little more than a publishers clearing house. Shallow Selection. No Soul.

    I hope those people experience a real bookstore before they’re all gone.

    Book City’s book buyers are brilliant. You don’t go there to find a book, you go there so a book can find you. I hope the other locations remain strong for years to come, as I don’t buy books anywhere else.

    It’s bizarre. I feel like I’ve lost a friend.

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