Is Canada Seeing the Death of the Niche Bookstore?

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This February, two beloved independent Canadian bookstores announced that they are closing their doors. Oscar’s Art Books, a twenty-four-year-old bookstore based in Vancouver, will close shop at the end of March. On its Facebook page, Oscar’s wrote: “We’ve always moved with the times but unfortunately the internet has taken over.” After a thirty-one-year run, Toronto’s Cookbook Store will also close next month. On its website, the store says: “This past year has thrown more challenges to us than ever before. Never-ending, and ongoing, year-long road and utilities construction, extreme weather, online competition and the sale of the building for condominium development have had a devastating impact on our sales.”

We hear all the time these days about brick-and-mortar bookstores closing down. And like Oscar’s and the Cookbook Store, many of them cite competition from online retailers (read, Amazon) as a significant issue. What makes the end of Oscar’s and the Cookbook Store particularly interesting is that they are both niche stores focusing on a particular subject.

When big-box bookstores such as Chapters and Barnes and Noble emerged in North America about twenty years ago, niche bookstores were seen by many industry commentators as the future of independent brick-and-mortar bookselling. Their specialized nature enables employees of niche bookstores to develop deep expertise in their subjects. That in turn helps them make informed, personalized recommendations that keep book buyers coming back. Niche bookstores also stock lesser-known work that a general-interest store wouldn’t devote shelf space to.

One could argue their wide selection no longer gives niche bookstores a competitive edge, since about 50% of books in North America are now bought online. Online retailers specialize in the long tail; they have immense selection in every imaginable category.

But as Chris Szego, the manager of Bakka Phoenix, a sci-fi and fantasy bookstore in Toronto, says: “The truth is online bookstores offer depth, but you have to know what you’re thinking of. . . . We tell people which books they’ll love, and we tell people which ones they won’t.” Algorithms still can’t replace hand selling, in other words.

Phyllis Simon, owner of Vancouver’s Kidsbooks, agrees: “Our booksellers are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and really there to help our customers choose great books. Our customers appreciate the value we give in ensuring (as much as humanly possible) that the books they are buying are bang on.”

The strategy these niche booksellers are using to survive competition from Amazon is no different from any other independent brick-and-mortar bookstore. They’re putting more effort than ever into building a dedicated community around them. Simon says: “It’s about building a loyal customer base who appreciates your knowledge.”

Through the fall Bakka Phoenix hosted one or two events every weekend and several during the week. “We do stuff in-store, we do stuff out-of-store, we work in conjunction with a local publisher who does a reading series, we host writing classes…we have workshops,” Szego says. Bakka Phoenix has also strengthened its online presence, announcing all of its new titles on Twitter, for instance.

The truth is that online competition isn’t the only issue facing niche bookstores. Real estate is also often a problem for them, given that they are usually located in urban centres. The Cookbook Store cites the sale of its building as one of the reasons for its closure. In contrast, Bakka Phoenix owns its own building, which gives it some stability. Vancouver’s real estate is notoriously expensive (the city’s housing ranks as the second most expensive in the world, after Hong Kong), so one can imagine the rents paid by Oscar’s Art Books, located on a prime piece of real estate on West Broadway and Granville. It also happened to be located directly across from one of the city’s Chapters stores. In contrast, Kidsbooks doesn’t own its buildings and pays high rent, and it managed to add a third location in 2007 that is thriving.

If there’s a conclusion to be drawn, then, it’s that niche bookstores are facing the same struggles as other indie bookstores. We can all support them by buying from them.

Or if you’re crime fiction writer James Patterson, by giving them money. He’s in the process of giving away $1 million in grants to U.S. bookstores, as reported in this New York Times article last week. Whether he shows an affinity for dedicated mystery stores remains to be seen.

Trena White

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