Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Evolution of an Independent Bookstore

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By Becky Toyne

There’s been a lot of Darwin talk lately. And by lately, I mean for the past 150-odd years. A flurry of anniversary publications and reissues hit bookshelves in 2009, and the trend is trickling on into 2010.

Elbow deep in the new Bill Bryson recently, I realized I was having a very Darwin-heavy week myself. The book (which hits Canadian shelves in November) is a collection of essays about the Royal Society of London, so not surprisingly, Darwin looms large within its pages. I had also that week been among the boisterous TINARS crowd at a cabaret to launch the story collection Darwin’s Bastards. And as soon as I was finished with Bryson, I was heading back to my desk to work on the evolution of what some would consider to be an endangered species: the independent bookstore.

On April 26, the newest butterfly in Toronto’s indie bookselling scene emerged blinking from its chrysalis. Type Books opened the doors to its new, much bigger, Forest Hill store a week ahead of schedule, and got ready to meet its neighbours. It’s the latest expansion for the store that began life on Queen Street West in 2006, and in the midst of so many tales of woe (Toronto’s Pages and McNally Robinson both having closed in the past year), it’s reassuring to have a good-news story to share.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should explain that I am, for a few hours of the week at least, on Type’s payroll. Alternately donning the hat of bookseller, event planner and publicist, I am often to be overheard at book shindigs talking Type. But my affection for the store isn’t bought: Me and Type, we got history. In March 2006, I was just off the plane from London carrying the somewhat idealistic notion of finding a job in a nice little Canadian bookshop. And then I found Type: I couldn’t have been luckier. When the Queen Street store was no more than a teaser window of an armchair full of sample books, I was in the bare, bookshelf-less room behind it inputting orders. When the inventory started to pile in, the small staff had marathon stickering and shelving parties to get ready for opening day. It was exciting. Strangers would stop by and express delight at the prospect of having a neighbourhood bookstore. But they also had a worrying tendency to tell co-owners Joanne Saul and Samara Walbohm that they were being “very brave.” The expected lifespan of a new indie was not, apparently, a long one.

In the four years since, Type Books has followed its own Darwinian course. Store does well, store expands to new neighbourhoods (a Forest Hill store opened in November 2007; a Danforth store followed in May 2008). Store sacrifices weaker members of the herd for the collective good (the Danforth store closed in August 2009). Store bares its teeth at potential predators (18 months after Book City opened up one block away, Type Queen Street expanded into the unit behind it). Which brings us to the latest chapter in Type’s evolutionary tale.

After just over two years in the neighbourhood, Type Forest Hill is ready for its new avatar. Having outgrown 394 Spadina Road, it’s moved a block north to a bright, airy new spot and unveiled a slick new look. Until now, every member of the Type family has been a carbon copy of the original (bold stencilled walls and a palette of cream, charcoal and dusty red). The new store is black and white: it still feels like Type, but it’s put its party dress on to fit in with the ‘hood. Type is also investing resources in pulling people in, not just as consumers, but as guests and friends as well. It plans to do a lot of socializing in its new home, and has a spring–summer season of in-store events lined up, including a book club and readings for kids.

Type isn’t the only indie recognising the importance of this model. To pick just three newish stores: Roxanne Reads at Queen and Broadview hosts movie afternoons and craft workshops; This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (a 30-year city stalwart, but new to Kensington Market in 2008) regularly packs its store in celebration of small presses; and Good Egg holds sell-out knife-skills and cooking classes. It’s all about creating a community for your customers: Sell your patrons a solitary pleasure, then invite them back to enjoy it en masse. Survival of the fittest? How about survival of the store with the most friends.

So socializing with your customers is good for business, it seems. It’s not the only model for success, but as at least one member of bookstore independicus is proving, nurturing your herd and moving quickly to adapt to new habitats is a smart way of ensuring your survival in this town.

Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist based in Toronto. Since embarking on a career in publishing in 2002, she has worked as an editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada; as a bookseller, event planner and publicist for Toronto’s Type Books; and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors and Authors at Harbourfront Centre. She is a member of the communications committee for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and tweets about life in book land as @MsRebeccs.

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