Toronto’s Bookstore Landscape

Bookstores come and go.  Like with any shop, people retire, sell their business, a neighbourhood changes demographics or a building changes hands.  When I was young, a bookstore closing wouldn’t seem like a dire event, followed as it always was by another bookstore opening.  Every downtown had a bookstore, and nearly every mall did too.  Toronto was swimming with them, to the point where I even own a printed directory from a couple decades ago.

Times change, though, and the book business has changed too.   The seismic shifts in how we read, what we read, and how we buy what we read have made themselves felt in every aspect of my life.  In my education, where my Information degree included a serious focus on the digital revolution and what it meant to the future of reading.  In my own pursuit of writing, where publishing spaces have collapsed and expanded like solar systems.  And in my employment in the book industry, where we grapple with these issues every day.

So, when a bookstore closes now, it renders me more thoughtful than it once might have.

This winter and spring, Toronto is losing the Book City in the Annex, Chapter Runnymede, the Cookbook Store, and the World’s Biggest Bookstore.   Each with its own particular clientele, history, and quirkiness, and all with their own reasons for shutting their doors.  When, as a book-loving community, we lose so much so rapidly (Nicholas Hoare, I miss you too…)

Whenever I get reflective about books and bookselling, I tend to think of my grandmother.  She and I both ended up with (what is likely to be, in my case) a lifetime working in and about books.  Just after World War Two she started working at Britnell’s Book Shop on Yonge Street, to help support her husband and her young son.  She started on the sales floor and was, by the time I visited her there as a little girl, the head buyer for the store, wearing pearls and a smart skirt and a desk on the second floor.

Me and Maddy, back then:

Maddy and Me

Although my grandmother had been retired for several years when Britnell’s shut its doors (she’d worked there for half a century before she left), the news was hard on her.   Albert Britnell’s bookshop had seemed a permanent fixture to her, a constant.  She thought it was the beginning of the end of something, and it’s hard to argue that point.  My book industry and my grandmother’s bear little resemblance to each other, bustling as they both are.

I’m not actually a pessimist about the future of the bookstore – I think they have a real and vibrant life ahead of them.   But it’s still terribly sad to see one close, and I hope very much we shall see some new ones open their doors to take their place.

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