In the June 2013 issue of Q&Q, Vancouver librarians Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi argue that libraries should get into the business of selling books.
It may be sacrilegious and antithetical to everything libraries stand for (and as librarians, we appreciate this more than most), but we ardently believe it nevertheless: libraries should get into the business of selling books. Now.
The crisis in Canada’s once vibrant book industry is negatively affecting our reading lives and communities. Growing evidence suggests that the increasing dominance of big corporations and discount giants is resulting in less diversity of ideas.
Canada’s publishing industry is facing tremendous instability and transition. As Canadian-owned publishers struggle to remain independent, the impending merger of Penguin and Random House will further shift the balance of power into fewer hands.
Similar pressures are affecting booksellers. Discount giant Target is set to become, by some estimates, the second largest book retailer in the country. Target’s strategy is similar to Costco’s: bestsellers stocked in large quantities and deeply discounted. Meanwhile, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo Books & Music, has rebranded itself as a lifestyle store for booklovers, allocating more retail space for home décor and gift items, and less for books. While many independent booksellers withstood the arrival of Amazon in Canada, the rise of ebooks has mostly shut them out of the digital marketplace.
The impact has been swift and harsh. The Canadian Booksellers Association estimates that 300 independents across the country have shut their doors over the last decade. (Earlier this year, the CBA itself surrendered its charter and merged with the Retail Council of Canada, ceasing to exist as an independent organization.) In the past several years the closures have included Collected Works in Ottawa, Duthie’s Books in Vancouver, Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and four Book Warehouse locations in B.C. Together they represent a loss of more than 175 years of bookselling experience and service to our communities.
What else has been lost? For some consumers, perhaps very little. Bestsellers are cheaper than ever, and finding almost any book online is simple. If saving time and money were all that mattered, we may never have been better off.
But the actual damage is incalculable. The loss of independent bookstores is accompanied by the loss of diversity, possibility, and sense of place. Publishers, writers, and the readers they serve all lose in a market that rewards blockbusters but ignores alternative voices and ideas.
Instead of being bystanders to this devastation, libraries have compelling reasons to seize the opportunity it presents. We have a mandate to help preserve our literary and cultural landscape; we have the space, often in rent-controlled buildings; we know how to buy and promote books; and we are not constrained by the need to turn a profit. We are uniquely equipped to sell books and support writers, publishers, and reading in Canada.
Ours would not be a traditional business venture, but an extension of the service we already provide. It would operate on a self-sustaining, cost-recovery basis. The inventory would highlight books from Canadian publishers and writers, and reflect a range of voices across social, cultural, political, economic, and artistic spectrums. It would be a dynamic, jumbled, and chaotic collection of books and ideas.
When Target announced it would open in the same mall as McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Paul McNally commented, Our cultural industries need a zone of protection, certainly more than potash does. Libraries in Canada can, and should, be that zone.
Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi are readers, former booksellers, and librarians in Vancouver