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Ben McNally Books moves to Adelaide Street East on a short-term lease

Olivia Long, Rupert McNally, and Ben McNally in the old 366 Bay Street location of Ben McNally Books, September 2019

Ben McNally Books, one of Toronto’s most beloved independent bookstores, has received a temporary reprieve after Ben and Rupert McNally, the father-and-son proprietors, signed a short-term lease for a new location in the city’s downtown. The new digs, at 317 Adelaide Street East, comprise 2,025 square feet with a 77-foot frontage in a unit that was formerly used as a design showroom. The future of Ben McNally Books had been uncertain since Ben and Rupert learned in September of last year that their current landlord was not renewing the lease on their store at 366 Bay Street and they would have to vacate no later than Sept. 1 of this year.

“It’s really a beautiful space,” says Ben about the new location. “We loved the space the moment we went into it.” The property is move-in ready for what Ben refers to as their “bare-bones operation” during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which consists at this point of curbside pick-up and delivery of special orders while the store itself is closed to the public. They will not be installing wall-mounted bookshelves – at least in the immediate term – but will be moving the free-standing tables from the Bay Street store to display stock in preparation for potential reopening in the coming months.

Ben and Rupert have signed a short-term lease on the space through next January, which will allow them to continue selling during the crucial Christmas season between October and December, when some bookstores do upward of 80 per cent of their business. Whether they remain in the Adelaide location past January 2021 is an open question. “We’re not going to stop looking for a long-term place,” says Rupert. “We always liked the place we’re moving into, but we’re not sure about the neighbourhood.”

Though the new store is close to George Brown College’s downtown campus, Rupert points out that the walk-by traffic on Adelaide itself is not huge, though the new location is in the ground floor of a condo building and is well positioned to allow the McNallys to continue to offer curbside pick-up and delivery during the pandemic. “Who knows? It may turn out to be a good long-term location,” says Ben. “This gives us a chance to see the neighbourhood, which we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”

Rupert says they expect to make the move into their new retail home at some point in the next two weeks.

The McNallys have returned the bulk of their stock from the Bay Street location in preparation for the move. “There are some things we want to keep one copy of so we remember it,” says Rupert. “So when we get over there we can think about whether or not we’re going to order a couple more copies.” As for what they will be purchasing from publishers for the new store in the short term, Rupert suggests that it will be a comprehensive selection of books from spring and fall 2020. “I don’t think we’re going to do a lot of backlist. I think it’s all going to be the newest stuff.”

This is in part due to necessity and in part due to the decrease in business as a result of the pandemic. According to Rupert, the store has sold less than 30 per cent of what they moved during the same time last year, though Ben also points out that summer is a traditionally slow time for bookselling. Despite the lower volume, the two have noticed a larger diversity of people placing orders, a phenomenon Rupert attributes to people wanting to support local retailers during the pandemic disruptions. “What’s interesting is that every day of the week, you get someone you’ve never heard of before, someone you don’t know. It’s not just regulars who want to support the business.”

As for what has been selling, Rupert mentions Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man as one title that has been doing robust business, but he says that what has been hardest hit are the smaller or less buzzed-about books from spring and summer that the public may not even be aware of in the absence of an opportunity to browse a brick-and-mortar bookstore. “I think there’s a lot less discovery going on.”

In order to partially counteract this, the McNallys are mulling the possibility of instituting an appointment system for people to come by the store and browse for a short time. “What we’re going to try to do, as long as health issues don’t conspire against us, is to give people the option of sticking around if they come and pick up a book,” Ben says. Should this framework pan out, Ben is hopeful that it will help spur interest in more out-of-the-way titles that book buyers might be unaware of without actually seeing them in-store. “The real crusher is we’re picking up all these books to send them back. We’re looking at them and thinking, nobody is ever going to buy this book unless they see it. And this is the only place where they would ever see it.”

Regardless of whether they are able to reopen to the public, even on a limited scale, both Ben and Rupert are pleased with the deal they have struck for the new place and the flexibility it provides them for the future. As Rupert puts it, “We’ve been sleeping a little bit better.”