Death of the gay bookshop?

“I know my place. It’s among books. That’s the sort of worm I am.”
Canadian poet Mary Dalton (The Globe and Mail, Jan 6)

I’m the same sort of worm as Mary Dalton. I think reading books is one of the most joyous experiences in life. If I go more than a few days without spending time curled up with a book, I suffer withdrawal, a similar feeling to what I experience if I don’t get a morning coffee, or if I’ve been away from physical activity too long.

And I agree with writer Andrew Ross in his claim that “the smallest bookstore still contains more ideas of worth than have been presented in the entire history of television.”

When I turn on my TV I get depressed about our world — from Airplane Repo to the Kardashians to Work It. When I watch television it’s not hard to imagine the world could very well end later this year. Never before have we aimed more precisely for, and hit, the lowest common denominator.

In bookstores I am more hopeful.

But independent bookshops are under threat. For gay and lesbian bookshops this is even more true — if queer bookstores were a species, they’d be listed on the critically endangered list. In Canada there are only four left in the wild.

To many, the writing has been on the wall since Tom Hanks’s big box tried to gobble Meg Ryan’s tiny bookstore in You’ve Got Mail. And that was when the internet was just taking off.

The victims of the internet are both arbitrary and diverse: print media, Blockbuster video, privacy, music CDs, North African dictatorships, Anthony Weiner and soon, bookstores. And while the Steve Jobs bio topped last year’s bestseller lists, the iPad, one of his many gifts to our technology-addicted world, is one of the main reasons bookstores are hemorrhaging customers faster than Glee loses ratings.

Yet while Amazon offers lower prices, Indigo boasts a larger selection, and Kindle fits in big pockets, I still travel one more subway stop or pay that extra fiver for the experience of an independent bookstore.

There is a sense of community in a bookstore, a shared love of not only the stories, but also the smell and touch of a book. Similarly, it is nice to speak with salespeople who love books and actually know about them.

I remember moving to Toronto as a young gay man and finding this community two times over in the city’s independent gay bookstores. It was double the pleasure. I have discovered books in gay bookstores I would never have thought to search for online.

For these reasons I also still rent movies from a video store. I can count on one hand the number of foreign films available from Rogers on Demand.


But people like me are on the vulnerable list, too; in these belt-tightening times such loyalties are expensive to maintain. I think we are also lazier than ever before. Some predict we’ll soon have no reason to leave the house. How sad.

However, an Xtra investigation has found that while some gay bookstores, such as Toronto’s Glad Day and Ottawa’s After Stonewall (which both now sell just eight books a day), are candles in the wind, others are surviving and even thriving.

Vancouver’s Little Sister’s sells 60 books a day, and Toronto’s Good for Her sells 30.

The key to this success seems to be a willingness to adapt and change with the times.

This means staying ahead of the curve and diversifying. Little Sister’s and Good for Her both also sell sex toys, porn and other queer paraphernalia. Both shops have embraced online shopping and incorporated it in a way that allows owners to make money even if customers want to shop from home.

Little Sister’s is open 91 hours per week compared to After Stonewall’s 52 hours. At Good for Her, owners have set aside five hours each week when the store is open only for women and trans customers. These stores both carry fewer titles, but managers choose what they do stock according to customer needs.

In the end, this may not save these shops from the same fate as those that have already shut their doors. It probably is a losing battle.

So for those who still love the smell and touch of a real book, I encourage you to get out there and buy one from a gay bookstore today. It may be the last chance you get.

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

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