SHuSH's bookstore extravaganza
Plus, an abundance of bookshop porn, with a special Chinese section
I NEED YOUR HELP!
With two more newsletters, we’ll have published the 100th edition of SHuSH. As many of you know, we started in response to the dwindling supply of news and commentary about books in mainstream media. The newsletter has been a lot of work, but it feels worthwhile. We have a solid following of 1500 subscribers and 3000-4000 readers a week, and we’re committed to keeping up the free weekly format for as long as it’s viable. But we want to grow. The larger we are, the more visibility we will have, the more sources we can tap, and the better content we can deliver subscribers. So we’re going to try to double our audience over newsletters 98, 99, and 100.
I need each of you to tell at least one other book lover to subscribe to SHuSH. If you can do two or three, all the better. Those of you who have a good social media presence, please recommend us to your followers (we’re at https://shush.substack.com/).
In return for your efforts, we’ll give each of our current subscribers a coupon code for a free Sutherland House book of your choice (not including postage, and some quantities may be limited). All you’ll have do is email email@example.com, and tell us who you’ve signed up. Once we’ve confirmed the new member, we’ll send you a coupon code.
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The regathering of a clan
Doug Minett has a long history in the book world. He and his then-partner, Barb (that’s them above), opened The Bookshelf in Guelph in the 1970s, starting with a 1000-square-foot shop. It grew, drawing people from a hundred miles around. Minett added a café and restaurant, and a second-floor movie theatre that, pre-covid, had accommodated more than a million patrons. It is probably the world’s only bookstore-restaurant-theatre. Throughout the pandemic, The Bookshelf (below) has branched out again to deliver book and wine pairings to thousands of customers. All of which is to say that the store, still run by the Minett family, remains at the heart of the Guelph literary and cultural scene, and stands as one of the great success stories in Canadian book retailing (you can read more about it here).
Doug himself has always enjoyed another life as a systems technologist. He has been a consultant for Barnes & Noble and the ISBN agency internationally, and he built a payment system to help his nephew bring solar power to hundreds of thousands of people in Kenya.
It was a combination of his bookselling background and his passion for systems work that recommended his latest project to him.
Minett was a member of the old Canadian booksellers’ association, which crashed under a load of debt in 2008. The end of that association also meant the end of its annual convention in Toronto, the one event where booksellers would network with one another, solve their mutual problems, and mingle with publishers and writers. Absent an association, booksellers were also without a single voice in their lobbying efforts, and an important tool for communications and joint marketing.
Since 2008, the closest thing to a replacement for the annual booksellers’ convention has been a bookselling academy hosted annually in Kelowna by Michael Neill, who in addition to owning Mosaic Books (more on it below), developed the software that virtually all Canadian booksellers use to manage their businesses. Minett attended the academy with his kids in pre-covid days and wound up in conversations about restarting the Canadian booksellers association. The conversations continued and became more urgent during lockdown when the shopkeepers found themselves in a desperate struggle for survival. Meeting over zoom, a small quorum of them committed to the restart.
Minett volunteered to write a background paper on what the association could do, and how it might be funded. He wanted to keep it focused to avoid the overstretch that had been fatal to the original association. He wanted it to be associated with BookNet Canada, the non-profit organization that reports on Canadian book sales and provides publishers and booksellers with a lot of backend tools. He wanted it to be multi-sector, involving not only booksellers but publishers, authors, libraries, and professional associations.
What emerged from these discussions and Minett’s backgrounder is the newly-minded Canadian Independent Booksellers Association (CIBA). Minett and crew built a website and membership portal, wrestled a grant out of Heritage Canada, and after just several months of activity, signed up ninety bookselling members, and almost as many associate members, including publishers, sales agents, and authors.
One of the major functions of CIBA will be lobbying on behalf of the industry. The recent federal budget set aside $31.4 million for support of bookselling, an oddly specific number with a vaguely defined purpose. Some of the funds would appear to cover the CIBA grant. Hopes are that the government will also contribute money to reducing the costs of shipping for booksellers, addressing a structural imbalance with Amazon. It’s a huge problem for independents—how to compete with the tech giant’s ultra-low and probably-below-cost (i.e., predatory) shipping rates.
Marketing, communications, and professional development are also part of CIBA’s mission. The latter might involve anything from instruction on supply chain logistics to advice on curating bookstores—how to choose from among the millions of potential titles the 2,000 or 8,000 you’ll put on your shelves. A syllabus for prospective booksellers is in the works.
Minett’s best guess is that there are about 300 independent booksellers in Canada. That perhaps overstates the health of the sector. Fewer than ten of those are large stores stocking more than 8,000 titles. Another fifty to a hundred, he says, are medium-sized, financially viable stores. The rest are hobbyists or people selling books out of yarn or wallpaper shops—still important and committed booksellers but smaller fry in the overall market.
Minett is convinced, and we agree, that in an era where big book chains like Barnes & Noble and Indigo are retreating, and a lot of consumers are feeling Amazon fatigue (or disgust), the ‘buy local’ messages of independent booksellers has a special resonance, making it a promising time to consider a start-up.
He does see any substitute for the local bricks-and-mortar bookstore over the long run. The one real advantage indies have, he says, is a physical community presence and an ability to interact with buyers. “One of the things you learn as a bookseller,” says Minett, “is the importance of supporting your community and local culture. You really need to know your community. Bookstores learn from their customers. They will tell you what they want, and you have to listen to them.”
While a lot of indies have been forced to improve their virtual sales during covid, they’ve been doing so without abandoning that intimate relationship with the customer. Many are using emails, social media, and the telephone to make recommendations and provide individualized service, something large-scale virtual sellers will never effectively do.
You can read more about CIBA, its members, and how to buy from them here.
Speaking of books & movies
I recently watched a great little documentary about the New York bookselling world. It is primarily concerned with rare and antiquarian book dealers, including the three sisters behind Argosy Book Store, but it also covers less rarified retailers, including one of my favorites, The Strand, and visits with a number of committed young booksellers, a breed I thought was extinct. Various authors, including an uncharacteristically sober Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Fran Lebowitz, who is everywhere these days, have on-screen parts. “Lovely and wistful,” was Variety’s description of the film, and that about nails it. I’ve never been tempted to be a collector of books and I still found it captivating. Here’s the trailer:
First-rate bookstore porn
Lovely and wistful would also be an apt description of a new book from Prestel entitled Bookstores: A Celebration of Independent Booksellers. Photographer Horst A. Friedrichs and writer Stuart Husbands take the reader on a tour of about fifty shops in North America and Europe.
Each of their stops is spectacular in its own way, either for its history (City Lights in San Francisco, Shakespeare & Company in Paris), the beauty of its fixtures (Daunt Books, pictured above, in London, Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal at top of page), its design (Pro qm in Berlin, Stories! in Hamburg), or its charm (Baldwin’s Book Barn, below, housed in five floors of an old dairy barn, in West Chester).
Booksellers who won’t colonize the moon
One reason for optimism in the world of independent books is a growing backlash against the domination of Amazon across the retail landscape. Mosaic Books, the largest independent in the Okanagan Valley and one of the very best in Canada, is doing all it can to both fan the flames of anti-Amazon sentiment and grow the “support local” movement. It took to heart the American Booksellers Association’s #boxedout campaign and decorated its store with cardboard and slogans, drawing a sharp distinction between indies and Amazon. “We thought it was something that worked perfectly for our brand so we wanted to put it out there and make a statement,” says store manager Alicia Neill. “A funny one at least.”
I’ve always felt firmly entrenched in the Western world, and North America in particular, but having read about the new Zhongshuge bookstore in Chongqing, I’m now prepared to surrender our culture and personal liberties and welcome our new Chinese overlords. Zhongshuge’s two-storey cathedral space looks like something out of M. C. Escher. Eighty-thousand books. Mirrors everywhere that make the shelves appear to go on forever. It doesn’t matter that in the higher reaches of the store, some of the books are fake because they can’t be reached. It’s spectacular:
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