Challenged by technology and market forces, independent bookstores are bouncing back

During my travels in Canada, I usually try to visit museums and art galleries and, when they are available, the local bookstores.

While they’ve long been battered by department stores and the Indigo-Chapters website, ease of shopping on Amazon, and e-books, I often find that many independent sellers in Canada are not only still around, but seemingly thriving.

Among the many there are bookmark in Halifax, Booksellers McNally Robinson in Saskatoon and Winnipeg and Audreys Books in Edmonton.

This week, reporting on an upcoming fire mitigation article took me to Kelowna, British Columbia, where I added Mosaic books to the list of bookstores I’ve visited. Kelowna, while unusually affluent and a popular tourist destination, has a population of just 157,000. But at 8,000 square feet and filled with some 17,000 current titles, plus thousands of remaining books, Mosaic looks like a store you’d expect to find in a city many times the size of Kelowna.

The other morning I met Michael Neill, owner of Mosaic with his wife Michele, and Alicia Neill, store manager and Mr. Neill’s daughter, to talk about the state of booksellers in Canada.

Mr. Neill has a broad and particular view of the industry. Above the bookshop are the offices of Mr Neill’s other business, book director, which builds software systems used by approximately 530 independent bookstores in Canada and the United States. That partnership also led directly to his purchase of Mosaic and his family’s move to Kelowna.

First, let’s look at some numbers. Statistics Canada’s latest analysis, dating back to the skewed pandemic year of 2020 when stores closed, found that physical bookstores remained the largest source of book sales in Canada, a C$1.5 billion market at the time.

Mr Neill said there is no single model of success, or at least survival, when it comes to bookstores.

“The interesting thing about independent bookstores is that they’re all so different,” she told me in Alicia’s office at the back of the store, which is already stocked with merchandise for Christmas. “Everyone does their own thing, and I like that. This provides some diversity.

Mr. Neill got into the book business through his mother, Madeline Neill, who started Black Bond Books in Brandon, Manitoba, and eventually raised it, with her sisters, in a dozen shops in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia. In the 1980s, he began developing software for ordering books and managing store inventory as an internal project.

Other shops began buying the software and, in 1994, Mr. Neill left Black Bond to start Bookmanager as a separate business. Within a year, however, he realized that he still needed a shop that would function as a test bed and laboratory. Mosaic, founded in 1968, was on the market.

It was sold to the Neills by an absentee owner. The shop was without direction, Mr Neill said, unprofitable and generally a run-down mess.

The Neills moved it from a side street to Kelowna’s main street to attract tourists. One refurbishment included a café, which eventually proved unprofitable and was replaced by leftover books. (Even in an age of coffee glut, Kelowna stands out with its extraordinary number of coffee shops.)

But as its sales bounced back, Mosaic wasn’t immune to the blows that hit booksellers in general. Opening a Costco store drastically reduced the sales of the best sellers. Then sales immediately dropped by about a third after the chapters appeared at a local mall, a problem accelerated by Amazon’s move to Canada.

For Mr. Neill, a turning point in the industry generally came with the rise of e-book readers in the late 2000s. He said around half of Bookmanager’s customers at the time decided to close their stores rather than face the digital challenger.

“When I spoke to the owners, they said ‘Michael, I’m done,’ Mr Neill said. “E-books will be the future. You saw what happened in music. You saw what happened to the video. The books are next.”

The Neills disagreed with that prediction—correctly, as it turned out—and continued to invest in Mosaic to recoup and grow its sales.

Ms Neill said a sign of the return of independents can be found in her father’s other business. She said there are now 100 stores on a waiting list for Bookmanager systems and that same waitlist won’t get new names until November.

This return of independents, Neill said, may reflect what book buyers have found lacking online as the pandemic forced them there.

“It’s fun to try and build a place that you walk in and you don’t know what you’re looking for or what you’re going to buy,” she said. “You can just experience all things, and then you find things, while otherwise you’re just looking for something.”

Born in Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen studied in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has been writing about Canada for the New York Times for twenty years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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