British Columbia-based author Janie Chang spent some of her childhood living in Tehran, Iran, where her father worked for the United Nations. There, Chang’s mother sometimes dropped her off at a local English-language independent bookstore before going off to do the grocery shopping.
“The bookstore owner was great. There I was, this kid sitting in the corner, reading books, and he didn’t throw me out or anything,” Chang said. “It just felt like I was in a place with other kindred spirits and the bookstore owner was happy to have someone young there who [was] reading.”
Chang, whose first novel Three Souls was published in 2014 by HarperCollins, continued to adore bookstores after she moved to Canada. When she launched her own writing career a few years back, she began to see a distinction between independent sellers and the big chain retailers.
“I was stunned to discover the biggest mover of books in Canada is Costco,” she said. “And then you read into it and there’s the whole shop local aesthetic, which is if you spend $100 in a local bookstore $68 of that stays in your community. If you spend $100 at a national chain, your community sees $43.”
Chang is the brainchild of Canada’s Authors For Indies Day, a new event that connects local authors to independent bookstores, and to readers. The goal is to offer readers an intimate opportunity to meet writers, something they may not get at literary festivals or readings. The bookstores are free to organize whatever activities they want, from signings to interactive activities, or just ask authors to chat with the public about the books they love.
On Saturday, May 2, approximately 500 authors will be hanging out in at least 132 bookstores across Canada. Twelve Montreal indies have signed on, and nine of them were already paired up with authors as of April 13.
“People [say] you need to support the writing community and you can only do so much by going to readings, and signings, and book launches,” Chang said. “At some point you need to try and drive more revenue into the whole chain, and this just seemed like such a great idea.”
Chang’s idea developed after she took a creative writing workshop at Simon Fraser University, in Burnaby, B.C. The program taught the importance of fostering the writing community, in addition to the craft of writing. Then she read about the United States Indies First Campaign, initiated by author Sherman Alexie, which asked writers to support their local indies by volunteering to work at the store on Small Business Saturday in 2013. The event was hugely successful, and Chang thought Canada ought to have its own equivalent.
Authors for Indies Day comes at a good time for independent bookstores, which are beginning to bounce back from nearly a decade of setbacks. The country’s retailers were hit hardest by changes in the market and economy from about 2008 to 2012, according to Lesley Fletcher, manager of MySTORE Book Industry, part of the Retail Council of Canada.
During those years, there was a surge of indie bookstores closing around Canada, she said. Online retailers were coming into play and many stores were situated in neighbourhoods where rent began to skyrocket. Sellers also struggled with the growing popularity of e-books.
J.P Karwacki, co-owner of Argo Bookshop, a small store nestled into a St. Catherine’s Street city block, knocked on a lot of wood bookshelves as he spoke of the challenges retailers face. Karwacki hasn’t seen the negative effects in the three years he has owned the store, but something like a rent increase or thousands of dollars of extra taxes a year could cause big problems for retailers, who want to keep their staff and business models intact, he said.
“Only recently has the neighbourhood started to change with the rise of some condominiums, some supermarkets,” he said. “So it kind of remains to be seen whether or not our landlord’s going to show up the next day and say, ‘Hey, we actually think this neighbourhood is up and coming,’ all of a sudden.”
Today, there are fewer indies than there were 10 years ago, and they are not bouncing back at the same rate that they were declining, Fletcher said. But the shrinking has stopped, she said. There is the same number of bookstores today as there was two years ago. People have even been contacting her about the possibility of opening new stores or branches, which hasn’t been the case in recent years. The positive indicators are at least in part the result of indies offering more community-oriented events, like readings, signings, and workshops.
Montreal-based author Laurence Miall, who will be appearing at Argo Books and Librarie Clio on Authors For Indie Day, credits the success of his first novel, Blind Spot, to the work of independent bookstores. Edmonton’s Audreys Books not only sold the novel at its launch, but also hosted speaking engagements, did advanced publicity and showcased the book in its window. In Montreal, his launch party at Drawn and Quarterly drew a packed house, thanks to the bookstore’s publicity efforts.
“I get the impression that maybe more people are starting to look for an alternative,” said Miall. “They’re starting to realize that you don’t really get all your needs met through Amazon. You don’t get community through Amazon. You don’t get a well-curated collection. You don’t get any kind of conversation about books.”
When Karwacki purchased Argo from its previous owner, he made events a priority. “We set out to have readings almost every single month, as well as a regular open mic series,” he said. “It does regularly bring people in and a lot of these people end up returning often. It ends up building its own community.”
The organizers of Authors for Indies are hoping the nation-wide events will help build awareness of everything independent booksellers are doing these days to foster literary connectedness. If the first year is a success, Chang would love to include more Francophone writers and bookstores in the future, she said.
“Get out there on May 2 and support your independent bookstores,” Chang said. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and we really want to prevent that. We want them to thrive.”
To find out more about Authors for Indies Day, including participating bookstores in your area, visit http://www.authorsforindies.com.
Rebecca Fishow is a writer and visual artist living in Montreal. Her work has appeared in The Believer Logger, Necessary Fiction, the Fiddleback and elsewhere. She is the Interviews Editor for Cosmonauts Avenue.
– photo: Dave Crosby, Flickr Creative Commons