What’s a nice bookstore like you doing in a place like this?

It took me nearly a year to notice this place, despite the fact that it’s located about half a block north of my office. Maybe it’s because I don’t frequently walk north (the GO train lies in the opposite direction); maybe it’s because there’s no glaringly bright signage announcing its presence (if you don’t look directly at the window you’ll miss the quiet little logo — subtitled, ironically enough, “read the fine print”). Maybe it’s because I’m staring at my Blackberry too much.

Whatever the reason, I was happy to find it. Ben McNally Books opened up last fall in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in brave defiance of the laws of 21st century book retailing economics, which dictate that There Shall Be But One Retailer, Its Scope Shall Be National, and Its Tastes Middlebrow. Ben himself is the former general manager of Nicholas Hoare Books, a quality bookstore of longer standing (it’s part of a three-city chain, in fact) which, while being located in what one must call “downtown Toronto”, is not truly positioned on the spine of Canadian finance as Ben’s shop is — Hoare is several blocks to the east, a culture zone of restaurants, cafes, and galleries which attracts slow-walking browsers just ripe for book buying.

Bay Streeters, by contrast, generally have somewhere to go, fast. Languid walk-ins, therefore, will be rare. What Ben’s store must be hoping to attract instead is that (not insignificant) sub-set of business people who read more than the financial and sports pages, and who will be happy to have a quality bookstore in the heart of the district, staffed by people who can point out not only the latest John Grisham, but also the latest J.M. Coetzee.

Unfortunately, this select group of patrons may not often include me. Because of my limited free time, I have fairly precise, project-related reading needs, and these I’ve found are best served via the search-and-ship magic of Amazon.ca and its peers. However, I shall probably buy something occassionally from Ben’s, if only because a physical bookstore offers a different kind of serendipitous discovery effect than on-line retailers can provide (although with its many suggestion-style features, Amazon can come pretty close these days). For example, while scanning Ben’s shelves I ran across an attractive collection of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, and came very very close to buying it on a whim. But I didn’t; too many other unread books in my house.

Next time, Ben.

2 thoughts on “What’s a nice bookstore like you doing in a place like this?

  1. I wonder if Amazon will ever add the search function for Recommended Reading. You could plug in gay+young+black+poetry and Amazon would suggest the perfect book gift of poetry for your young gay black neighbour who has recently come out as a poet. And then there could be a function called Has Anyone Ever Read This and you’d see the hits of readers to help you determine if you ought to order a copy on line.

    My guess is that Amazon won’t build this option into their book selling monopoly. My guess is that readers still want to go into Ben Mcnally, Nicolas Hoare, and Solstice Books and ask the book lovers what books book lovers buy for budding poets.

    My guess is that it won’t take long for Amazon to catch on.

    Kathleen Molloy, author – Dining with Death

  2. I sympathize with your ambivalence to your new bookstore. I also am one of those that hope independents stay alive but do very little to help in that effort. I get most of my books from the library, and when I buy, its usually on-line. I love visiting bookstores, walking around, checking out titles I’d heard of here and there and forgotten and then seen in front of me. And at the independents you generally find staff who love books, and know some things about them. The truth is, the big chains are often more friendly to browsing (in terms of sitting and reading unpurchased merchandise), and of course, their selections are astronomical. Yet somehow, decades since the bog boxes have arrived, and more than a decade since on-line, the independents are still kicking.
    So somebody is out there putting their money where their mouth is.
    Thank you!

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