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A eulogy for Nicholas Hoare and the independent bookstore

By Alessandro Marcon on April 18, 2012

Road signs are valuable instructional tools: they tell us what’s coming, what to expect. It’s fitting, then, that the propped up sign in front of the Nicholas Hoare bookstore a few days ago had this Robert Graves quote: “There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money.” Now somewhat old news, Nicholas Hoare is closing up shop in both Ottawa and Montreal while keeping their store in Toronto. While newspapers everywhere have covered the story, from the Globe to the Post to the Citizen the story is the same: the NCC raised the rent by 72% and owner Hoare finds Ottawa business to be no longer economically feasible.

How the NCC is able to raise the rent on a location by such a preposterous amount is beyond me. The NCC states in the articles that they are unable to discuss private business contracts with the media. While it all seems a bit fuzzy, one thing is certain: after the 20th of April there will no longer be a Nicholas Hoare on the corner of Sussex and St.Patrick. Many independent, non-used bookstores still exist in Ottawa but it’s valuable to think about what gets lost when Nicholas Hoare is no longer.

Most consider a bookstore simply a place to buy a book, but they miss the point. A bookstore, especially a good one, is a place to learn about books and reading. When you go into Chapters and ask about a title, staff will most always be able to direct you to the right section or if not, will amiably help you look up the title on the computer. In an independent bookstore, staff will almost always know about the titles you are looking for and be able, most often, to talk about the work and its significance. They can direct you to similar titles, possibly something more pertinent than the one you had initially requested, or they might be able to suggest starting with one novel before another if you wish to understand a particular author. A good bookstore is a like a piece of community, an invitation into a discussion, an expansion of possibility and opportunity – not merely the place to purchase a product.

I had a discussion with a woman working at Nicholas Hoare, who expressed these exact sentiments. She talked about how N.H. is a “real bookstore” with knowledgeable staff who actually read and know books. She said she frequently sees people who use N.H. as a showroom, telling stories of people who come into the store and ask about titles, only to say thanks and then leave. The ‘faux-customers’ come with their BlackBerries, take pictures of covers, smile and then leave. Amazon is most probably where they’ll go when it comes time to purchase. She told me of bookstores in the States that have banned the use of BlackBerries in the shop for this exact reason.

While you might find knowledgeable staff at Chapters, there is obviously much more focus on sales and business than literary culture. As discussed in an excellent podcast by The Sunday Edition, which comprehensively illustrates the perilous state of the Canadian publishing industry, Chapters makes it very difficult for small publishers to sell books. They can’t compete with the marketing costs that come with individual-book displays, face-up displays (what you see on the tables as you walk by) or Heather’s Picks. (Heather’s Picks are in fact a scam to some degree. To my understanding, Chapters charges a publisher for this service. It’s all about cash.)

Regardless of the fact that books, even in Chapters, are becoming more and more scarce in bookstores as more space is being allocated for candles, chocolate, magazines, etc., bookstores are still a place to go to get what’s new and hot: award-winning titles being lauded in the media. But where’s the diversity? How will new writers ever get discovered? Are you being fed your tastes or are you struggling, working at least a little, to discern what you should learn and enjoy?

What the independent bookstores should start noticing – and mostly likely are – is that the internet is not just a place to buy books, it’s also a place to learn about what to read next. Many writers, such as Lee Henderson, have personal blogs where they talk about new books and writers. Educated and knowledgeable blogs are now ubiquitous, many of which are personable, fun and very specific. If I love one of Lee Henderson’s books, which I do (The Man Game is brilliant), will I not want to know exactly from him which books he thinks are valuable to read? It’s this wealth, not just of consumer availability, but of knowledge, advice and community, which flows through the internet and is tapping into the service that independent bookstores hope to provide.

That said, I sometimes feel like my knowledge or opinions are being tested when going into an independent bookstore. Discussions can sometimes be stuffy and pretentious, and I’ve always found N.H. to be a bit snobby for my tastes. While I like the look of the place, and am bewildered as to how the NCC can get away with jacking the rent costs, I won’t miss the store all that much. But because I love books and reading, I hope that the other stores in Ottawa will continue to survive. It would show me that people still like reading books and discussing them and are finding new avenues to learn about what to read. If more bookstores close, and the trend certainly says they will (400 or so have closed in the past year according to the Sunday Edition podcast mentioned above), what will this tell us? The answers won’t come easily, but like a well-written quote, they’ll be worth thinking about.

  • Other stores and restaurants in the area complain that the NCC, like some other landlords, requires businesses to pay extra whenever their revenues exceed a set amount. It’s an approach that penalizes businesses for doing well.

    The NCC does have a responsibility to get market value for its properties, and a spokesman points out that anything else might be criticized as an unfair business practice. It’s a fair point, but it illuminates the contradiction inherent in state ownership of commercial properties. If the NCC’s bound to push rents to the limit the market will bear, the private sector could do that on its own.

    If there’s a need for a state landlord in the area, there must be considerations other than money in play. If not, Canadians should rethink whether it really needs the federal government to act as a commercial landlord, especially at a time when government should be getting smaller.

    It’s true that bookstores have to adapt to a changing market, but there’s no reason to make it even more difficult for them to do so. Bookstores are community spaces, not just businesses. That’s the kind of thing the NCC should care about.

    If the NCC treats its landlord role as a simple commercial operation, Canadians should question why it has that role at all.

  • rm

    It’s a sad truth, but as the price of books has gone up, it has become prohibitive to bibliophiles everywhere to patronize bookstores, most especially the great independents that are being squeezed out by chains like Chapters. If you want a hot, bestselling book, you’re liable to find it cheaper not only on Amazon, but in Costco, and if you want something hard to find, forget going to Chapters; not only will you get empty stares from the uneducated people working there, you won’t find what you’re looking for, despite the “we have everything” impression you’re supposed to get from the sheer square footage of the place.

    I love reading, and books, and yet find myself rarely buying books from a retail store, because it doesn’t pay to buy a book I may only read once; I use the library (Ottawa’s library system is the BEST, period) and when I come across a title I know I may reread or want for reference, I tend to order from Amazon. I quit patronizing Chapters years ago when I heard that Heather Reisman donates a substantial amount of money to the Conservatives, and that she arranged to have Mein Kampf banned in all Chapters stores; the ideology may be reprehensible to some, but we do still live in a free society where you’re allowed to at least read about how other people think or thought at some point. Reading about something doesn’t mean you espouse it, simply that you’re informing yourself.

    In my humble opinion, the NCC is one of the sole reasons the city of Ottawa has been held back on too many fronts from being a world class city, and they deserve to be dismantled and the planning of this city returned to a body that is not federally but locally administered. They suffer from a severe lack of vision and clear thinking when it comes to determining the city’s future; between them and the city’s condo-crazed developers, it will be a miracle if the city survives the next few decades without suffering a massive collapse.