A novel experience: Why small bookstores are thriving in Canada

Two cats named Frodo and Pippin lounging in chairs in Arcadia Art and Rare Books at 232 Queen St E, Toronto, ON in April 2024. (Mohit Sharma/Toronto Observer)  

As I passed through the door to a small powder-blue store in Toronto, Ont., the musty smell of old books filled my nostrils. I finally understood the feeling of falling in love.

Acadia Art & Rare Books on Queen Street East has worn wooden floors, the kind you would expect from an independent bookstore open since 1931. The smell that punctuates the shelves of books both dusty and clean set the mood. Two cats, Frodo and Pippin, lounged on adjacent chairs right by the front door. I had just arrived, and I already wanted to come back.

Independent bookstores like this one have been experiencing a surge in popularity as of late, especially among younger readers. 

“It used to be predominantly older men who were book collectors, but now it’s a lot of young people. Just a huge mix of people,” said Rochelle, the store’s owner, who declined to give her last name.

WATCH | Toronto’s magical independent bookstores:

Large-scale sellers, most notably Indigo Books and Music, continue to struggle in regard to their book sales. Notably, the company’s largest store in Scarborough just closed, and it has expanded past books to sell other goods, leading another bookstore owner to compare them to “Winners or Marshalls.”

That’s why it may seem surprising that more than 30 new independent bookstores have opened in Canada since 2019. Like Acadia, many of them are thriving. 

“We get all sorts of customers in the store, an enormous variety of people,” said Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw bookstore in Toronto.

“Surprising numbers of them are quite young, many of them are very inexperienced with books, with bookstores.”

Fowler, 59, trades in rare and unique books and eschews mainstream publications. His store has become a tourist attraction. 

“It’s not uncommon to have people who, like maybe they’ve never even been in a bookstore before or certainly they don’t have very much experience with book shopping,” he said.

Stephen Fowler, 59, in the morning opening his bookstore The Monkey’s Paw at 1067 Bloor St W., Toronto, in April 2024 (Mohit Sharma/Toronto Observer)

Fowler’s observation is echoed by other bookstore owners who have seen a massive increase in young readers seeking out classics such as Dostoyevsky. 

So why is reading is en vogue among younger readers? The reason often cited for this is the sense of community and adventure that comes with perusing an independent bookstore, seeing everything while looking for nothing, waiting for a worn, blank-covered novel to call your name. 

This is what independent bookstores provide, the romanticism of the experience that cannot be fulfilled by online retailers such as Amazon and Audible. According to the staff of Acadia Art & Rare Books, they simply have no soul.

“We’ve had a huge upsurge in business since the pandemic, a lot of new customers. It seems like books have had a resurgence in popularity,” said Rochelle. 

This is corroborated by the market research company eMarketer on their website where they outline the desires of the Gen Z demographic, wherein they highlight the demand for authenticity that Gen Z has in terms of spending. They also list environmental consciousness as a main concern of the Gen Z consumer, something second-hand bookstores such as The Monkey’s Paw and Acadia fit nicely into.

There’s also been a rise since 2020 in what is known as the “Dark Academia” subculture, which heavily romanticizes learning, academia, books and other such paraphernalia. 

This community has garnered a substantial following online since 2020 in Canada in part due to the lockdowns and people’s desire to bring academia to their homes. Part of this subculture popular among Gen Z is the collection of rare and interesting books to share, pore over, and engage with via social media such as aesthetic posts on Instagram or the literature side of TikTok dubbed BookTok. 

“I would say philosophy, mysticism, occult seem to be enduring subjects,” Rochelle said.

Google trends for dark academia in Canada over the past five years show the sudden spike in interest around late 2020 to early 2021, with steady interest ever since
Google trends for dark academia in Canada over the past five years show the sudden spike in interest around late 2020 to early 2021, with steady interest ever since

These stores also have the advantage of being tourist attractions. The Monkey’s Paw is famous for The Biblio-Mat, a vending machine at the back of the store that takes a token purchased at the front counter for $5 and spits out a random book. While I was in the store, a woman came in and said to the owner about the machine that it was the only thing she really wanted to do when she came to Canada. 

Considering that veteran author Neil Gaiman himself has praised the machine on his personal blog, I’m not surprised. Acadia, despite not hosting a specific attraction, has had its fair share of celebrity endorsement, most notably Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who has posted selfies of himself visiting the store on X, formerly Twitter. According to Fowler, he quietly purchases entire stacks of books whenever he’s in town.

David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management, cited the existence of counter-trends in regard to this entire phenomenon.

“There’s probably some people that say ‘I would like a break,’ and I think many of them may have discovered the pleasure, the peacefulness, and the difference in exploring smaller independent bookstores that have very interesting things in them,” he said.

“Many of the things that you can find in those smaller bookstores can’t be found online.”

With all this in mind, I found myself longing to get a small local coffee and croissant from the cafe next to The Monkey’s Paw, go inside to greet Fowler warmly, and try my luck at the Biblio-Mat, letting fate dictate what I would find or to browse the shelves of Acadia for a dusty tome with no label that might change the course of my life, if only to show it off a bit online.

The Biblio-Mat book vending machine at the back of The Monkey’s Paw in April 2024. (Mohit Sharma/Toronto Observer)

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Posted: Apr 20 2024 2:30 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life Lifestyle