Arts & Entertainment
4 min

The way of the dodo

A grim future for Canada's gay bookstores

Glad Day Bookshop is for sale. Its owner, John Scythes, says he now sells only a handful of books each day. Credit: Rob Salerno

Glad Day Bookshop, Canada’s oldest gay bookstore, now makes just eight sales a day.

Owner John Scythes wants to make one more: he recently announced that the store is for sale.

“I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be here,” Scythes says. He hasn’t been able to pay himself in two months.

Glad Day’s new owners will have their work cut out for them. Gay and independent bookstores have been closing en masse in the past few years. Montreal’s L’Androgyne closed in 2002. Toronto’s This Ain’t the Rosedale Library left the Church-Wellesley Village in 2008 and closed in 2010. New York’s Oscar Wilde Bookshop, previously the oldest gay bookstore in North America, closed in 2009.

Once important fixtures in Canada’s gay communities, these bookstores are under threat due to recession, online competition and a shrinking customer base.

Beating the lower prices of larger competitors is a challenge, and now bookstores must also compete with the growing e-book phenomenon.

“It’s hard for us to sell a [more expensive] copy unless it’s signed or there’s a specific interest in it. That’s the main thing that’s putting us out of business,” Scythes says.

For example, Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme, a collection edited by Ivan E Coyote and Zena for Arsenal Pulp Press, was a top seller at both Vancouver’s Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium and the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. Both sell it for $21.95, the listed price. At Glad Day, it sells for $21.95, plus $9.50 for shipping if customers purchase it through Glad Day’s shop on Abe Books, an online marketplace. On Indigo’s website, it costs $16.68, and on Amazon, it goes for $15.85 before shipping. The e-book version sells for even less. Larger buyers receive big discounts from publishers, and smaller stores can’t compete with these prices. If Little Sister’s sold the book at a comparable price, it would lose money.

Filling the shelves is also a challenge. Publishers now market books in less traditional ways, and many reach customers directly. Carlyle Jansen, founder of Good for Her, a queer- and trans-positive sex shop, has noticed this shift with big publishers, though she says independent publishers still approach her.

Independent publisher Arsenal Pulp Press markets both directly to consumers and to retailers, though publisher Brian Lam says reaching queer bookstores has become less rewarding.

“The increasing scarcity of LGBT bookstores [has] made it more onerous for us to reach the LGBT market, who sadly are not as loyal to LGBT bookstores as they were when they were the only game in the town. Now, LGBT consumers can order online,” he says.

Marketing in queer bookstores is also no longer a priority for authors, who now have other ways to reach their audiences.

“Having an online presence is becoming more crucial,” says Brian Francis, the Toronto-based author of Fruit and Natural Order. “[But] at the end of the day, you want readers to respond to your book on their own terms; you don’t want to feel like you’re forcing yourself on them.”

Francis also notes that gay and independent bookstores can provide opportunities larger stores can’t.

“In an independent bookstore, you have to do the hand-sell — you have a clientele that know what they’re looking for and staff who can offer that,” he says. “If you go into a large bookstore, gay and lesbian or queer titles are pushed into a corner somewhere, while with something like Glad Day, it’s more like deciding what your genre is.”

As stocking and selling books becomes more difficult, many gay bookstores depend on additional items, such as sex toys and porn, for sales. Even major retailers, such as Chapters, carry more than books.

Meanwhile, Good for Her sells books to supplement its other products. Jansen says that while books do not form the majority of the store’s sales, they are important for customers who want in-depth information. The variety of other products makes a range of titles and subjects possible.

“We don’t necessarily just carry the things that are going to make us money. We carry several titles that we might only sell one or two copies of a year, but they serve a more marginalized community, and we think it’s important to have them,” Jansen says.

In Little Sister’s, books on a range of subjects will always have their place.

“We’ve always depended on the books in terms of what we are as a bookstore and what we offer to the community: the diversity of our collection, the knowledge of what’s here, and the understanding of how important it is to find a book when you’re coming out or when you’re a trans kid,” says Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s.

That element of community is essential to queer bookstores, but for stores such as Glad Day and Ottawa’s After Stonewall, that foundation is shrinking.

“[Glad Day] had a much bigger role 10 or 15 years ago as a cultural part of the community, because people could come here and get their books, their erotica, their movies, their news, their theory,” says Scythes. “Now they can order everything off the internet.”

After Stonewall owner David Rimmer says that aging gay readers are not being replaced by younger members of the community, and there is “absolutely nothing” he can do to offset that decline.

Rimmer is not optimistic about the future of book-only gay bookstores, including his own. After Stonewall currently operates without a single paid staff member, and Rimmer says the rest of the shop’s lifespan can be measured in months. He notes that a widening range of products can work for some stores, but not for all.

“If [stores] have the capability to expand beyond books and do the supermarket thing where you have lube and poppers and movies and all that, then that’s still a viable proposition. But a stand-alone store selling books and other paper products is pretty well sunk.”