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Guest opinion: why libraries should get into the book-selling business

In the June 2013 issue of Q&Q, Vancouver librarians Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi argue that libraries should get into the business of selling books.

Baharak Yousefi and Shirley Lew

It may be sacrilegious and antithetical to everything libraries stand for (and as librarians, we appreciate this more than most), but we ardently believe it nevertheless: libraries should get into the business of selling books. Now.

The crisis in Canada’s once vibrant book industry is negatively affecting our reading lives and communities. Growing evidence suggests that the increasing dominance of big corporations and discount giants is resulting in less diversity of ideas.

Canada’s publishing industry is facing tremendous instability and transition. As Canadian-owned publishers struggle to remain independent, the impending merger of Penguin and Random House will further shift the balance of power into fewer hands.

Similar pressures are affecting booksellers. Discount giant Target is set to become, by some estimates, the second largest book retailer in the country. Target’s strategy is similar to Costco’s: bestsellers stocked in large quantities and deeply discounted. Meanwhile, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo Books & Music, has rebranded itself as a “lifestyle store for booklovers,” allocating more retail space for home décor and gift items, and less for books. While many independent booksellers withstood the arrival of Amazon in Canada, the rise of ebooks has mostly shut them out of the digital marketplace.

The impact has been swift and harsh. The Canadian Booksellers Association estimates that 300 independents across the country have shut their doors over the last decade. (Earlier this year, the CBA itself surrendered its charter and merged with the Retail Council of Canada, ceasing to exist as an independent organization.) In the past several years the closures have included Collected Works in Ottawa, Duthie’s Books in Vancouver, Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and four Book Warehouse locations in B.C. Together they represent a loss of more than 175 years of bookselling experience and service to our communities.

What else has been lost? For some consumers, perhaps very little. Bestsellers are cheaper than ever, and finding almost any book online is simple. If saving time and money were all that mattered, we may never have been better off.

But the actual damage is incalculable. The loss of independent bookstores is accompanied by the loss of diversity, possibility, and sense of place. Publishers, writers, and the readers they serve all lose in a market that rewards blockbusters but ignores alternative voices and ideas.

Instead of being bystanders to this devastation, libraries have compelling reasons to seize the opportunity it presents. We have a mandate to help preserve our literary and cultural landscape; we have the space, often in rent-controlled buildings; we know how to buy and promote books; and we are not constrained by the need to turn a profit. We are uniquely equipped to sell books and support writers, publishers, and reading in Canada.

Ours would not be a traditional business venture, but an extension of the service we already provide. It would operate on a self-sustaining, cost-recovery basis. The inventory would highlight books from Canadian publishers and writers, and reflect a range of voices across social, cultural, political, economic, and artistic spectrums. It would be a dynamic, jumbled, and chaotic collection of books and ideas.

When Target announced it would open in the same mall as McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Paul McNally commented, “Our cultural industries need a zone of protection, certainly more than potash does.” Libraries in Canada can, and should, be that zone.

Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi are readers, former booksellers, and librarians in Vancouver



  • Adam Pottle

    Interesting article. But libraries play just as big a part in promoting bestsellers as Target and Amazon. Whenever I walk into a library, the first thing I see is Stephen King, James Patterson, Sue Grafton, and other such writers. A Giller Prize winner might also be front and centre, but that still highlights the publishing industry’s commercial priorities. More often than not, I have to dig through the shelves to see the Canadian stuff.
    That said, I don’t dispute that libraries are uniquely positioned to challenge the status quo: they can host readings and events; they can sell books; they can create and maintain writer-in-residence programs. The potential is great. But if libraries truly want to promote Canadian authors, their books should be the first thing I see when entering a library. The irony is that if libraries do eventually do such a thing, many people will approach the front desk and ask, “Where’s the new Stephen King book?” The old cliche: people resist change.

  • Ris Silvia

    I think it depends on the library (although this is also coming from a U.S. standpoint). In my local library, local (county and state) authors are at the forefront, followed by school reading lists and book club reads. They also have a small cafe-like corner where you can buy indie books from city local authors.

    But I’ve gone to other libraries in the county and only encountered best sellers and celebrity memoirs, which the librarians claimed was because those were the most-frequently lent out. Didn’t really explain why there was little else on the shelves, but in the end it depends on budget and readers. They aren’t going to spend money on books nobody seems interested in reading. Make requests (most libraries I’ve been to have either a website or a written form), and often they’ll accommodate once they realize there’s an audience for something besides 50 Shades of Gray (shudder).

  • Karin Litzcke

    No, no, no, how much further can librarians become detached from what their mission is than this? The book industry is doing JUST FINE at getting books out, from the very healthy used book trade to the e-book; there is no problem with book availability. There is absolutely no reason for the public purse to fund a book selling venture.

    But there are things libraries can and should be doing that is unique and socially necessary, and one is organizing and caching the information that is now digital. Successive eras in digital media read, from 10 years later, as dark ages, because none of what was written and discussed on one platform is accessible anymore once there is a technological changeover. I have less luck finding information that is 10 years old than I do information that is 50 years old. The whole digital record can be lost at the click of a button or the change of a port on the computer if attention is not put into keeping it. Is someone caching Margaret Atwood’s Twitter feed? If not, get on that, and projects like it. The genius of librarianship is the understanding that “someone is going to need this someday” and making sure it is there, organized and catalogued and accessible.

    Book selling indeed.

    My views on another new trend in librarianship, and the loss of the plot by librarians in general:

    And pardon me, but what a bizarre mindset that since you don’t have to turn a profit, it’s OK to operate at a loss, in “rent-controlled” buildings? The whole point on public expenditure on things like libraries is to get something that we all place value on. The library budget is not a carte-blanche to provide whatever service librarians have a whim to provide; it is a contract to provide the agreed-upon service for which the budget is set. It’s a “chronicling” budget, not a book business budget.

    If libraries are looking for a new and meaningful line of work, look for someone to compete with who is failing – the public schools are failing to teach reading, so why not offer reading instruction at the library? At least librarians would be motivated to succeed, where teachers seem motivated to fail, since that is what they are consistently doing.

  • Charlotte Broad

    I believe that any institution promoting/selling anything physical needs to rethink. Music stores are falling by the wayside because they’re losing sales to Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, etc. Libraries need to get more socially involved, drag themselves away from the stereotypical image and begin to engage with users in ways that are more accessible.

    I don’t think getting into the business of selling is particularly the way, though. The ‘unique selling point’ of libraries is that they provide information, literature, entertainment, etc for free (or almost) – so why aren’t people connecting with that? One problem is that DRM and copyright law can be incredibly restrictive, effectively stopping libraries from engaging with a changing digital landscape. Ebooks are becoming more and more commonplace for the casual reader yet it’s something that is largely inaccessible in libraries.

    The biggest problem I think libraries face is hiding their light under a bushel. I agree, in some ways, that libraries need to become more corporate in the way that marketing and advertising needs to be given more importance. TELL people what they can get from a library, use all of the techniques that the businesses use to entice people in – in short, make people understand what it is they are missing. If no one is aware of the service the library provides and believes it’s just a stuffy and unpleasant environment they aren’t going to want to engage with it.

    Selling books might SEEM like the answer to the problem because it brings in much needed revenue, but it’s just a way of shifting what is essentially becoming the ever blurring mission of libraries. Instead the uniqueness of libraries should begin to speak for itself – make it vibrant, quirky, appeal to the hipster that lives in us all, offer things that people can’t get elsewhere (and, if you think about it, libraries already hold these qualities and more). Instead of looking at technology as a barrier it should be embraced and used as a tool for promotion (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc – they’re all free!).

  • Michael Neill

    The concept of libraries selling books is more complex than it may
    appear. Except for the books as the common denominator, it’s very
    different from operating a library. Independent stores have declined
    simply because the profits have not been able to sustain the business
    model. Paying decent wages to staff is a huge problem, and as such
    finding and keeping skilled and knowledgeable staff is difficult. Over
    the years our store has lost good people to the lure of the library
    employment and the pay and benefits that are well above our ability to
    compensate. Selling books in the library on a non-profit basis would be a
    dream and more likely to be a huge publicly subsidized venture. It
    would also compete and further thin out the already stressed bookstore

    In Quebec the value of having bookstores in communities has been taken
    seriously. Realizing that bookstores by nature are marginally profitable
    operations, the Quebec government ensures that librarians support each
    library’s choice of accredited local bookstores by purchasing books from
    them. In the rest of Canada, libraries presently purchase very few
    books from their local bookstore. A concept similar to Quebec’s would
    achieve the goal with much lower costs and possibly increase the number of stores as well as the selection they can affort to stock.

  • Alan Wylie

    Public libraries should be safe, neutral and non-commercialised spaces that promote freely accessible knowledge and information not a business. This surely goes against all our professional and ethical principles?

  • Joseph Esposito

    Yes, get into the bookstore biz. PLEASE!

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