London’s Oxford Book Shop is the last of its kind in the Forest City. After 62 years in the same location, the family-owned store has weathered many storms but never left its Richmond Street location.
“We’re the last independent trade book shop in London,” Hilary Thomas, co-owner of the Oxford Book Shop, says, listing the names of several stores that once operated in the city. “Now they’re all gone.”
When Thomas moved to London in 1990, there were a handful of independent bookstores. Since then, she’s seen the competition die out and get replaced by big box stores.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we’re on death’s door or anything. But I think people realize that the world has changed dramatically. The future is uncertain.”
The major change for London’s independent bookstores came in 1992, when Chapters moved to the city and paved the way for other big box stores. Independent stores struggled to compete with discount prices, advertising campaigns and buying power.
That was almost 20 years ago. Today, the Oxford Book Store faces a litany of new challenges. They’re competing as best they can against online booksellers like Amazon. And with e-readers becoming more popular, people are shifting away from paper and towards digital books in a way that could force even more independent bookstores to close shop.
“Book shops all over North America — little independents — are closing,” says Teresa Tarasewicz, co-owner of City Lights Bookshop, a downtown retailer selling used books. “There’s stories of heartbreak all the time. Someone’s been in business for 30 or 40 years and they can’t find anyone to buy their shops.”
Amidst these struggles are examples of independent used bookstores in the city.
City Lights has been a London landmark since it was founded in 1975. Walk through the shop and you’ll find books crammed into every nook. It’s renowned for having one of the most eclectic mixes of used books in the region.
But you don’t have too walk far to find another.
Just down the street is H. Sommers Books, a 30-year-old family-owned used bookstore. Around the corner is Attic Books, a monstrous three-level shrine to used books. And the only Goodwill Bookstore in Canada is found just East of the University.
These businesses are surviving despite the recession and a shift in reading habits.
Hank Sommers was once the owner and operator of the H. Sommers Books before selling it to his daughter. He still works as a clerk in the store, which sits in a quiet basement retail space on Richmond Street.
He agrees the market shifted in ’92 when Chapters came to town. But today’s struggle, he says, is the internet, which not only gives big box stores a platform online, but also plants the seeds for new online-only competitors.
After the internet, it was even harder for independent bookstores to compete. But he says that unlike the Oxford Book Shop, which sells new books, big box stores actually help the used book business.
His store has a vast inventory of 50,000 books. Like the three other used book retailers downtown, H. Sommers Books feeds off books donated by readers. So more shoppers at Chapters means more books in his store and more profit in the end.
“I’m not familiar with recent figures, but the sales have risen each year,” Sommers says. “Used book stores, with few exceptions, are not financial cash cows. A lot of them will be subsidized in one way or the other. That’s not the case with the four downtown.”
While competition is moving online, independent stores don’t often have the means or technology to compete. Websites like Abe Books allow small retailers like Sommers to upload a short list of books to the site, giving them some edge online.
But he says the books he posts are often specialty books that won’t sell in the store — textbooks, mostly, but collectable books as well.
“I can only see that increasing,” he says.
City Lights also tried to support themselves online, but for Tarasewicz the process worked against the very reason they have a bricks and mortar store.
“We felt it was very soulless. We know we’re a business and we do have a bottom line, but we’re a business because we totally love books,” she says. “We don’t want to close our doors.”
For independent stores, the community feel might remain their best competitive advantage.
That’s partly what the Oxford Book Store is banking on. Hilary Thomas has worked in the store with her husband Mark Pittam since 1991. She says over the years she’s learned about her customers and their habits — more than what clerks at big box stores can provide.
“We can direct people to things that they wouldn’t know about if they were just buying online or picking up the best-seller,” she says. “After working here for 20 years, I have a fairly good sense for what writers are like even if I haven’t read them, just because I’ve talked to people so much over the years about books.”
Mary Margison is one of the Oxford Book Store’s most loyal customers. She’s shopped at the store since she moved to London in 1986 and now works there as a clerk.
“I’m really into community shopping,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money either, but I think you have to prioritize what’s important to you, and independents are really important.”
This is her 10th year as an employee. She says that unlike big box stores, independent bookstores are built on community more than price points. It’s this difference, she says, that makes the independent bookstore necessary for any city.
“I think people make the bookstore — people and the relationships you build up personally,” she says. “I lost my husband this year and people have purposefully come into the store to say, ‘We missed you, I’m glad you’re back.’ I don’t think you’d get that in a big store. This is a community and I hope it will be around for a long time.”