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2007 01 23
BMV Books: Toronto’s Latest Literary Anti-Christ?
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On my way to meet an acquaintance to share dinner and literary repartee with on Friday night I strolled Toronto's Bloor Street book strip, which runs between Markham (just west of Honest Ed's) and Spadina. This area houses some of Toronto's most venerable booksellers, including David Mirvish Books (596 Markham Street, selling books on art, architecture, design, and culture), Ballenford Books (architecture and design, 600 Markham Street), The Beguiling (comic books and graphic novels, 601 Markham Street), A Different Booklist (746 Bathurst, just north of Bloor), the recently-gone-electronic-only Annex Books (formerly at 1083 Bathurst) , Book City (501 Bloor Street West), Seekers Books (general used and spirituality, 509 Bloor Street West), and the strip's latest addition, BMV Books (471 Bloor Street).

I have followed with considerable interest the multifaceted flutter accompanying BMV Books' expansion to the large and highly visible Bloor Street location (its third venue, having been for many years a fixture beside the now-Chapters-owned World's Biggest Bookstore at 10 Edward Street and running a location on Yonge). Some commentators suggest that even as a small chain selling primarily used books, BMV is closer in style to the Chapters/Indigo corporate model than Book City, itself a chain with five locations across Toronto. BMV has been described as a 'big box' store selling remaindered former bestsellers and large-volume discounted titles, a threat to 'independent' local bookstores and publishers, and a nail in the coffin shuttering the storefront locations of Annex Books and Abelard Books (both reportedly becoming appointment-only and electronic sellers). BMV has also been described in glowing terms, most notably through comparisons to New York City's Strand Bookstore. As recently as 2005, Toronto's Eye Weekly tabloid recommended BMV Books as a way to "bypass the big chains," and in August 2006 (after BMV had announced its expansion into the Annex) Now identified BMV Books as one of Toronto's best used bookstores.

Given that these narratives seem too divergent to meet, which is it? Is BMV Books really Toronto's latest literary anti-Christ? Or is its presence a sign of vibrancy in the city's book trade, an indication that even used books can be sexy and even controversial?

It's my own view that, in general, any bookstore is a good bookstore, and any bookstore opening is a reason for optimism that our culture hasn't given up on printed text. Certainly bookstores can be subject to the same criticisms we might apply to any other kind of corporate enterprise (although I'd argue that even a corrupt capitalist bookseller is better than none at all: it might be quite unpleasant to consider a city dominated by a single bookseller, but have you ever lived in a community or even a neighbourhood without any bookstore at all?) But before the romantic/reactionary rhetoric about BMV Books goes too far, I'd like to suggest some clear thinking about what BMV Books is and does.

Writer and micropress publisher Sandra Alland has written a very good essay on the state of book publishing and selling in Toronto; her essay appears in The State of the Arts: Culture in Toronto (Coach House, 2006). Alland's essay includes a series of checklists you can use to evaluate whether a bookseller engages in fair trade, including the following:

* Do featured readings and books reflect the community immediately surrounding the store?
* Is there a community bulletin board?
* Are local writers featured?
* Does the store give attention to books regardless of the publisher's wallet?
* Does the company avoid paying benefits by hiring only part-time workers?
* Does this bookstore waste energy by leaving its doors open in summer and winter?

To which I would add:

* Does the store sell a disproportionate quantity of remaindered/overstock titles?
* Does the store special-order (or keep an eye out for) controversial or rare titles customers request?
* Does the store devote prominent shelf-space to high-budget magazines?
* if it's a used bookseller, will the store purchase or trade your unwanted books at reasonable prices?
* is the store designed to be accessible to visitors with wheelchairs or strollers?

Alland's template (tweaked with a few additional suggestions) seems like one useful tool for assessing not only BMV, but any other new or used bookseller in the city. And applying it produces some surprising results. Book City, a favourite of literary progressives, is in my experience a real energy-waster, and most or all of its locations are not wheelchair/stroller accessible. Chapters/Indigo often features readings by local authors (provided they are bestsellers represented by major publishers), has programs supporting local schools, maintains community bulletin boards in the locations I frequent, and has mainly accessible locations. Most booksellers I know of rely primarily on part-time staff. And both Chapters/Indigo and Book City devote considerable floorspace to remaindered/overstocked titles. Book City, in fact, is a reliable source of remaindered award-winning Toronto novels as soon as a year after they are published, something I have always thought of as a terrible pity.

And BMV? I don't recall if BMV maintains a community bulletin board, but I do know its Edward Street and Annex locations are deeply reflective of their neighbourhoods. At the Annex location, BMV's philosophy section is close to the entrance, reflecting proximity to the University of Toronto or perhaps merely local conceit. BMV has several shelves of Toronto history titles, including rare books I have been unable to locate elsewhere. I even found a copy of Daniel Jones' The People One Knows (an unexpected gem) in the Canadian literature section at the new store (it was still there last Friday, suggesting Annex readers either have their own copies already or aren't as hip to the city's literature as they like to think). BMV isn't accessible at its front door, although I think there is room for a ramp built to building-code standards along its facade. BMV sells a lot of remaindered/overstock titles, but its stock is primarily used, and its titles run well beyond stale-dated bestsellers and the kinds of novels you read in undergraduate courses. The Annex location has by far the best selection of second-hand (pace, Bakka-Phoenix) science fiction in the city, and these aren't just recent pulp but include scads of old classics.

But perhaps this inventory fails to ask one more vital question: is BMV's expansion driven by a monopolistic corporate mentality, and is the new store likely to drive other booksellers out of business? And you know, I think the answer to this question depends less on BMV itself and more on the city's readers ourselves.

Alland's excellent essay focuses primarily on the motives and practices of book publishers and booksellers. But while we're judging booksellers, perhaps we might engage in some self-reflection and consider our own book buying habits. Where do you shop for books? How much are you like the character Alland describes at the beginning of her essay, "dressed head to toe in hemp ... [and] reading a book he just pulled from the Chapters-Indigo bag at his feet"? I know that whenever I go into the Annex BMV location, I run into the same social justice crowd I encounter plotting the revolution at Future's Bakery. When I shop at the Chapters/Indigo in my part of town (located in a beautifully restored former theatre at the corner of Bloor and Runnymede), I run into my organic-buying, NDP-voting neighbours.

I myself am a wantonly promiscuous book purchaser. I shop at Chapters/Indigo, usually just after I have browsed Book City. I buy books online through Amazon.ca, through ABEBooks.com, through Alibris.com, and sometimes through big and small presses themselves. I pick books out of the garbage and buy many hundreds each year at garage sales and university/college book sales. I frequent most of the city's used bookstores, and in fact have a semi-regular trolling route. In a typical week I will buy at least a dozen books, usually more. But I cruise widely. I play the field. And while Eliot's (584 Yonge), followed by Pandemonium (2862 Dundas West at Keele) and Babel Books (123 Ossington just north of Queen) remain my favourite used bookstores in this city, I have been delighted to add BMV Books to my book-buying travels (and to the Toronto bookstore guide I maintain as part of the Imagining Toronto project).

It is my strongly held view that we should applaud any bookstore that opens in Toronto. I'd add that a used bookstore (like BMV) opening up in multiple locations seems a gutsy thing indeed. And if you think any particular bookstore is getting too big for its britches, go down the street and shop at the next one for a change. or better yet, frequent all of them.

[Bookstore image by Striatic and used here under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 01/23 at 12:37 PM

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