We were nervous when Chapters finally opened in downtown Toronto. Our little bookstore had recently celebrated its centenary — a narrow victory, from some vantage points, even if we were turning a profit. We were hustling just to stay relevant, never mind competitive.
The Bloor Street Chapters was the franchise's “flagship” store. The architect designed the façade to be reminiscent of an ocean liner. Obviously this store was going to be much, much bigger than ours.
It had been open for nearly a week before I mustered up the courage to check it out. It was indeed large, but still shy of the size and scale of some of the Borders and Barnes & Noble outlets I’d seen in California. I perused the stock and tried to ascertain the sales potential. Most of what I saw was backlist — books we didn’t have the shelf-space for, and wouldn’t have stocked even if we did. Backlist titles don't sell with nearly enough frequency to justify stocking. We’d just be sending them back to the publishers after three or four months of watching them grow yellow, a shabby business for both us and the publishers.
At the time, the government of Canada had just shut down a bid by Heather Reisman to bring Borders north of the 49th Parallel. The Canadian Booksellers Association was gratified; they'd fought Reisman with every resource they had, arguing that Borders’ distribution alone would be ruinous not just to Canadian bookstores, but to the entire publishing industry. I wondered if the Chapters model would be any better, but as I looked around their flagship store the one recurring thought I had was, There’s no point legislating against this. Too many people want it. Whether they could sustain it for anywhere near as long as 100 years was, I thought, doubtful. But regardless, that particular business model would just have to run its course.
The course has been run, so far as Borders is concerned. Some people are crying the blues, and I can sympathize. I’ve made purchases in Borders and Barnes & Noble. And Chapters — now Reisman's property — continues to get my money, chiefly with its remainders and magazines. But I’m not shedding any tears. I think it is a shame, in the most complete sense of that word, to see the “big” experiment fail. After witnessing the near extinction of small independents, it would have been a faint scrap of comfort to see something still standing. But so it goes. No more buffalo, as the bard has sung.
Photo, of a final stone being flung from within Borders' glass house, courtesy of Su.