Saturday, July 22, 2006

The World Needs More… Bookstores

Vicki here:
I love bookstores. If I were to guess, I’d say that everyone reading this blog loves bookstores. So isn’t it a tragedy that there are so few.

Few, I hear you say, there are lots of bookstores. Big bookstores in big-box malls, smaller bookstores in smaller malls, bookstores everywhere.

There are plenty of bookstores, to be sure. But not much variety, because here in Canada they're almost all part of one big chain.

I was thinking about the demise of the independent bookstore when I was at the wonderful Prime Crime in Ottawa signing Burden of Memory last week. A customer wandered in off the street and asked Linda Wilkin, the owner of the store, for a book by someone named Maggie something. Linda got up, walked to the shelf and pulled down a Maggie Wheeler book. “Is this who you are looking for?” she asked. “Oh, yes.” The happy customer bought the book. A short while later another customer came in the store. “Last year,” she said to Linda, “you recommended a book for my niece and she really enjoyed it, so I want to buy another one for her birthday next year.” The customer didn’t remember the name of the book, or the author, but by asking a few careful questions, Linda was able to locate that author’s newest book. Another happy customer.

I have always found the staff in the chain stores to be friendly, and eager to be helpful. They’re happy to lead you to the computer and type in the full name of the author you’re looking for, and then tell you if the book is in stock. But try asking them to type in “Maggie Someone” or “the book I bought last year.”

When there was a temporary lull in customers streaming into Prime Crime to demand that I sign a book for them, I talked to Linda and her assistant Carole all about mysteries. We quickly discovered that Carole and I have similar tastes, and she walked through the store picking books down from the shelf and handing them to me. All readers love to discover new authors, and sometimes rediscover old ones we’ve loved and forgotten. But as helpful as those kids (which most of the staff are) in those big chains, they really can’t talk to you about reading. I suspect that they’d get in trouble for standing and talking to you for ten minutes anyway. It would appear that the store is trying to help you out by making suggestions based on their selection of Top Reads or the CEO’s Picks. But publishers pay big bucks for prime shelf placement and ‘recommendations’. I’d rather ask Carole at Prime Crime if she liked Lou Allin’s Murder, Eh? (which I did enjoy by the way) than have my choice of what the big-name publishers paid to have placed on the “recommended” shelf.

You’d think that the advantage of the big stores would be the variety. But you don’t even get that. Not amongst the calendars and candles and piles of American blockbusters. Three of my Sisters-in-Crime friends came to my launch at Scene of the Crime in Oakville. They staggered out under the weight of the books they bought. Not so well known books they had come from Toronto to Oakville to buy because they weren’t available at the big chain.

As for Scene of the Crime, owned by the extremely knowledgeable Don Longmuir, it’s closing next month. I’ll miss biking down to the store on a Saturday afternoon and talking mysteries with Don. With the closing of Scene of the Crime, as far as I know, there will be ONE independent bookstore left in Oakville, a town of 120,000 people. That’s Bookers on Lakeshore Road. It’s not a mystery specialty store, but it’s quite charming, and located in a great shopping area.

Stores mentioned in this piece can be found at:

Prime Crime, Ottawa:
Scene of the Crime: (Don will still be running an order book business)
Bookers, Oakville:

Before I go, I’d like to mention that the special Canadian edition of Spinetingler Magazine ( is now available.

Happy reading,


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