Downtown Bookstores Thriving In Spite of Technological Changes

Karen KesselDowntown Guelph

If you thought that Kindles and Kobos were spelling the end for the traditional bookstore, you probably haven’t seen Downtown Guelph lately. In fact, it just recently welcomed a third bookstore, Janus Books, to its new home on Paisley Street. A busier than expected first few weeks suggest that demand still exists for paperbacks and hardcovers alike. Complimenting Janus’ offerings are local landmarks Macondo Books and The Bookshelf as well as comic book specialists, The Dragon. If you’re spending some time relaxing this long weekend, why not take a trip downtown and see what you can find? Nothing compliments a deck, dock or patio like a good book. Have a great long weekend everyone!


Guelph’s downtown bookstores adapting to digital world

Rachel Psutka, Guelph Mercury -August 25th, 2012

GUELPH — Stepping across the threshold of Guelph’s newest downtown bookstore doesn’t yet transport you to an otherworldly literary oasis, although the hand-built shelves are a good start to a character-filled shop.

It can be forgiven, though, since Janus Books is just over a month old. Proprietor Kieran Dunn hasn’t yet had the chance to adorn his shop in nearly 40 years of history, like his closest downtown competitors, Macondo Books and The Bookshelf.

Trained in computer science but with a passion for books, Dunn spent two years collecting and purchasing books for his store. He moved into the store in May and opened for business in early July.

The shelves, made with the help of family members, are filling by the day as Dunn buys, sorts, and bar codes second-hand books in his Paisley Street shop.

“I thought I’d have a lot more time to read,” said Dunn, on a recent Wednesday morning at his store. “It’s been getting busier and busier.”

Despite the other two established independent book vendors within a short stroll of his shop, plus a successful comic book store, Dunn said he knew he wanted to be in Guelph’s downtown core. Establishing an atmosphere — one of the ways to keep customers returning in the digital age — was also a key factor.

“Downtown is awesome. We looked at a couple of spots and this was good foot traffic, good parking, which is important for downtown, and we could afford it. And it was a good size and shape,” he said.

Competition with the nearby shops did worry him, though.

“Macondo and The Bookshelf are intimidating in the sense that they’ve both been there for a long time, they have a loyal customer base,” said Dunn. “But I spent 10 years in Peterborough, where there are five bookstores on one street. I came back to Guelph and there were two second-hand bookstores in the whole city. And it wasn’t right. It seemed really weird to me. So there’s plenty of room for another one.”

These days, literary consumers aren’t just walking from one shop to another looking for books. They’re downloading e-books for their e-readers or buying used books online. Even those seeking paper books can find them anywhere, from big box stores in the suburbs to neighbourhood charity shops, where they may have to overlook dog-earing or a mysterious stain for a cheaper price.

Selling a handful of books to Dunn from his own collection, Guelph resident Steve Spular said that having physical bookstores is still an important part of the industry.

“It’s critical. Not everything can be put on Google. You can’t just scan everything and put it online,” said Spular, who frequently sells books to stores in Guelph, Kitchener, and beyond. “If you’re a scholar, there’s no other possible way to get these scholarly books.”

With four decades of book collecting under his belt, Spular said that Guelph’s used bookstores are benefitting from collectors looking to thin out their personal libraries.

“People should be coming in here,” he said, gesturing to the stacks of Janus Books. “You’re going to see unusual books. As long as somebody is buying books, you’ll get the best in the city.”

Nancy Giovanelli, owner of Macondo Books, said that expectations for a digital presence haven’t changed how she runs her 34 year old used books shop.

“A lot of people expect that we have our books, our entire inventory, online,” said Giovanelli. “We decided not to do that. It requires an investment of too much time and resources. We buy a lot of books every day in the store. It never seemed, to us, to make sense to actually do that amount of work in front of a computer when we could be working in the store.”

While it doesn’t have a dedicated website, Macondo Books does make use of social media and an email list to keep regulars updated for any events in store.

“We keep assessing whether we should make changes, but we’ve decided to keep things going the way they are,” said Giovanelli.

New book vendors are also adapting to the digital era, facing the realities of an online world.

“Obviously there’ve been some people that have gone to buying e-books, I’m one of them, but most are mass-market paperbacks that people travel with,” said Ben Minett, who works at The Bookshelf, the Quebec Street destination for new books, films, and food. “I think we’re finding that there are people who still really enjoy and value paper books.”

The 39-year-old store has been through the gamut of changes, and Minett said that it had adapted as these arose.

“We’re selling a lot of really, really good games as well as things like puppets for kids, so it has shifted what we’re selling, but what we primarily sell is books,” he said.

The bright shop has also modernized by upgrading their film projector in the upstairs cinema to a digital projector and will be overhauling their online presence as well.

“We are going to be starting a website where we will be selling online,” said Barb Minett. “That’s coming up soon. At this point books, and maybe e-books, will be available online.”

A block away in the Quebec Street Mall, Jenn Haines also isn’t changing her business model at The Dragon comic book store.

“There’s something about the comic book format that just appeals to people,” said Haines, whose shop has been in its current location for three years. “Having that comic in your hand, it could be because it’s so thin and portable already.”

Haines said that after 14 years in the business, the rise in technology hasn’t really affected her loyal customer base or regular drop-in traffic.

“We have a couple of customers interested in digital versions of comics, but they’re still coming in to buy their regular comics,” she said. “We haven’t yet seen a trend in the comic market for people leaving to go to digital.”

But she acknowledges that innovators are always looking for more ways to sell products, and a digital format could be on the horizon.

“Eventually there’s going to be a way to read comics that works better for digital. We see that already with web comics,” said Haines. “Web comics are a big portion of the community out there, but in terms of transitioning traditional paper comics to the digital format, it’s not as big a threat to us as it is to traditional book stores.”

Despite this, Haines said her store will also be launching an online shop soon, where customers can buy both paper and potentially digital versions of comic books. She expects most of her revenue still to come from her in-store customers.

“I know there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there in the traditional book stores, and fortunately I don’t have that same problem,” said Haines.

But owners of the three downtown bookstores don’t see a quick demise in their futures.

“There are always going to be diehard book lovers, lovers of the object, as well as the word,” said Giovanelli.

A few blocks away at The Bookshelf, Ben Minett agreed.

“Whenever a bookstore opens up, it’s a really, really good thing for the community,” said Minett.

Guelph’s newest bookstore is off to a good start, right down to the name Dunn carefully chose. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, often portrayed with two heads, one looking forward and another looking back.

“Some people say, yeah, books are dead. Obviously it’s an industry that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s got a long tradition, but I also am looking forward in a sense,” said Dunn. “You can exist in the real, modern world where there are realities like e-books and the internet, but you can still have a nice quaint, browse-able bookshop that’s, in a way, sort of old-fashioned too.”