When it comes to being a student, there’s really only so far a person can get without books — which is to say, not very far at all. While the University of Toronto Bookstore is a great resource, sometimes students need an obscure book or a lower price. That’s where Toronto’s local and used bookstores come in.
Though there are plenty of bookshops nestled in the area around UTSG, the pandemic has changed what being a bookseller in downtown Toronto looks like. The Varsity spoke to four bookstores around campus to find out how COVID-19 affected them.
One such bookstore that is so nestled within the Annex you might miss it — though I hope you don’t — is Seekers Books. Located at the intersection of Bloor Street and Borden Street, Seekers sits just below street level. I had the opportunity to speak with Seekers’ co-owner, Patrick Balson, about how COVID-19 has impacted his business.
Balson first fell in love with Seekers as a ninth grader skipping school. “[My friends and I] walked in, and these guys were behind the counter… having a little meeting of the minds… They were having a conversation about the reptilian brain… I was just watching these dudes talk with my mouth agape, and my mind was being blown the entire time.”
Though I only spoke to Balson over the phone, his passion for people and the spaces that bring them together is unmissable. In his words, “When you’re walking into my store, you’re walking into my living room.” As far as he’s concerned, “people are the primary thing; bookstores are actually a gathering space.”
Of course, with the limitations put in place to combat COVID-19, no one is gathering in Seekers.
To continue providing for customers during the pandemic, Balson, like many others, has shifted his business’ model to curbside pickup as the primary purchasing method. “Of course, if somebody comes to the door, I might go outside and give them a hand… with whatever they need,” he explained.
When I asked Balson about his vision for Seekers post-pandemic, he told me, “We don’t have any really big plans to change how we’ve been doing it. Used bookstores are used bookstores.” As for right now, “The decline in customers is thrillingly high,” Balson lamented. “The best way to [support Seekers] is to call and ask… You get your answer right away.”
If you’re near Seekers, I highly recommend giving Balson a call. His store is open seven days a week from 1:00–8:00 pm, and even if he doesn’t have what you were looking for in stock, you’re guaranteed a good conversation.
A Different Booklist
Another Toronto bookstore worth noting is A Different Booklist, located at 779 Bathurst Street, which specializes in literature from the African Caribbean Diaspora and the Global South. A Different Booklist’s experience weathering the pandemic is a bit of a contrast from Seekers’ experience.
The store’s co-owner, Miguel San Vicente, took some time to speak with me over the phone. “The two are tied together, right? The success of the business and the challenges of the business are part of my challenges and my success,” San Vicente told me when I asked how the pandemic had affected his job.
“At first, there was a serious drop in our sales because, naturally, we had to close,” he explained. “But it so happened that George Floyd was murdered in front of the whole world by the police, and that led to an explosion of protests across North America and other parts of the world.”
After the surge in Black Lives Matter protests and heightened attention to systemic racism, people started buying books to educate themselves on anti-racist thought and activism. However, as San Vicente pointed out, many folks purchasing these books “look for the place where they can get [them] the cheapest, which is generally the bigger stores.”
“They’re buying from… large, white enterprises that profit really from our pain,” San Vicente said. He asked that those who want to practice equity do so with their purchases and “try to buy from the… community that is affected by these issues.”
When I asked San Vicente about his plans for A Different Booklist after the pandemic, he laughed: “Oh, well, our plans are to have a big party!”
Especially considering that A Different Booklist is not only a bookstore, but a community hub, San Vicente really can’t wait to reopen. “We decided to establish a separate organization called A Different Booklist Cultural Centre as a non-profit organization [that] carries on cultural activities… That’s what we have now: we have the bookstore in this space and also a cultural centre.”
Doug Miller Books
When it comes to sales, other booksellers have not been as fortunate. Doug Miller, owner of Doug Miller Books at 650 Bloor Street West, explained, “If it wasn’t for the fact that my landlord had lowered my rent, I would probably not be here today.”
Thankfully, Miller, who began buying used books at garage sales to sell when he was a kid, managed to adapt his used book business to a curbside pickup model. When I spoke to him, he was in the process of adding comic books to his website.
But even with the new additions Miller is making to his website, the pandemic has not been easy for him. He estimated that, before the current lockdown was put in place, “less than half” of the people who usually come to sell their used books came.
He blames the lesser-known pandemic of 2020 for this: drop–cleaning frenzies. When people began sorting through their basements and closets, “all that stuff went on people’s front lawns,” explained Miller. “The things they got rid of, they got rid of already outside on the lawn, so they had nothing to sell.”
The decline in people selling their old books is a big shift from pre-pandemic life. Prior to the pandemic, “A person would bring in maybe a bag or 25 boxes [of books]. It ranges from person to person,” Miller told me. “But right now, no one’s bringing in material.”
He shared with me the ways in which buying used books is, in many ways, a game of luck. “You might wish for [a specific book], but if no one brings it in, you’re not getting it.” Of course, surviving as a small business throughout the pandemic isn’t exactly a steady gig, either.
To support Miller’s business, check out at his website. If you’ve recently come down with a case of cleaning antics, bring your used books to Doug Miller Books.
The last bookseller I had the pleasure to speak to was Martha Sharpe from Flying Books. Sharpe, who was born in Toronto, has plenty of experience in the book industry. Before opening Flying Books, she worked at House of Anansi Press. Inevitably, her knowledge and passion for good writing bled into her business model.
Prior to COVID-19, Flying Books sold books in “flights” of curated, hand-selected literary works. “I was sort of playing with the idea of flights of you know, like wine or whiskey or beer,” Sharpe explained to me.
When I asked her if the flights were still being selected throughout the pandemic, she said, “Not as frequently, mainly just because I had to change everything to online last March.” Although the flights didn’t make much sense during the pandemic, Sharpe quickly figured something else out. “I decided to offer free delivery and, again, just went with the flight theme and called [the deliveries] airdrops.”
“Luckily, it’s gone well, and people are really ordering airdrops,” Sharpe went on. It has gone so well, in fact, that Flying Books published its first book during the pandemic, Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados. When I asked Sharpe about the experience of making the Flying Books publishing debut during COVID-19, she said, “The more I thought about it… [I] realized the book is called Happy Hour, and people need a happy book to read during a time like [the pandemic].”
Another way that Flying Books has accommodated the pandemic is through altering its classes and workshops to an online format. And yes, that’s right: on top of being a high-quality bookstore and now publisher, Flying Books also offers writing workshops and classes with professional writers. Though it’s not the same as being in person, these online writing resources play a big role in keeping Flying Books feeling like the indie bookstore and community hub that it is.
“Initially, when the lockdown happened, we just postponed everything,” Sharpe said. However, once it became clear that things wouldn’t be opening back up any time soon, Flying Books transitioned its workshops to being online. To anyone seeking a way into the writing community, Flying Books might just be it.
The pandemic has certainly been hard on all of us, but being a bookseller right now poses its own unique challenges. So, what are you waiting for? Get online and show your support for people like Balson, San Vicente, Miller, and Sharpe. After all, the Toronto book world wouldn’t be what it is without them.
Editor’s note (February 8): This article has been updated to correct that Sharpe is from Toronto, not Montréal.