Toronto Bookstores and Inspire’s Dreams
In September I received an email inviting me to attend the Inspire book Festival. Unlike book Expo America which is directed toward the trade such as booksellers, librarians and others who are in the business of selling books or intellectual property, Inspire is a consumer oriented book event designed to bring authors, books, and readers together.
The hope is to turn Inspire into a TIFF for books. Held in November, it is positioned to capture a holiday buying crowd. But before I get to Inspire, let me start with the city of Toronto and how kind they’ve been to the invited bloggers. Tourism Toronto in conjunction with Inspire arranged for about seven of us to be flown in from all over the world:
- Thea and Ana (UK) from The Booksmugglers
- Liz (Dublin) from Strange Horizons
- MaryAnne and her daughter, Gabby, (Canada) from Chapter by Chapter
- Myself (US)
We also met up with local bloggers:
They put us up at the Renaissance Hotel at 1 Blue Jays Way. (I was told Wayne Gretsky lobbied hard to have this portion of the street renamed to celebrate the Blue Jays after they’d won the World Series). The Renaissance is part of the Marriott hotel chain and I’ve actually stayed in the New York Times Square Renaissance. Dominique, Director of Sales & Marketing, shared that the Renaissance chain is comprised of lifestyle hotels and each hotel attempts to serve locally sourced food and give you a cultural taste of the city in which the hotel is based.
So this particular hotel is attached, literally, to the baseball park. Some of the rooms overlook the baseball dome. I joked with someone at Harlequin that it sounds like the basis for some erotic romance–they’re enjoying their bedroom time with the curtains open, watching the baseball game whilst the fans can peer inside. Sorry for the potato quality photo. I’m a terrible photographer. Trust me, it’s quite an amazing sight.
Tourism Canada arranged for us to take a tour of several independent bookstores based on a Washing Post article written by travel writer Michael Kaminer. There were some wonderful stories. Book City, for example, is owned by a fourth generation bookseller. The original family member was a bookstore owner in Holland, immigrated to Canada and has four stores in the city. Ten Editions is run by the daughter of a woman who had ten kids and decided to open her own bookstore years ago. Bakka Phoenix (more on this later) has several famous authors who have manned the register including Tanya Huff, Michelle Sagara, and Cory Doctorow. They recently had a display that said you don’t have to work at Bakka Phoenix to be a novelist, but it doesn’t hurt.
There was Caversham Booksellers which specialized solely on mental health issues. BMV which is now the largest bookstore in Canada, Willow Books (located right by the shoe museum which I haven’t seen) which specializes in an eclectic mix of literature, used and rare books. The final bookstore we went to was Seekers Books owned by Tony, no last name, who was a psychology major, lapsed Catholic but believed in spiritualism. He was fascinating and has the philosophy that the right book will find you when you browse.
All of the owners were interesting book loving people. But…
I couldn’t help but feel marginalized. I think the sum total of romance books I saw in all of these stores was less than ten. Granted some were very niche such as Caversham and Bakka Phoenix but the BMV flagship store had nearly every subgenre imaginable and six! shelving units devoted to war books. Romance is so small it doesn’t warrant an entry on the directory and occupied about two and a half shelving units.
What I found particularly odd in the used bookstores was that there was plenty of old, kitschy pulp fiction for men but no romances. These were bookstores that clearly didn’t include me as a reader and I felt out of place. BMV had a whole floor devoted to comics and manga (and I bought my daughter the latest Avatar graphic novel at BMV and an endangered species book at Seekers and two fantasy books at Bakka Phoenix) but only a tiny, not worth mentioning, romance section.
Now there’s no money in romance books these days. Print runs are down. The margins on paperbacks are thinner than the paper the words are printed on, but at one time, romance readers bought a ton of print books. It’s so sad to see our genre marginalized–however unintentionally–by these bookstores.
I don’t want to imply that these bookstore owners aren’t wonderful people and that their bookstores aren’t lovely. They are. But they are also, perhaps unintentionally, excluding a huge portion of readers. I remember Courtney Milan pointing out once that romance readers aren’t just buyers of romance books but of all books.
When I grew up, I was one of only two minorities in my home town. My brother was the other. There’s something affirming about seeing people that look like you on the street which was (and to some extent still is) a very abnormal occurrence. There’s a bit of othering that goes on in these stores. You don’t see your reader self in any of the books on the shelf. It’s as if the romance genre doesn’t exist in the “real” book world. I feel bad about complaining about this as the tour was lovely, our tour guide Michael was tremendous and everyone was so kind but the lack of representation was so keen and this is a romance blog, I couldn’t help but mention it.
That said, something truly wonderful happened at the Bakka Phoenix bookstore. As we were leaving, a customer had come in. He’d asked what the group was that was exiting the store and the owner shared it was a bunch of bloggers who had come to attend Inspire. He mentioned something about the Booksmugglers.
Ana was still in the store and I was holding the door. I whipped my head around and said, “Did you say The Booksmugglers?”
I cried, “They’re right here.”
He was elated and said, “Is Liz Bourke here?”
And we ushered Liz back into the store. What a serendipitous moment!
What about Inspire? Well, I think it’s really quite nice. In Toronto it was a professional services day for the teachers and therefore the children were available to come to the festival. The creators of the festival had a children’s stage with big names such as Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, actress Meg Tilly reading stories.
One of the highlights of the book fair is the indigenous authors/books section labeled First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Literary Circle. I ran into Molly O’Keefe and she shared that this section made her quite proud of both the festival. One of the authors was a children’s author who shared stories taught to him by his grandmother. As the storyteller creates images with his words, his hands create images out of string–a dog and a dog sled, foxes running away, eagles flying. This is not the storyteller but a decent representation of the type of display.
Dav Pilkey was another hit, according to O’Keefe. Pilkey is the author of the popular series “Captain Underpants” which I highly recommend. My daughter loves them. Not only are there underwear and toilet bowl jokes but it’s a story of friendship, bullying, social responsibility, and love. It’s really well done. Pilkey drew cartoons on the Children’s Stage and then challenged his young audience to guess the answers to quiz questions he posed. The winners received a cartoon drawing and a gift certificate. Apparently the children were going crazy over this.
The exhibit hall and the events stages were right next to each other in the same open space which I really liked. At other conferences, the exhibit hall is quite a distance away from where the panels take place. Here it is all on the main floor and easy to access and despite the foot traffic, fairly easy to hear each of the speakers. Some of the speaker stages were small and cozy and others were much larger. Tomorrow, authors like Sylvia Day, Debbie Macomber, Anne Rice, Margaret Atwood will be appearing.
Penguin Canada had these gorgeous Anne of Green Gables hardcovers that I bought for my daughter. Thea from The Booksmugglers pointed out there were books 1 through 5 and 7 but no 6 and 8. Is that not strange? Yes, it is.
The best exhibitor was Simon & Schuster Canada whose display was set up in little vignettes representing rooms in a house.
Again, I apologize for being a terrible photographer. Truthfully while I love my Samsung device, I took much better pictures with the iPhone. I think it does a better job of compensating for shaky, poor picture takers such as myself.
Tomorrow I return to visit with romance authors, listen to others on the main stage, see if there are any indigenous, First Nation romance books that don’t end tragically, and I will report back. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to know/see let me hear it in the comments.