Local booksellers say buyers are back in droves post-pandemic


Rumours of their death may have been greatly exaggerated. 

According to some local independent booksellers, this Mark Twain quote could easily apply to their business and the products they sell.

In fact, independent bookstores in Ottawa and across the country are thriving, despite competition from big box stores such as Chapters Indigo, online retailers such as Amazon, and e-books.

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The fear that print books and bookstores would become obsolete when e-books hit the market has proven unfounded, as sales of e-books have plateaued and consumers have voted with their feet and shown they like browsing in brick-and-mortar bookstores.

“Our customers don’t want the cold, impersonal experience of shopping online from a list of popular books selected by an algorithm,” said Cole Davidson of The Spaniel’s Tale Bookstore on Wellington Street West. “They want the experience of browsing, holding a book in their hand, and discovering titles they didn’t even know they were looking for.”

Davidson says this has been especially true since the pandemic, with national sales data showing independent bookstores recovering faster than national chains.

“Independent bookstores succeed because we offer things that the national chains and online giants can’t: stellar customer service, personalized recommendations from a real person, a comfortable environment that welcomes everyone and encourages browsing and discoverability, and a curated selection,” Davidson added. 

“The books in our store are handpicked by real people. We curate a selection of books that we think our community will love.”

Jim Sherman, owner of Perfect Books on Elgin Street, says his store has been thriving in recent years and he has doubled his staff in the past two years as customers flock to his store, which is open seven days a week.

“We can’t keep up,” he said. “Customers love to come in and feel the books in their hands. That is not something you can do online.”

When e-books arrived on the market there was an impact for a couple of years, he said, but the “e-book bubble” has passed. 

“They are a good tool for travel and students,” Sherman said. “The people who converted to e-books generally stay with them, but most people like to actually read books that they can hold in their hands.”

In Ottawa, independent bookstores support each other through events such as the recent inaugural Indie Bookstore Crawl, which was held April 28-30 to coincide with Independent Bookstore Day (April 29). 

Ottawa’s six independent bookstores — Octopus Books, Perfect Books, The Spaniel’s Tale, Singing Pebble Books, World of Maps, and Books on Beechwood — joined forces for a multi-store promotional event.

According to a BookNet Canada report for 2022, 73 per cent of books purchased last year were print books, 17 per cent were e-books, and six per cent were audiobooks. The report showed that purchases of e-books had been fluctuating around 20 per cent until the last quarter of 2022, when they dropped to 10 per cent of purchases.

Sixty-four per cent of Canadian book buyers returned to visiting their local bookstores in-person, the report suggested.

Print books and e-books are a massive market in Canada, selling almost 55 million units a year, with book sales revenue reaching a record $1.12 billion in 2022, according to Statista.

A recent article in the British publication The Observer stated that, “In a world where we do everything online, consider this: Independent bookstores are on the rise, while e-books are on the decline. Does this mean that the verdict is finally in on e-books? Does this mean that people, or at least the market forces through which they manifest, have chosen the paperback over the Kindle edition?

“It seems that may be the case. While consumers are increasingly choosing to stream their entertainment, they seem to be going back to an old-fashioned artifact — the book — for their reading needs, boosting the publishing industry.”

Canadian Independent Booksellers Association president Chris Hall said that independent bookstores across North America are thriving because of the social aspect.

“When you go to a bookstore, you know you are going to be around other people who love books as much as you do. There is a social aspect to that,” Hall said, adding that, after the pandemic, people want to get out of their homes and not spend as much time on a computer screen. “They want to feel a book in their hands again.”

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