Nicholas Hoare looks back at bookstore's 40 years
On April 1st, Nicholas Hoare's bookstore on Front Street will close its doors, following the shuttering of his two stores in Montreal and Ottawa last year. After 40 years, the nearly 70-year-old bookseller is retiring.
Since his announcement over a week ago, Hoare has done a lot of reflection. "My favourite memory of the Toronto store was discovering it and developing it from scratch... The love affair began from an architectural point of view," he says on the phone from Montreal.
Hoare and his wife were looking for a property with tall ceilings. They stumbled on the Front Street location by accident. "We found a sign that must have been at least eight feet tall plastered on what was left of a window... Here was this mausoleum of a building which looked like the back end of a bus, but we saw potential behind all this crap - brick walls, high ceilings and plenty of possibilities."
After signing a lease, they spent a year renovating from scratch. They hired a family of cabinetmakers from Cowansville, Quebec to build every piece in their store. The beautiful fixtures - including the comfy couches by the fireplace - helped create the store's intimate relaxed atmosphere.
The store specialized in British books, which became the backbone of his business. "We took the crapshoot on the fact that no one seemed to understand British books here unless they were John le Carré... They were hard to find then and they are still hard to find."
His passion for books began in his childhood. He was born in Britain to a banking family with 300 years of history. He grew up in Suffolk, in the East coast of England, and lived in a 15th century Elizabethan home. "We come from a very literary background. My father had an extremely well-known library and both my sisters were publishers."
He pursued the literary field when he came to Canada, moving permanently to Montreal on his 21st birthday. A few years later, in 1971, he opened the first Nicholas Hoare bookstore in Montreal and then expanded to Ottawa and Toronto.
Being selective about what the store offered was key to surviving. "We made a conscious decision never to sell things that weren't up to snuff... like Robert Ludlum and Danielle Steel. We didn't want mass market paperbacks. We certainly didn't want books from the celebrity field... It took us a very long time to establish our watermark but once it was there, it stuck and we were able to convert a handicap into a real asset."
The advent of online retailers and digital books also presented a huge challenge, because Hoare stubbornly refused to discount his books. But he says the store weathered the electronic storm, because they carried many books that were not available digitally.
Despite this resilience, he closed the Montreal and Ottawa stores last year, citing sharp rent hikes. Hoare says the reaction to the Toronto closure and his retirement has been overwhelming. "The managers are literally escorting some of our customers out in tears. It's gratifying on one hand and it's heartbreaking on the other."
Some customers have taken to the store's blog to say goodbye. "I am really heartbroken to hear that it will be closing," posted Chloe. "I vividly remember playing in the children's section at the back..."
But it's business as usual until April 1, says Hoare. "We're shipping them buckets of things every other day... There is absolutely no interruption."
When the doors close, there will be a massive cleanup. The books will be returned to publishers. Hoare admits he's worried about finding a home for the furniture. "Each one of these pieces is a work of art; some of them weigh 450 pounds... An auction is probably the ultimate solution."
The closure follows other indie bookstore closures, including Pages and Toronto Women's Bookstore. Hoare believes there is a future for indie bookstores, but in niche markets only instead of general bookselling. "This is particularly true of food and wine - in conjunction with cooking classes; art, architecture and design; mysteries with a strong European emphasis and British books only."
The next chapter for Hoare, it seems, is not so much a retirement, but rather, a new chapter. He and his wife will relocate from Montreal to their 350-acre home in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, one of the oldest communities in Canada with a population of 450.
"My wife and I hope to embark on a long term project in which we can not only breathe life into a property that has not been touched for close to 50 years but also into the community," says Hoare. This includes building an 18,000 volume research library - including his father's treasured books.
When the store closes, Hoare says he will miss his staff the most. "I don't like my staff, I love them. The people who came through the pipe over the years were memorable. Some became publishers; some went into other aspects of the field. A lot of them (like Ben McNally Books) are still in the business... The success of the store was not (me). I'm just in the steering room of the ship. It was the people in the steerage, manning the boat and making sure that it was well taken care of."