toronto bookstores

Here's how Toronto bookstores are really doing during lockdown

A Toronto bookstore is getting some love and actually doing better than expected during this current province-wide lockdown, which is nice to see at a time when small local businesses are struggling with restrictions.

Like bars and restaurants, Toronto book retailers that have been able to thrive have only done so through a willingness to be extremely adaptable. For example, combination bookstore, writing school and publisher Flying Books started doing free delivery and moved their classes online.

"Sales for Flying Books have been strong," owner Martha Sharpe told blogTO. "Not to say that it's been a cakewalk. Last March, I was extremely worried about my business when all our physical locations closed, and it became clear that we wouldn't qualify for any of the government support programs for small businesses.

"Luckily I was able to pivot online and started offering free 'Airdrops,' i.e. delivery, within downtown Toronto. People really responded, and sales far exceeded my expectations. Flying Books had its best year ever in 2020, and 2021 is starting strong too. I truly believe books are providing connection for people."

Their best-selling book just so happens to be the first book in their new publishing program, Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados. An online poetry class with local writer Karen Solie also sold out within a few days of becoming available.

"I had to decide quickly whether or not to publish Happy Hour during 2020, but after consulting with our sales reps at Manda, with other publishing colleagues from coast to coast, and talking with Marlowe, we decided a book called Happy Hour was precisely what people would appreciate in the middle of a pandemic," says Sharpe.

Flying Books also helped launch The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante and Natural Killer by Harriet Alida Lye, both of which are selling well.

Other books that have been best sellers for Flying Books during the pandemic are Severance by Ling Ma, How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel, The Skin We're In by Desmond Cole and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

toronto bookstores

Children's books sold well for The Beguiling at the beginning of the pandemic. Photo by Hector Vasquez.

For Peter Birkemoe over at comics specialist The Beguiling, there are also certain types of books that have been selling well over the course of the pandemic.

"The earliest months of the pandemic, books for the young readers, purchased by parents needing to keep their kids occupied and reading, particularly with the libraries closed outperformed everything else," Birkemoe told blogTO. 

"Aside from the obvious holiday gift buying bump, more recently we've seen an uptick in people bingeing longer series both in manga and North American genre comics."

However, the shop is also suffering from lost revenue that would normally come in from other kinds of sales.

"The hardest hit sections of the store are those that are the most browsing intensive, our basement of inexpensive backissues from the 60s to present and our zines and micropress racks," says Birkemoe.

The best way customers can make sure legendary stores like The Beguiling still have a home in Toronto is to remain loyal.

"While numbers are obviously down substantially, survival seems not only possible but probable given the wage and rent subsidies and most importantly the support of our customers," Birkemoe says.

toronto bookstores

Ordinarily, Glad Day functions not only as a bookstore but as a bar, club and cafe. Photo by Jesse Milns.

It's a similar story over at queer bookshop and cafe Glad Day, where the holidays did boost sales but the business has had to pivot away from the avenues that normally supported them the most because of restrictions. Again, loyal customers and hardworking staff are responsible for keeping the store afloat.

"We're not going as bad as we could be thanks to the community coming out to support us and very proactive and adaptable staff, but that doesn't mean we aren't struggling to keep our heads above water," Glad Day Bookstore Manager M.J. Lyons told blogTO.

"There's been a lot of articles coming out all over claiming that bookstores are doing better than ever. I think that's probably overstating things.

"Sure, we tackled a revamp of our online store and online sales have been incredible, but Glad Day's a mixed business, just as much a cafe, restaurant, bar and club as a bookstore, so even if our online sales are really steady, we're missing out on foot traffic and events."

The ability to bring people in as a cafe, restaurant, bar and club is what normally generates the biggest sales days for Glad Day.

"Our best sales times are our Drag Brunches every Sunday, Pride in June and Christmas. Sure, we were doing nonstop sales during Christmas, but that was a spurt of them from mid-November to early December, and then dropped off," says Lyons.

"Drag Brunch is reliant on us being able to pack people into the space for live entertainment, and we're maybe a year or so away from that happening again, ditto Pride. That's a long, long time of lean living and uncertainty. And it's taken a year for the provincial government to roll out any kind of financial the form of one-off $1000 grants."

Still, like Flying Books, Glad Day has done everything within their power to come up with creative solutions and find other ways to reach their community.

"Aside from a revamped online store that I'm very proud of we've been working with the incredible folks at Flamingo Market, a collection of LGBTQ entrepreneurs and makers," says Lyons. Toronto Dick Candles, which are sold at The Flamingo Market, have been doing especially well.

"The biggest surprise for me was Creamery X, a local, hand-made frozen custard maker. They gave us a freezer and we invested in a chunk of product. I figured, 'That'll be great for next summer!' The ice cream paid for itself in a weekend. Ice cream! In December! Imagine it!"

For all these bookstores, and doubtless for every single business in Toronto, whether things are going well or poorly at the moment the greatest struggle is never knowing what will happen next.

"It's hard to run a business without being able to plan for the future. Personally, I'm frustrated because the government on every level, federal, provincial, municipal, squandered a pandemic that was relatively under control," says Lyons.

"They are directly at fault for us losing more than a year of our lives. They seem to have adopted a 'we tried nothing and we're all out of ideas' approach to a global pandemic. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence."

Lead photo by

Jesse Milns at Glad Day

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