Another Story, an independent bookstore in Toronto, Canada has chosen to remain shut even after the Canadian government lifted restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. Founded in 1987, this bookstore is a pillar within its community with its emphasis on equality and diversity, its work with local schools and passionate staff members.
Anjula Gogia, events coordinator at the store, spoke to Scroll.in about her changed role in the bookstore during the lockdown, the challenges of running book events and a bookstore, and the importance of diversity in both children’s and adult literature today. Excerpts from the interview.
Tell us about the history of Another Story Bookshop and your role in it.
I have been working at Another Story bookshop for close to eight years. Sheila Koffman started the store 33 years ago and made it what it is today. About two and a half years ago, ago she passed away of cancer. When she found out she was sick, Sheila made arrangements to give the store to her brother and two long-term employees, Laura Ash and Eric McCall. The three of them now own the bookshop and carry on Sheila’s vision of social justice equity and diversity.
My role here is that of an events coordinator. I organise and promote book launches and events and also help out with customers. In the last two months, as Covid-19 hit us and many employees were unable to come into work, I have taken on a larger role, becoming the person responsible for processing all individual customer orders.
I love my role as events coordinator. It gives me the opportunity to engage with the community and promote authors from diverse backgrounds whose voices need to be heard. During this time, I have organised countless events for writers, activists, intellectuals, scholars, and communities of writers and activists with similar goals and interests to our store.
Could you tell us about how you implement your credo of ‘social justice, equity and diversity’ in your bookstore?
We are a strongly independent community bookstore with a focus on social justice. Our motto of social justice, equity and diversity is reflected in the books we carry. While our focus is on children’s and young adult literature, we also have an excellent selection of literature for adults.
We have sections in the store ranging from the politics of migration to critical race studies, from the environment to social justice and activism, from queer and trans themes to feminist ones. We have a wonderful selection of poetry and literary fiction, with a number of black indigenous queer and people of colour writers, and our children’s books and young adult books sections are one of the best in the city. We carry a lot of books on gender identity, and on multi-racial and queer families.
Our principles of social justice extend to our hiring practices as well as labour practices. Our staff are knowledgeable about books and can give very specialised recommendations to teachers, educators and readers. They have a Staff Picks shelf where they display their favourite books that they’ve read and discussed.
Even the events we programme are done with the focus on social justice and equity and diversity. We promote and launch a lot of books by black and indigenous writers, authors of colour, and queer writers, and we put a lot of care and attention into the kinds of events we host. and how these events get run. For example, we think very carefully about who will moderate the conversations for the events, and where the event will be held. We try to ensure all our offsite events are have entrances and bathrooms that are wheelchair accessible.
What are the challenges usually faced by an independent bookstore in Canada?
The steadily rising rents in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada, along with the introduction of online selling, have driven away independent bookstores over the last 25 years. Besides, profit margins are low on books. With the rising popularity of e-books and consequent decline of the physical bookshop, it is difficult to retain staff, who inevitably move on to higher paying jobs.
Independent bookstores like Another Story are much more than a place to buy books. They are local hubs for neighbours to meet and interact, a space to launch indie authors, and where customers and staff are on a first-name basis. But as big-box stores and online giants, such as Amazon, continue to grow, independent shops are finding it more and more difficult to stay afloat.
We read about your kerb pick up strategy during the lockdown. Could you tell us how this works, whether you are unique in offering this take-out option, and whether it might be a good opportunity for bookshops in India?
Another Story took a break from all operations from mid-March to mid-April to assist in efforts to flatten the curve. We decided it was safe to resume services in a phased out manner and reopened in mid-April for deliveries and shipments, and recently added kerb pickup.
We have a fully functional website with all our inventory online. Customers can place an order and indicate whether they want the order delivered (within a short radius), shipped in the mail, or held at the store for kerb pickup. The pickup option has become the most popular – books are processed and placed in a bag with the customers’ name. Customers can come during pickup hours, they don’t need to make an appointment – they just show up during our hours.
We have our door open, with a small table blocking the entrance so customers cannot enter. There is also a small table outside the store. When they are at the door they give us their name, we find their bag, and ask them to step away from the door. We place their bag on the table that is outside. We have a mask on when we do this and we sanitize our hands. The whole interaction can take 1-3 minutes, is no-contact, and we are always safely distanced.
It has worked extremely well for us and for many other bookstores across North America. This avoids delivery charges for the customer, and keeps our staffing resources in the store.
I do think it can work quite well in India. Customers also get the opportunity to peek inside and see all the books, and check out our window displays. Plus the face-to-face interaction is lovely, even from afar.
Even though the Canadian government allowed bookshops to reopen after May 19, you chose to remain closed for a while longer – when do you plan to open again?
At the moment we are operating with limited in-store staff to ensure physical distancing. Books are being sold via our website and we have a number of staff working from home, processing orders and handling customer support. Also we have staff who are doing local, no contact deliveries twice a week, as well as kerb pickup.
We are not quite sure when we will re-open again. Much depends on how the spread of the virus is contained in Toronto, which is one of the most hard hit cities in Canada. We have a major issue with many of our staff taking transit to come to work. We want to make sure travelling is safe for them.
Have bookstores in general and independent bookstores specifically received any financial support from the Canadian government during the crisis?
There are three areas in which small businesses have received financial support from the government: the first is through commercial rent subsidies, but this has a lot of limitations as it relies on landlords applying for funding assistance to support their commercial tenants. And a number of landlords have not done this So there’s been criticism from the business community in Canada because of the restrictions on the commercial rent release.
The second thing the government has done, which was met with great approval across Canada, is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which is a $2000-a–month guaranteed income for all Canadians.
The third is a wage subsidy for small businesses to cover up to 75% of wages during the pandemic. There have been some concerns about the lack of flexibility with this, as it doesn’t meet the changes in labour needs with the pandemic.
Could you tell us about the virtual or digital opportunities during the lockdown, and how far your efforts have been successful?
Another Story is hosting and supporting virtual book launches, book clubs and author events, and sharing them via our YouTube channel and we have had excellent attendance at these virtual events. Writers have been able to reach out and promote their books. This has also led to increased sales.
Where do you see author events going in the post-Covid future?
The bookstore has had a long history of hosting events in Toronto for the academic, activist and literary communities. We host small events in our store, as well as larger events at other venues, with audiences ranging from anywhere between 40 and 1000 people. We’ve hosted large events with writers like Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy and Micheal Ondaatje.
About where we see this going in the future, I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what will happen post-Covid. Ideally we would love to be able to host in store and off-site launches, as we feel it is an important factor in community building. Of course we won’t do it until it’s absolutely safe. Until then we will continue to host virtual events and launches via our YouTube channel and Facebook page, and we’re actively working with local authors and local publishers.
How did your work with schools proceed during the lockdown?
We continue to supply books to educators in schools across southern Ontario. We have had a number of teachers request books that are focused on social justice, diversity and equity Given the recent protests around anti-Black violence in the States and in Canada, we have had a surge of interest in our books around race, anti-racism, blackness and indigenous issues.
Do you get a lot of Indian and South Asian readers coming into your bookstore? What are the reading habits of the large Indian diaspora in Canada?
There is considerable interest among South Asian readers in attending author events by authors of colour. We were the official booksellers for JLF Toronto and had excellent sales. South Asians are keen readers with varied literary interests. There are also a number of excellent Canadian South Asian authors and writers who have a very interested and dedicated South Asian as well as mainstream readership.
How has the lockdown been for you personally in terms of balancing work and a family at home?
It has been a tough call balancing both as the kids are at home due to schools being closed. Something as mundane as a grocery run can easily take up to three hours. On the work front it’s been exceptionally busy, trying to fulfil orders with limited staff. Also a lot of the staff do not have access to a vehicle, so we have asked them to stay home. Further, trying to coordinate and switching in-person planned author events to virtual events has expended a lot of my energy.
What is your impression of independent bookstores in India? Have you visited any? Which are your favourite?
My visits to India are incomplete without a visit to a bookshop. I have visited a number of them in Delhi like Bahrisons, and a women’s bookshop in Bangalore. I have also visited the Delhi Book Fair. I love seeing the range of writing and books published by local and progressive presses like Zubaan and Kali for Women. I am always interested in finding books published by Indian authors that are not available in North America. I have also loved seeing South Asian Canadian writers published by Indian presses.
Do you have any advice for independent bookshop owners in India on surviving after Covid?
I think bookshops around the world have to remain relevant to our communities. Make sure you have a strong online presence. I think what works is to keep doing what we do best, which is achieved by having staff who know their books inside out and can provide personalised service and help readers create a personal connection to a book, something that you can’t get from Amazon. Independent bookstores can engage with their communities and local customers.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.