Vancouver loses another player in its literary scene as one of its last independent bookstores prepares to shutter its retail storefront on West Hastings St. at the end of May.
Sophia Books is the only multilingual bookstore in B.C. and in Canada selling publications and audiovisual material in English, French, Japanese, German, Spanish and Italian. Current owners Marc Fournier and his wife Yuki are being forced to close their 35-year-old family-owned business due to rising costs and declining sales. Fournier said the new building owner is increasing their rent by about 30 per cent more.
“[Vancouver] is a city in which the price of commercial space is not in synch with the size of the population,” said Fournier, adding the economy has been bad for the last couple of years as well.
“My sales were down 60 per cent in February compared to last year,” he said, adding February 2010 was particularly bad for retailers despite all the people downtown.
“They were only buying beer, pizza and mittens,” Fournier said about the thousands of people downtown during February. Other businesses in Gastown were also empty. Fournier said half his customers left the country and the other half stayed home during the month. Other customers are loyal but they are being forced to move out to the suburbs where it is affordable and they don’t come downtown as much. Then there are the customers that are just in town for two or three years.
He said the state of the publishing industry has also made it difficult for the bookstore. They used to get suppliers shipping items three times a week and that’s down to one now. Online shopping is quite common now too, he said, which takes a chunk out of their sales. For example, a lot of architects and designers who previously might have purchased at the store, now order books online for themselves.
Fournier acknowledges that the role of bookshop owners in providing a value-added service by searching out the best products and keeping up with publishers on behalf of customers can be under-appreciated.
Sophia Books was an active player in the local literary scene. It used to host events at its store, like author’s readings and book launches, especially by independent writers and local people. Fournier said one year they hosted award-winning Canadian artist and graphic novelist Seth at an event which 160 people attended. Large stores, like Chapters, have fewer events and typically feature bestselling, mainstream authors paid for by their publishers.
While the retail storefront will be closing, Fournier said he’s going to keep selling wholesale to customers like schools and libraries.
“We’re the third independent bookstore to close since Christmas,” said Fournier. Duthie Books on West 4th Ave. and Huckleberry Bush on Main St. have both closed in the last few months.
Sophia Books opened as a Japanese bookstore in 1975, run by Fournier’s father-in-law Makoto Inoue. In 1999, Marc and Yuki took it over and turned it into a multicultural mecca.
Hagar’s in Kerrisdale, The People’s Co-op Books on Commercial Drive and Oscar’s Art Books on West Broadway at Granville are a few of the handful of remaining independent retailers of new books in Vancouver, with primarily English-only stock.