When capitalism kills culture: Gentrified real estate puts squeeze on indie bookstores
The story is all too familiar – yet it should command more attention from Canadians.
Recently, the Globe and Mail reported the Ben McNally bookstore, located on Bay Street a stone’s throw from Union Station, would close in 2020. Two days later, Rupert McNally, the founder’s son, confirmed the news on the store’s website. It had been open since 2007.
The reason for the closure is simple: the store will be replaced by an alleyway linking Bay Street to the alley behind it. This redevelopment is part of a project that the owner calls (ironically?) “The Bay Street Village.”
It is therefore a stupid example of gentrification that pits a modest shopkeeper against a greedy landowner.
The increase in the value of Toronto’s real estate is not exactly new. But we can see here an example of a paradigm that is not reassuring for the future of large cities: the profitability of businesses devoted to cultural property is hardly compatible with the overbidding in real estate.
Montréal is facing the same problem, and it affects all independent businesses. In August, the City gave the Commission on Economic and Urban Development and Housing the mandate to conduct public consultations on vacant space on commercial arteries. Several of these areas have rates ranging from 10 to 15 per cent.
A “hygienization” of urban centres
It has already been demonstrated that gentrification is largely based on a city’s ability to offer an interesting and diversified cultural life. Some, such as Richard Florida, have linked this phenomenon to the emergence of a “creative class.”
Geographer Oli Mould, in his excellent book, Against Creativity, published in 2018, attacks the very notion of creativity. He criticizes Richard Florida with virulence by brilliantly showing how “creative” gentrification can also act as a form of hygienization in urban centres that, ironically, hinders spontaneous citizen initiatives. To put it bluntly, once gentrification is completed, culture is more or less eliminated from the central districts.
We are interested in the case of the closure of the Ben McNally bookstore because it shows the consequences of real estate speculation on the vitality of a city and, ultimately, on culture on a national scale. Very quickly, after the announcement by the owners of the bookstore, many players in the Canadian publishing ecosystem expressed serious concerns.
That is because independent bookshops, Ben McNally in particular, do not belong to a large group or chain and aren’t limited to the sole function of selling books. They are truly a place of cultural mediation.
The purpose of booksellers is to introduce readers to more complex works that have received less media attention. In Kingston, Ont., the city where I live, the Novel Idea bookstore is part of the community life. It organizes meetings with local authors and federates a community of readers. In Montréal, bookstores such as Le port de tête, L’Écume des jours and Gallimard also have a clearly established cultural function.
Independent bookstores are places where demanding literature or radical essays can find readers. In short, the exact opposite of a virtual library where algorithms – certainly effective – guide readers’ tastes. There is no doubt that these algorithms favour books that are already selling well, regardless of the careful work of smaller publishers.
For a “bibliodiversity”
Why defend the independence of Canadian literature? Out of pure nationalism? Not exactly.
Rather, it is a question of how the bookstore can, in an era of advanced globalization, be a place of defence for the diversity of cultures, what some have referred to as bibliodiversity: a diversity of languages (in the case of Canada, English, French and Aboriginal literatures), but also socially equitable modes of production and dissemination. In this case, it ensures that cultural property produced with our public funds finds takers.
To put it simply, a book in Canada will sometimes be subsidized at the time of writing through creation grants, in its production through operating grants to publishers, and then sold by Amazon or, in the worst case, unsold due to a lack of suitable distribution locations. The Canadian book system provides a relatively good framework for its authors and publishers to deal with the horrors of the free market, in a spirit of cultural and economic protectionism. But in the current configuration, booksellers seem to be abandoned.
Make the less visible visible
But it is not simply a matter of defending a blurred Canadian identity. It is also a matter of making a diversity of identities visible. Think of the Racines bookstore in Montréal North, which highlights the culture and history of racialized authors. Or, the bookstore L’Euguélionne, which, by settling in the gay village in Montréal and adopting a cooperative structure, has made it its mission to offer a wide selection of literature on women and LGBPT2QIA groups.
An independent bookstore is therefore a meeting place for people from the neighbourhood but also, possibly, for affinity groups. Bookstores can be, in some contexts, sources of resistance. André Schiffrin states in L’argent et les mots – the third volume of a trilogy essential to understanding the effects of cultural globalization – that the number of New York bookstores has been divided by 10 since the post-war period.
Capitalism has its own rhythm, but also its own specific geography. Urban space is profoundly transformed by financial capitalism. Urban spaces are becoming expensive, and the closure of cultural spaces is, metaphorically and by extension, a reduction in the space for ideas and expression.