'It's a hard, hard decision to make' Relocation, high rent, giant chains take toll on Ottawa's oldest independent bookstoreBy Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen
For the past three years, Diane Walker has doggedly kept ordering new titles for Shirley Leishman Books, never sure what the publishers will send her as her store's credit stretches.
Traffic is down. Rent is up. Online book companies and big chains offer profit-killing discounts that her independent store can't match.
Walker, the store's co-owner, considered moving, but finally found it too expensive.
On that day, a Monday in late August, she came to the sickening decision that Ottawa's oldest independent bookstore must file for bankruptcy after 51 years as a centrepiece of the city's literary world.
"I did try to find a relocation spot," she said Tuesday as customers came in to offer sympathy following news that the store in Westgate Shopping Centre will close Sept. 30.
"I was looking at Westboro, but, when it came down to the crunch, I realized that, really, this was the time to close the doors.
"It's a hard, hard decision to make, after all these years when it (the store) has been my life."
She said most of her customers are regulars. "They've been coming here and seeing me for as many years as I have been here. It's the special service and knowledge that they get here that has kept them coming here. Unfortunately, they are not enough to support the rent that we've been paying here."
Walker, 54, has worked in the store at Westgate for 31 years, and has been an owner for 16 years. On Tuesday, as she welcomed familiar customers to the store, she blamed the death of the business on "a number of things. The most pressing thing that happened was our relocation."
Three years ago, Westgate re-organized to accommodate a massive new Shoppers Drug Mart, and Shirley Leishman was forced to the far end of the mall, into a much larger unit. Walker says the new location is in a less busy area. Traffic plummeted. The rent rose to reflect the larger location: 3,000 square feet. She and co-owner Sally Hawks have been paying more than $12,000 a month in rent.
"The other factor is the changing nature of the book industry," Walker said. "A lot of online ordering, and books everywhere at discount."
Large chains and online stores often offer bestsellers at discounts of 40 per cent or more, which Shirley Leishman can't match without losing its profit entirely.
She said e-books would cause more trouble in the future, but were still too small a market to influence her decision.
"It's also the fact that the traffic in this mall has declined substantially.
"The stock is being liquidated right now; it's 25 per cent off everything in the store."
She believes that services have replaced retail stores in the mall, and their customers don't come to shop.
She says she won't reconsider because "at this point it's not fun any more."
She told her neighbours in the mall Tuesday morning: staff at the TD Bank, the Second Cup, people she has seen every business day for years. She describes them as "devastated" and "in shock."
"We've had some of the biggest autographings ever in Ottawa," she recalled. "We had Anne Rice. We had Diana Gabaldon."
The store has six employees, counting the two owners.
Joanna Palmer, who lives nearby, has shopped at Shirley Leishman since she moved to Ottawa in 2004.
"I just walked in and saw the sign," she said, calling the event "devastating. It's a very, very good book store. It will find books for you, and it's a comfortable bookstore."
"It's just another independent going down," said longtime customer Sharon Darcy. "I'm a social worker and I'm out with my client at the mall, and I saw a sign that the store was closing. And I thought maybe it was just relocating, but I talked to the (owner) and she said it's closing.
"It's too bad."
Christopher Smith, co-owner of Collected Works, a nearby independent bookstore, called the news "like hearing of the death of a friend."
"We're a community, and we're losing someone in our community. My heart sank a bit when I got the e-mail" with the news.
Smith said his own business had been up and down in the past year, but overall was thriving and was currently expanding to double its space.