This past Monday, the independent and influential literary haven, Pages Books on Queen street West, closed its doors forever. During its final hours I walked through the naked aisles of my favourite bookstore for the last time. Pages has been under threat of closure for quite some time now and its descending story is a poignant illustration of what happens when the perfectly visible hungry hand of gentrification seeks and destroys the amenities and services of a community. Pages was a well loved shop whose local notoriety spread even to the suburbs.
Queen street east of Spadina has been gentrifying for two decades and the corporate and over-priced presence along the strip is, today, seen as normal. You could say that it’s a surprise Pages lasted this long, especially long after Chapters opened up in the Paramount theatre, only a block away on Richmond street, in May of 1999.
Attending school at OCAD, it was comforting to know that Pages was always a three minute walk away. I often found myself there between and after classes and most of the time I came out with a small pile of books. As cliche as it sounds, my experiences at Pages have been therapeutic. It was a book lovers sanctuary stocked with a generous variety of genres, whether it be controversial, pretentiously arty, or made purely for nonsensical enjoyment.They had a large section devoted for small press, counter-culture and the magazine racks were always full of local independent publications.
Pages wasn’t just a bookstore, but a celebration of culture and literature. This was something that their loyal customers recognized. It was like a bomb shelter from the over-air conditioned, over-priced, over-consuming rent-inflaters of the surrounding blocks. The shelves were decorated with art produced by local artists like Michael Cho and Fiona Smyth and were wonderful distractions for even the most determined of shoppers. There was no other store quite like Pages, a fiercely independent focal point to the city’s reading, intellectual, and creative community that could be called home by people from dozens of backgrounds.
Until now, it was the only thing I went down to that strip for. When Pages was given its six month notice earlier this year, my previous feelings of denial were badly shaken. My favourite bookstore was closing and there wasn’t much that anyone could do. Obscenely high rents were too high for the store’s monthly revenue and there didn’t seem to be any other location that owner, Marc Glassman, was satisfied with. Decades ago, land taxes and rents were much more reasonable than today, where only big businesses can survive comfortably. I’m talking specifically about these sorts of strips that have been engulfed by a powerful deluge of untamed gentrification. The Starbucks mermaid across the street remains in her state of sustained smugness.
One could say that change is a necessary process for any street, community, or city. But this form of contrived transformation made possible by imperialistic gentrification isn’t healthy for any neighbourhood. Urban change should be an organic transition where things happen through mutual agreements with residents, planners, store owners, and the city. When a forced process of change is forced upon a neighbourhood, it mutates in a very deliberate way. West Queen West is a good example of this. When the artful allure began to popularize, developers and entrepreneurs with deep pockets wished to capitalize on this and promoted new projects that promised a hipster haven. In effect, many of the artists who helped build the initial creative community eventually had to move out from rising rents and the pseudo culture that spread like the plague. A small group of observant and concerned residents soon stepped in before things got out of hand and formed Active 18. The successful organization was created to work with developers, architects and the community and help build upcoming projects so as not to put the future and character of the neighbourhood at stake.
Unfortunately for Pages’ neighbourhood, rampant gentrification was never controlled in a similar manner and, subsequently, the strip became what it is today. Taking one last walk through Pages, I wondered what the future of the space would be. In the past year, there have been two other independent bookstore closures: David Mirvish books (specializing in books on art, design and cultural theory), and Ballenford books (specializing in books on architecture and urban design). Both stores were places in which I frequented during my habitual wanderings through the Annex neighbourhood. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), they were neighbours on Markham street in Mirvish Village. The Beguiling (arguably the best comic/graphic novel store in Toronto) managed to escape the genocide and remains the sequential narrative destination in the city.
Urban design and gentrification are not the only causes to blame for the noticeably struggling book and magazine industry. Since its conception, Amazon.com has been a sort of veiled competition. Buying books from your own home has given rise to a new breed of armchair readers (in both senses) who strive for the convenience of buying New York Times bestsellers without leaving the house. The electronic book shopping media, however, isn’t the only threat to book stores, but e-books are beginning to become popular and desirable to consumers. This argument is more eloquently stated by graphic designer, Chip Kidd, in his interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC radio’s Q program.
In closing, I’m utterly heartbroken that Pages has closed and I feel that it’s very telling of the things that Toronto is capable of. The community it has helped strengthen will live on in various forms, such as their reading series, This is not a Reading Series, and exist vicariously through other independent booksellers, like This aint the Rosedale Library. I can only hope Pages can act as a sort of martyr for the book industry and the importance of independent businesses in Toronto and beyond before only a small handful of suits are being paid for every book sold or downloaded.