A Visit with Grumpy Ben

I had to run some errands downtown this morning so I arranged to drop in on my buddy Ben, proprietor extraordinaire of Ben McNally Books. I was interested in how he is holding up in this mess.

I had my answer before I even cast eyes on his store, which sits about twenty yards from what is usually one of the most frustrating traffic intersections in the city, Richmond and Bay. On a normal (pre-covid) day, a driver could sit twenty minutes trying to move a single block. I zip through in record time. Parking is a breeze.

There is scaffolding all around the building in which Ben sits, and his store is dark. I wave at him through the window and he lets me in. We mock shake hands from a distance of eight feet and I admire his khaki shorts and knobby seventy-one-year-old knees.

I am surprised he isn’t open to foot traffic—with a street exit, he’s legally permitted to open his doors. When I ask why, he complains of the trouble and expense of putting up plexiglass at the counters and cleaning every day and putting every book that has been touched by a client into a three-day quarantine, etc. etc. He then waves his hand at the empty street outside, as if to say there will never be enough people coming in off the street to make it worthwhile. Hard to argue.

Instead, Ben has set up a command post just inside the door from which he manages curbside pickups and courier deliveries to central Toronto customers. It’s a steady business but nowhere near his usual volume.

He only has a few months left in this iteration of his business. His lease is up in August and he’s not been given an option to renew. His landlord is turning his shop into a breezeway, or something similarly ridiculous. Before the pandemic hit, Ben started looking for a new location. He arranged a lease on King Street but the landlord balked at some of the leasehold improvements Ben requested. The deal fell apart. Then the world locked down. Ben couldn’t be happier to have escaped what would have been a ten-year commitment, particularly now with the retailing and commercial real estate worlds permanently ruptured.

He’ll spend the next three months selling off the wonderful selection of books in his store. He’s not ordering many new ones, and he’ll return unsold to publishers whatever he can’t move. He’s trying to figure out what do to with the hardwood fixtures —shelves, tables, pillars — that cost him a small fortune on opening and make his the most beautiful bookstore in these parts (see below). Is it worth putting them in storage, he wonders, or should he just abandon them?

He plans to open a pop-up location for six months or a year, probably somewhere in the west end. That’s where his kids live, and they’ll be his successors.

Then it’s a waiting game.

One of the many things he’ll be waiting to see is what happens to the pandemic—is there a vaccine, does the virus pass like SARS, does it haunt us for years?

What happens to the foot traffic on which bookstores depend? Does it eventually return downtown or does it move to the neighborhoods in which people live and, these days, also work?

Will people want to return to a bookstore and buy a book off a shelf that some other customer may have touched ten minutes before, or is the business permanently changed? Is he better off doing curbside and mail-order?

Are book launches and book events, an important part of a bookstore’s business, ever going to return? He doubts it.

Will there be great opportunities to snap up cheap commercial space a year or two down the road, renting on a percentage of the business’s revenue rather than a set monthly fee? Maybe.

Ben discusses all of this matter-of-factly. He grumbles, but Ben’s a grumbler. One of the admirable things about him is that he’s no more or less a grumbler now than he was before the bottom fell out of his business. He still likes to laugh, too. In fact, grumbling seems Ben’s way of amusing himself.

We talk a lot about real estates and landlords. Ben’s landlord has applied for the federal program that covers 50% of his rent through the lockdown, with landlord and tenant sharing the other 50%. My landlord hasn’t. All he’s offered thus far is a deferral. I want more than a deferral—I want him to apply to the bloody federal program—so I’m not paying my rent until he does. Thanks to a recent action by Premier Ford, the landlord can’t evict me until August, but then what? I have a couple of years left on my lease. Will he come after me for the remainder? Do we negotiate, or litigate? I have the premier on my side. The landlord has a binding lease on his. It’ll be interesting. Much as I like our inexpensive little office, two blocks from my house, it’s been impressed upon me the last few months that I can easily run Sutherland House from my laptop and a storage locker six blocks from my house and a quarter the cost of the office.

If he does open another bookstore, Ben is thinking he doesn’t need anywhere near as much space as he has on Bay street. All the events he hosted over almost fifteen years of operation were as much about brand-building as bookselling, and McNally’s is now an established brand. Given that people have come to trust the store’s judgment about what’s worth reading, he probably doesn’t need as large a stock, either. So smaller is better, if indeed a restart looks to be worthwhile.

These are things small businesses all over the country are thinking about. Rents, real estate, R-values, consumer habits, consumer spending, and so on. The publishing and bookselling industries are no more hostage to an uncertain future than everyone else. Meanwhile, Ben McNally’s, as we’ve known it, will be closing in a few months, and that’s a terrible loss for Toronto.

Before he does close, give Ben an order. Here are the books he’s recommending at the moment.

Speaking of books and real estate, this amazing piece ran in the New York Times two weeks ago. It is written by Sarah McNally, owner of the best small chain of bookstores in Manhattan, and no relation to Grumpy Ben. It explains why the financial system, rather than the free market, is keeping a lot of commercial real estate rents artificially high. I’ve never seen it explained this way and it makes abundant sense.

Justin Ling’s true-crime story about serial killer Bruce McArthur has just gone on pre-sale. We’re going to have him in the newsletter this fall to talk about his investigation of the case. The book is published by McClelland & Stewart and can be pre-ordered here.

Well this is fun. Sutherland House’s own Jennifer Hosten, Miss World 1970, the first black winner of a major pageant, author of Miss World 1970: How I Entered a Pageant and Wound Up Making History, and the woman whose experiences are the basis of the forthcoming movie Misbehaviour, starring Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, will be doing an @Indigo Live event Monday night. Be sure to tune in. And, yes, that’s her above in an impossibly cool 1970ish photo.