Independent Bookstores

In mid-June Irwin Law held a book launch to celebrate the publication of The Lunatic and the Lords by Hon. Richard Schneider. Justice Schneider, as some readers will be aware, presides over the mental health court at Old City Hall in Toronto. His book is an account of the 1843 trial of Daniel M’Naughten for the murder of Edward Drummond, secretary to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. The verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity was so controversial that Queen Victoria ordered the House of Lords to review the verdict. The result of this review was the ‘M’Naughten Rules’ which continue to form the basis of the insanity defence in most common law jurisdictions. 

The venue for our book launch was Caversham booksellers on Harbord Street in Toronto. Caversham specializes in providing books for mental health professionals and, for those interested, has a good selection of materials on psychiatry and law. It seemed an ideal place to launch a book about criminal responsibility as it applies to mental disorder. On its website, Caversham, describes itself this way:

Caversham is a community of often eccentric but knowledgable staff and interesting, interested and indeed often eccentric customers. Many of our customers we know personally as local authors, or experts in their fields. Some of them visit us two or three times a week, while others are afraid to come to our store because of the dangerous appeal of many of our books.

About 60 (“interesting and often eccentric?”) people from both the legal and medical communities joined us for the launch. Precedent Magazine’s photographer, Chelsea Thomas, turned up to capture the event

Caversham has been around for over 20 years making it a bit of a marvel among independent book sellers in this day and age of box stores and online retailers. In fact, between 1993 and 2003, more than half the independent book retailers in North America disappeared, and their consumer market share went from over 30 percent to less than 10 percent. The list of casualties includes venerable businesses like Sandpiper Books in Calgary, Duthies in Vancouver, and Britnells in Toronto with others like This Ain’t the Rosedale Library on the endangered list. I can name four independent booksellers where there used to be ten in downtown Toronto and among those four that are still in operation two are specialty bookstores like Caversham. 

Specialty bookstores have survived and prospered, I think, principally because they create and foster, as the Caversham blurb says, a “community” made up of dedicated professional staff along with customers with definable interests and needs. Unlike the large generalist chain stores and online retailers, they are able to fill orders within reasonable time (no “usually ships in 6 weeks” on their ordering information). And, they are able to provide ‘one-stop shopping’, across a specific range of titles from a range publishers in their area of specialty assuming much the same role that wholesalers fill for institutional libraries. Finally, specialty stores provide a ‘destination’, physically or on the internet. 

All of which leads me to wonder why we no longer have legal book shops in Canada (with, of course, the notable exception of Wilson & Lafleur in Montreal). This is certainly not the case in the UK where dedicated legal bookstores such as Hammicks continue to serve legal practitioners and researchers. Perhaps the oldest of the British legal book shops is Wildy and Sons. Wildy’s was established in London in 1830 and has operated from the same location in Lincoln’s Inn Archway ever since. This is real “bricks and mortar” as they say. When I visited the shop a couple of years ago, John Sinkins, the current proprietor (whose family has been involved with the store for over a century), told me that they had recently undertaken some renovations which, among other things exposed floor boards which dated from about the 16th century. John also told me that his first job at the shop in the early 70s after he graduated from university, was to take a wagon down the street once or twice a day to collect orders from Butterworths which were then sent off to Wildy’s customers. 

But Wildy and Sons, like Caversham, is much more than an historical artifact. Specialty shops like these have always provided a range of services to their local customers. With the advent of online retailing, they now attract an international clientele. Wildy, for example, ships books around the world often more quickly and more economically than the publishers from whom they buy them. Their staff attend and exhibit at international meetings including the Canadian Association of Law Libraries annual meeting. 

It isn’t too far-fetched a notion to suppose that the barristers who participated in Daniel M’Naughten’s murder trial in 1843 might well have wandered into the shop in Lincoln’s Inn archway in search of a treatise to help argue their case. After nearly two centuries of successfully providing service to the UK legal community, it not too presumptuous to suggest that the specialty store model might have some application in the Canadian legal marketplace. 

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