Coronavirus, real estate woes create perfect storm of bad news for Ben McNally Books

Coronavirus, real estate woes create perfect storm of bad news for Ben McNally Books
Ben McNally Books could be the poster child representing all the pressures retailers in this city are undergoing right now: he’s closing shop temporarily because of COVID-19 amidst plans to move permanently thanks to his lease not being renewed.

“We are concerned about our customers and our colleagues and the other people in the business, and I think this is a pretty scary time,” says McNally, owner of the venerable Bay Street shop.

Other stores, including Another Story Bookshop, have also suspended delivering orders for the next few weeks at least, although others are continuing with contactless delivery.

“I’m not so worried about the immediate financial implications,” says McNally. “(But) the fact that there’s not a foreseeable end date, that troubles me.”

His store had been taking orders online and by phone after closing to foot traffic about 10 days ago. Located where there’s no parking, McNally had long been in the habit of taking orders by phone or email, having customers pay by credit card and telling them, “Give us a beep and we’ll come and throw them in your car.”

But the slowdown starting back in February, when many of the corporations in the nearby Bay Street towers began telling people to work from home. “And then it got worse,” McNally says. More things were shutting down and his son Rupert started running the store.

“My kids said to me, ‘You know what, you’re not coming back to work,’” says McNally. Why did they say that? “Because I’m old!” says the 71-year-old.

The announcement about the closing was made on his website . “While we certainly consider bookselling to be an essential service, we also think that it is incumbent on all of us to do our part in stopping the progress of this rampant and pernicious infection. We would all feel more comfortable if Rupert were also at home,” read the post.

The family business is in a great location, on Bay just south of Queen Street West, in the middle of the city. But, as is the way in Toronto these days, those locations are tougher for small businesses to hang onto.

McNally was told by his landlord, Dream Office Management Corp., in September 2019 that his lease, which expires at the end of August, is not being renewed. Dream wants to turn the space into an open-air walkway. Ben McNally Books has to be out of the store they’ve been in for almost 13 years.

“We are trying to find a new location and we’re kind of hopeful that we’re going to pull something off,” McNally says. But “for us every day (of the COVID-19 shutdown) is another day lost. And that’s the other part of this situation that’s troubling for me; if it takes two weeks, it takes two weeks. But that’s two weeks out of the time I have left to get moved.”

He’s looking for a smaller space this time. This one he built specifically to hold events, but he’s been seeing less of those in the last few years — and with COVID-19, plenty are being cancelled that won’t come back. His popular “Books and Brunch” event at the Omni King Edward is also on hold, at least for April. He’ll probably have to cancel the one scheduled for May, too.

All of which leaves McNally, like the rest of us, with plenty more time on his hands to spend doing what he probably likes best: reading.

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“I just finished Hope Jahren, the woman who wrote “Lab Girl.” Her new one is “The Story Of More.” I loved Emily St. John Mandel (her new book is “The Glass Hotel”) and I read the Bill Clegg (“The End of the Day”) that’s not coming out till June, and I have in my hand a book called “Good Citizens Need Not Fear” (by Maria Reva) and that’s where I’m going from here.”

You can’t get those books from McNally’s shop at the moment. But maybe you’ll want to pick them up once things get back to normal, whenever that will be, and whatever the new normal turns out to be.
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