April 15, 2010
The Ecology of Ideas: An Interview with Of Swallow’s Jason Rovito
The media’s narrative goes like this: Toronto booksellers are dropping like flies, with venerable institutions like Pages and David Mirvish Books on Art as well as newer enterprises like McNally Robinson and TYPE on the Danforth shutting their doors. But not to worry, new bookstores are cropping up all over town; plucky startups like ReReading, Good Egg and Zoinks! are going to try their luck in the strange new world of the internet, ebook and big box retail.
Into this narrative enter Of Swallows, their deeds, & the winter below. Jason Rovito has become Of Swallow’s figurehead, the latest young entrepreneur to try his hand at redefining bookselling for the 21st century. But Rovito’s vision of a center for knowledge exchange and an experiment in community idea building is a far cry from the usual bookseller line, and indeed neither the man nor the space fit into the usual roles of proprietor and property. Traditional and innovative booksellers alike are trying to sell a product; Of Swallows is going to try to become a location of intellectual exchange.
But jargony idealism aside, Rovito’s collective seems to have a sound foundation: the bookstore sells second-hand scholarly books while the location at 283 College Street (at Spadina) is also home to the Toronto New School of Writingand a 3rd floor office and boardroom are available for rent on an hourly basis to interested parties. This helps pay the bills but more importantly, drives like-minded users into the space. For Rovito, whose academic background includes work on urban Marxism and the history of the medieval university, locality, community, and exchange are completely the point of bookselling. “If you take care of the cultural ecology,” he told me, “the political economy takes care of itself.” That is to say, if you have a healthy community of eager minds converging on a place, books are bound to sell.
I was intrigued by Of Swallows right off the bat for a number of reasons: For starters, it is a used, not a new, bookstore. If the current economy can be said to be unfriendly to independent new booksellers, it is certainly even more so to used sellers who don’t have the benefit of publishers’ marketing budgets and distributors’ returns policies. Of Swallows’ intellectual predecessor, Atticus Books formerly of Harbord St., recently “went digital”, leaving behind the question of if a second-hand scholarly bookstore is economically viable. And how could anyone compete with Amazon’s used-book subsidiary, Abebooks.com?
Rovito’s answer to the potential pitfalls of bookselling seems to be to focus on the space of bookselling, not the books themselves, a refocusing he described as getting away from the “fetishization of the object” and moving towards a “life cycle of ideas” instead. And he’s quite right to do so. Bookselling, unlike other forms of retail, has traditionally been as much about the bookseller as about the product. Customers come to browse, relying on a particular seller’s taste in acquiring stock. They come for advice as well, for recommendations and discussions. Readers will frequently ask a seller, “Have you read this?” where a clothing shopper will not ask “Have you worn this?” There is, as Rovito points out, a “ritualistic aspect to bookselling” which recognizes that the act of going into a bookshop is something many people engage in without, necessarily, a thought about the commodity within. They’ve come for ideas, the possibility of knowing.
Of Swallows is situated barely a block from the University of Toronto’s St. George campus, a location not chosen by accident. In fact, Rovito had originally planned to move into a space even closer to the heart of the university, a stone’s throw from the monumental Robart’s Library. That his customer base would be taken from the academic community is obvious, but Rovito is not trying to become “a University bookstore”. Rovito, a university lecturer and PhD candidate, has spent enough time within the ivory towers to recognize that the university experience, for many, has become commodified, especially for undergraduates. It isn’t about learning or edification anymore as much as it is about gaining a degree which (in theory) will get you a better job. But amongst the hordes of accreditation-seekers are still those people who would have, in the 15th century, flocked to Oxford or Bologna for nothing more than a chance to read books and talk to their peers. Knowledge doesn’t have to be the product or sole property of the ivory tower, he reasons. For those people who want to learn, and to explore ideas, and make use of the minds of others, there must be an outlet.
But what will they sell? Though Rovito is prepared to let the demands of his customers shape the stock, he has some foundational ideas. Much of his initial stock has been acquired from Atticus from amongst their non-rare books. Rovito has an interesting (though, he admits, perhaps not viable) idea of a store divided by the medieval divisions of knowledge: the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). More esoteric subjects already emerge from amongst the interests of Rovito himself and his early customer base, such as the “Metropolis” (think Georg Simmel and Fritz Lang rather than Jane Jacobs and Richard Florida). In my two-second walk through the space long before the doors were to open, I spied Latin Classics and continental Philosophy amongst the paint cans and new lighting fixtures. Not your usual bookstore fare, for sure.
Of Swallows is slated to open their doors to the public Thursday April 22nd 2010, at noon. I will certainly be there, and wish the best of luck to a great idea!