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Book distributor Thomas Allen & Son to close in 2023, pass contracts to Firefly Books

TORONTO — Thomas Allen & Son, one of Canada's oldest book distributors, will close its doors in a matter of months, becoming what the company's CEO describes as another casualty of consolidation in the publishing industry.

Jim Allen said he had little choice but to shutter the 106-year-old business after several publishers it worked with were acquired by larger houses that handle distribution in-house. 

"It's just one more marker for the changes that have been occurring in the industry," said Allen, whose great-grandfather founded the distributor. "There have been a number of pretty large, independent family-owned companies that do what we do that have disappeared over the years."

Thomas Allen & Son distributes books, most of which are published internationally, as well as stationery and calendars to bookstores, libraries and other retailers. 

But many smaller publishers who have contracts with book distributors like Allen's have been acquired by larger publishing houses, which either handle distribution themselves or have existing contracts with larger, global distributors.  

Allen said plans for the closure were made in 2021 after Workman Publishing, whose books and calendars made up a significant portion of his company's annual sales, was acquired by Hachette Book Group. Hachette handles its Canadian distribution in-house. 

"It was sort of a foregone conclusion. I had considered selling the business, and I had spoken privately to a number of different people about that," he said. 

But as the company isn't a publisher and doesn't own any intellectual property, he said options for selling the company were limited. 

Allen said he came up with what he believes is a best-case solution for the closure: passing distribution contracts to the Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Firefly Books starting at the end of March 2023.

Firefly is largely a publisher, but has a small distribution arm that will expand to take on these contracts, Allen said. 

As it stands, roughly 10 staff members work in Allen's office, he said, and 20 work in the warehouse. He said about eight of the office staff will be offered contracts with Firefly, as will some of the warehouse workers. 

"It was not an easy decision," Allen said of the closure. "But I think it's probably the best decision under the circumstances as the market gets more and more difficult."

Thomas Allen Ltd. was founded in 1916, and published books by Nellie McClung, William Lyon Mackenzie King and Agatha Christie.

Three decades later, the founder's son, Forbes Duncan Allen, joined the company and built up the distribution business.

Jim Allen is the fourth Allen to helm the company, and in 2000 he launched a renewed publishing division, Thomas Allen Publishers, which he sold to Dundurn Press in 2012.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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