Books, art, and antiques dealer D&E Lake has stayed in business for 30-plus years by defying a few common retail conventions.
Since starting D&E Lake in 1978, co-founder Don Lake has guided the business through many incarnations. “When we started, we were second-hand book sellers, selling scholarly second-hand books and extremist texts, both left and right—our clients were libraries,” says Lake. “We had a very small select group of private clients and we started off, really, working out of our house.” When the spending power of universities and their libraries drastically declined, D&E Lake made a move into the retail business in 1986, purchasing their current storefront at 239 King St. E., which serves as home to an ever-increasing, sprawling abundance of books and prints.
Since then, the enterprise has expanded to include two Yonge Street locations. “I founded a contemporary art gallery in ’89 at Richmond and Bathurst called Lake Galleries and we closed that in ’95,” Lake recalls. “Then we started our Yonge Street gallery, which deals in Canadian art, across the board, all periods, from very contemporary to historic, at a price range of less than $20,000. And we do a lot [of business], very proudly, in the range of $300 to $3,000. Everything we sell is original, no reproductions. That’s at the northern gallery. At the southern gallery there’s more decorative stuff, more antiques.”
Back at the King Street East location, every flat surface on the ground floor is home to a precariously high stack of books. The second level is bursting with historic prints. And that’s just what’s visible to the casual customer—stockpiled throughout the building is a staggering collection ranging from trade paperbacks to art books to rare antiquities. If one is looking for something specific, the best bet is to consult with Lake, as browsing isn’t exactly the most efficient approach. Luckily, being privy to Lake’s expertise and his accompanying dry sense of humour is one of the store’s highlights. “Almost everything around here I’ve read, or I have an opinion on because I’ve decided it isn’t worth reading,” he says.
Despite somewhat political roots, Lake still has always had a bottom line in mind, even if that bottom line simply leads to more inventory. “We were very left-wing booksellers when we started,” he says. “But it was always capitalism—we never get confused about our missions in life—it was always in the pursuit of a profit. But in the very long-term view of what a profit is, my idea of a profit is that you take your money home and count it every night and you buy more inventory. You invest and you reinvest. But it was never from the idea that there was a higher left-wing calling.”
Over the course of his 30-plus years in the business, Lake has watched it dramatically evolve. As one would expect, the internet has made a major impact on the way items are sold. “Many things in my field have depreciated in value as a result of the internet,” he says. “And you could say, I think fairly, that the internet is a democratization of the marketplace, but it is also the beginnings of acute amateurism attacking everything.” According to Lake, this has led to some seriously overzealous pricing on the part of those lacking experience, especially when the object doesn’t turn up in an online search. “They get excited and oversell things: ‘There’s none on the internet? Then it must be worth $50,000!’ But what is it? ‘Well, there’s none on the internet, so it’s got to be very important!’”
At the same time, it’s also led to fair pricing in a number of cases. “To use a very good case in point, modern literature used to be much more expensive than it is today,” Lake explains. “Dealers who were at the game for many, many years would declare that a Hemingway novel is über rare—then the internet comes along and there’s 50 copies online. It just killed over-promoted markets, so I suppose that’s a good thing.”
Overseeing a business for a long period of time can also serve to remove some of its initial sheen. “I’m still as passionate as ever,” says Lake. “But I’m very jaded. The big thrill of the big find, it’s very hard to get me excited now. It’s just the nature of age. You know more. The longer you’ve been around, the more you’ve seen things.”
For Lake, it’s finding new, previously unexplored areas of the business that keeps his interest up. “There’s a youthful euphoria that is a very nice thing to have,” he says. “You lose that by familiarity—it’s like an old love can become boring after a while, it’s that kind of a situation. Familiarity breeds contempt. The way you renew yourself is by finding new exciting things. For me, it’s Japanese prints.”
Lake also sees an economic opportunity in his newfound interest. “I’m moving very seriously into Japanese prints—nobody buys Japanese prints, but I do. But I’m having a very tough time, because there’s nobody to sell it to—there’s a reason why things are cheap. Times have changed, tastes have changed, and there are no buyers for many of these things at the moment. But markets always change, it’s a rotation,” he says. “Abstract paintings in the ’90s, you couldn’t give them away. Now, they’re the only thing in the Canadian market. Nobody wants brown furniture. People want colourful impressionist things, they don’t want old staid things—true in paintings, true in decorative arts. But that will change.”
For Lake, like many others, the key is to buy while prices are down and hang on for as long as it takes for prices to rise, something he is willing to do for much longer than the average business. “It’s all about having enough margin that you can afford to hold for many generations to come, which is the exact opposite of what any other retailer would tell you. They say, ‘We turn our inventory three times a year,’ I say we turn ours once a generation,” he says. “If it’s good today, it’ll be good 50 years from now. The question is, is it good today? And if it isn’t good today, don’t buy it. As a collector and a dealer, you need patience.”
The changes to the neighbourhood surrounding the King East location of D&E Lake creates greater economic stakes for the business. “There’s no more horsing around,” Lake says. “The tax system we have is Darwinism gone mad. We pay five times more taxes here than we do at home. The building next door just sold for an unbelievable sum of money. We can’t play games anymore, we have to make money as a result of being here, on a retail basis. But still, we’re not fishing for the lowest common denominator. I don’t sell cheap books here, I sell cheap books at [St. Lawrence] Market for two or three bucks.”
While the ground floor may not have cheap books, it certainly has affordable books—one is able to find the latest in Scandinavian crime procedurals just like at any other bookstore. (Or maybe not.) The basement on the other hand, not accessible to the typical browser, is an entirely different case—prices there can reach as high as $100,000. “This is serious stuff here,” says Lake. Different books derive their values in different ways, whether from age or rarity (like a 17th-century British book on the history of Holland) or even in some cases novelty, such as is the case with his collection of fore edge paintings—books that, when fanned out, reveal hidden paintings (in some cases rather risqué) along the pages’ edges.
The scarcity of some of this inventory means that it might not turn up again for generations, but even in the case of a once-in-a-lifetime find, Lake has no long-term attachment. “I say that if it doesn’t eat, it’s for sale. You have to have the ability to sell anything. We have in the trade what we call the French model. The French model is that we keep the best stuff for our collection and we sell the lesser stuff to our clients. That’s never how I’ve gone about it,” he says. “If I buy it, it’s for sale. But at a price that I think equals today’s market—I certainly don’t think I should give it away because I’ve held it for a year or 15 years. I’m prepared to hold it forever.”
D&E Lake, 239 King St. E., 416-863-9930, #SLM. Also: 1199 Yonge St., 416-944-2324, and 1177 Yonge St., 416-921-2401. #ROS delake.com.