Clever Curation

How local indie bookstores are winning 
loyal customers and beating the odds.

Clever Curation - Douglas Magazine Apr/May 2024
Russell Books is the largest independent bookstore in Victoria, and is still owned and operated by the children and grandchildren of its founder. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Jessica Walker isn’t surprised to hear new customers carping that there’s no bookseller where they live.

“Often visitors, particularly from the States,” says Walker, one of the owners of Munro’s Books, “they come in and say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to be in a bookstore. We don’t have a bookstore where we are anymore.’ ”

That’s hard to believe given Greater Victoria’s wealth of local booksellers.

It’s a reflection of who we are that we’re able to support so many independent bookstores and remarkable that they’ve been around longer than most readers. 

Munro’s Books (1963), Ivy’s Bookshop (1964), Tanner’s Books (1982), Sorensen Books (formerly Hawthorn Books, 1985), Bolen Books (1975), Bastion Books (formerly Renaissance Books, 1976), Russell Books (1991, but began in Montreal in 1961), and oldest of all, The Haunted Bookshop (1947). There are others. Some are gone, but there’s a certain solidity in their permanence. A refutation of the claim that bookstores are dead. Or writing their final chapter. There are 275 indie bookstores in Canada. No one’s getting fabulously rich running them, but sellers are making a living.

Itʼs often claimed that Victoria has more bookstores, per capita, than anywhere else in Canada.

There’s a metric the owner of Tanner’s likes to share. “You cannot look at a map,” says Cliff McNeil-Smith, “and draw a circle around another 400,000 people anywhere in Canada and come up with as many [indie bookstores].”

Ivy’s owner Megan Scott says it speaks to Victoria’s reading audience — loyal customers who love books. And keeping them, she says, comes down to clever curation and customer service. “The chains only sell the big sellers, the front list. They don’t stock the back list and they don’t offer customer service.”

“Listen to your customers and guide them,” says Kerri Doyle of Books & Shenanigans, which opened two years ago in Cook Street Village. “With algorithms and Amazon and everybody telling you what you like, who’s really listening to you? As a bookseller, I love nothing more than for somebody to come in and say, ‘I’m looking for something new to read.’ You don’t get that from Amazon.”

Bolen’s owner Samantha Bolen says the segment of the industry that hasn’t adapted is the chains.

Indigo closed 19 of their Coles stores across the country and had a record loss of $185 million in 2019-20. Meanwhile, Indigo is transitioning from books to something it calls a cultural department store.

That leaves Costco, Walmart and, of course, Amazon as the deep discounters.

Scott reveals that Costco sells its books more cheaply than she can buy them from the publisher.

“In theory I could go to Costco and buy my stock there and not run the risk of having too much inventory,” she laughs. “But that’s what we’re up against: volume.”

“I try to look at what’s for sale at Costco and not carry it,” adds Doyle.

Amazon, which began in 1995 as a website that only sold books, acquired Victoria’s online bookseller AbeBooks in 2008. Its annual book sales generate about $28 billion worldwide, selling 300 million printed books a year and tens of millions of ebooks.

Walker says that when you deal with such massive undervaluing of a product — Amazon selling books at up to 40 per cent off — it creates a perception that the real value is much lower.

Amazon won’t be the killer, though. Not here. Local bookstores survived the arrival of ebooks and audio books and the chains. But not everywhere, points out Scott.

“Victoria is very unique in that the independents survived. There’s a romance about bookstores that people want to believe in. Many in Vancouver closed down. It was scary.”

Almost every indy bookstore has an online ordering system for customers. But it’s the experience of being in a bookstore that’s the lure for customers. “The problem with online shopping,” says Walker, “is you don’t have that kind of discoverability where you walk around the corner and you see, oh, it’s Justina’s staff pick. We do a lot of curation and we very consciously work at educating customers.”

Remarkably, the Pace of Book Buying Hasn’t Slowed

According to BookNet Canada, a non-profit founded in 2002 that serves the Canadian book industry, 51.5 million books representing 855,000 different titles were sold in this country in 2022, with a total value of just over $1.1 billion over all platforms from bookstores to online. The independents account for eight per cent of the market, around $80 million.

BookNet also reports that 13 per cent of Canadian book buyers bought books from independent bookstores during the first half of 2022. And of all the books tracked by the Canadian Book Consumer survey, 10 per cent were purchased at indies. 

And for those who recall Frank Zappa’s line, “So many books, so little time,” take solace that one mind — even one as active as Zappa’s — cannot hope to ingest them all. Worldwide, an estimated 11,000 books get published every 24 hours. That’s 457 titles an hour or eight a minute. No other industry has so many new-product introductions.

Booksellers order books from the publishers and receive a 40-per-cent discount. Those books are sold for a price set by the publisher. Unsold stock is returned to the publisher for a rebate (although sellers pay return shipping). Hence the publisher’s lament, “Gone today, here tomorrow.”

It rests on the individual retailer to select which books to buy and how many. There’s a certain alchemy in paying attention to the market. Bolen notes that every bookstore offers its own carefully curated selection. The fun, she says, is seeing a trend that’s starting and trying to assess whether it’s a real thing or a blip.

“Returns are expensive. I’ve got to pay for shipping and I’ve got to pay to box that up and get a staff member to do that. And books are heavy. It’s expensive. So this past year I bought differently. I carried what I knew would sell. You buy deep into the list, but you buy smaller numbers. So instead of buying tens and fifteens, I’m buying fives and threes so I still have amazing breadth and depth, but I’m not financially housing all those books.”

Treating the Business Like 50 Individual Bookstores

Says Bolen: “I have a gardening bookstore, a humour bookstore and so on. Why? Because when you’re purchasing the inventory you’re thinking about customer interest, what’s being published in that area, what’s new and what should I be carrying?”

Most bookstores stock a lot of sideline product — puzzles, games, magazines, cards — which, unlike books, get a 100-per-cent markup. During the lean book months it’s the non-books that bring in the bucks, and the customers. “I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people say to me at Christmastime, ‘I do all my shopping here,’ ” says Bolen. “I buy everything from cards to wrapping, all my gifts, everything.’ ”

For used book dealers there’s more emphasis on what you buy and from whom. Someone who shows up with a bag of books or the estate of a collector?

The Haunted Bookshop owner Bill Matthews has been dealing in old and rare books since the ’70s and describes the arrival of the internet as reshaping the second-hand trade.

“From books being kind of difficult to find to anyone can search 200 million books in five seconds and order them with a keystroke, it has radically altered the price of [used] books. Books we used to sell for $200 are now $20. A lot of used bookstores are gone. Decimated. There’s just the odd one left.”

Matthews uses the word survival these days. Overhead is high. Rents aren’t cheap.

“We’re selling tons of books just to pay the bills,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I’m not going to be buying a house.”

Bookselling is all details, paying attention, moving quickly. A constant churn. Bombarded by publishers’ reps, BookTok, authors announcing a new book on Instagram and everyone rushing to order a copy.

The challenge, explains Walker with a laugh, “is everything everywhere all at once. Decision fatigue … but that kind of makes it fun. When you’re dealing with probably more items than a grocery store, but unlike a can of peas every book has its own story.”

But, adds Scott, “We don’t have to worry about things going off.”

Clever Curation - Douglas Magazine Apr/May 2024
Bill Matthews, owner of Sidney’s The Haunted Bookshop, believes that online sales have changed the second-hand book trade forever. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Running a successful bookstore doesn’t mean you’re Hugh Grant in Notting Hill sipping tea and waiting for celebrities to show up. It’s about being smart, intuitive and a bit ruthless, says Walker.

“And always, how many of this can I sell?”

Scott talks about a reciprocal relationship between customers and bookstores, mixing culture and commerce. The indies are our “third space,” neither home nor work, where we meet, talk and share ideas.

“You’re not selling refrigerators, you’re selling dreams, you’re selling fantasies, you’re selling escape, you’re selling information and knowledge. It’s really exciting. How can you not be fascinated by walking into a bookstore? You just want to consume everything that’s in it. The potential between every single cover is amazing.”

Unlike chains or Amazon, indie bookstores champion Canadian and local authors, which turns into sound business. BookNet Canada reports that Canadian-authored books account for 20 per cent of independent stores’ book sales.

They Still Call it Book Town

Christine and Clive Tanner were singular in giving Sidney its Book Town reputation, operating half a dozen outlets including second-hand Beacon Books in 1993. Clive had died at age 88 in 2022 and with Christine’s retirement in January, Beacon Books closed, its contents sold to booksellers in Creston. She had tried to sell the store to keep it local, but there were no takers. Where Sidney once boasted 10 bookstores, there are four now.

Reflecting on 40 years making sure the shelves had just the right stuff, Tanner laughs that the biggest challenge was just meeting the rent every month. “If you want to run a successful bookstore you have to be a voracious reader … and maybe plenty of finance in the back to help you out for the first couple of years. You know you’ll never get rich, but you can have a decent income.”

McNeil-Smith bought Tanner’s from the Tanners 23 years ago. The shop has been on the same corner for 43 years. The pandemic, says McNeil-Smith, was huge for the book business. Most sellers did well enough to survive and are finding there hasn’t been as much demand for books in 20 years.

Asked about what’s hot, McNeil-Smith refers to the busiest four feet in the store.

“Right at the front. It’s our staff recommendations. About 40 or 50 titles.”

According to BookNet Canada’s Canadian Book Consumer Study 2022, fantasy, suspense, mystery and detective fiction edged out romance, while biographies held sway in non-fiction sales. 

Why Would You Open a Bookstore?

When Doyle decided to open Books & Shenanigans she had plenty of friends telling her what a terrible idea that was.

“And they did not hesitate. Even the landlord said, ‘Bookstores are going out of business.’ Is it profitable? Well, it’s the least amount of money I’ve ever made, but I’m making money. I went to my accountant last year and he said, ‘I just thought bookstores were fun little things people did and you’re doing really well.’ ”

Victoria author and onetime bookshop staffer Robert Wiersema has watched indie booksellers turning to a chapter titled modest profit. “You see dynamic, committed —  let’s say derangedly individualistic owners and booksellers who make those business interests into something that transcends business.”

An indie table of contents

Bolen Books
No. of employees: more than 40
Sq. ft. of retail: 20,000
Number of books on the floor:
30,000 titles and many copies of each

Munro’s Books
No. of employees: 25-30
Sq. ft. of retail: 5,000
Number of books on the floor: 25,000 and many copies of each

Ivy’s Bookshop
No. of employees: 9
Sq. ft. of retail: 1,000
Number of books on the floor: 20,000

The Haunted Bookshop
No. of employees: 2
Sq. ft. of retail: 1,500
Number of books on the floor: 25,000

Books & Shenanigans
No. of employees: 4
Sq. ft. of retail: 1,300
Number of books on the floor:
4,500 used and 8,000 new

Russell Books
No. of employees: 40-45
Sq. ft. of retail: 18,000
Number of books on the floor: 500,000

Tanner’s Books
No. of employees: 15
Sq. ft. of retail: 6,000
Number of books on the floor: 10,000