The independent bookstore is a cultural and community hub – authors are introduced, works read aloud to an audience and ideas are shared.
Each month, we will be featuring an independent bookstore from across Canada, proving what a special role these shops play in fostering authors, community and a love of reading. For September, we are featuring Bookmark – we spoke with Lori from the Charlottetown flagship and Mike from the Halifax location. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook (Charlottetown, Halifax)!
1. Tell us a little bit about the history of Bookmark:
Lori: Bookmark began with a pregnant new wife and a guy’s need to stop roaming the world and find a way to support a new family. Christmas of ’72 was our opening in Olde Charlottetown. It was a great time for the publishing industry; wonderful author tours with the likes of Smallwood, Berton, Lesveque, Chretien, and Howe. Canadiana was at its best.
In 1989 we opened another store on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. New and better looking faces now manage Bookmark as two separate stores but joined at the hip.
Mike: I joined Bookmark in late 1998 after having worked with just about every bookstore in the Halifax area since ’81. I knew Bookmark as a tiny but mighty store on Spring Garden Road that sold a lot of quality titles along with a great selection of maps and journals and other bookish fun items. I knew it had a wonderful reputation for experimenting with a wider range than normal for a tiny general interest bookstore, expanding its poetry, philosophy, architecture and international literature, for example. The areas that most mainstreamed bookstores ignored, Bookmark had capitalized on them. It was small and vibrant, personal and friendly and for those reasons, and many more, I found a true home here. It is a bookstore that can truly speak to its community and has engendered an amazing level of customer loyalty. It still amazes me how this small space attracts so many friends, people who do not necessarily buy a book everytime they visit but feel the need to sometimes just see how we are doing and say “Hi”. In 2004, a fire destroyed an adjacent building and as we dealt with the shock of our close escape and the potential loss of our livelihood, we struggled to help the insurance team clean our stock of smoke damage. Every morning, our neighbours and customers were always at the door, offering to do anything to help us reopen, haul garbage, wipe windows, anything that would make us safe again. It’s a cliche but this is more than a business, it’s a place for friends to hang out and care for each other.
Mike and fellow bookseller Neil
2. What do you like best about your career in books?
Lori: I love the people and the fact that I get to talk about what I love with the people trying to sell me the books and the people I’m trying to sell the books to! My customers become my friends and I love pairing them with new books.
Mike: There are two overriding factors for me, the intellectual and physical beauty of every type of book and meeting people. For me, it’s been over 30 years grabbing that receiving knife and opening boxes of books and I have not, and never will, tire of it. As well, I have been too fortunate in finding lifelong friends who share my love of reading and then there are all the authors I have had the pleasure of meeting. Looking back on the history of events and conferences, I have met so many influential and interesting people.
3. What does the book-buying public understand least about independent bookstores?
Lori: I don’t think people realize that by shopping on-line and in non-traditional bookstores (Wal-mart, Shopper’s, Costco etc..) that they are hurting us and the book business as a whole. There is a reason why independent bookstores are going out of business all across Canada and the US but they don’t see the role this type of buying has. Independents have a much easier time of curating lists for a community.
Mike: My immediate thought was a mundane one which involves pricing and the margin in book selling. It is hard to explain the reason for the often huge discrepancy between online and chain discounted prices and our publisher driven cover prices. Most of the people who shop with us are well versed in the pricing structure within the book industry and the tight margins within which independents must work. However, there are a few people we see that expect us to be able to match online or box-store prices.
4. What is the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2012?
It remains the same every year. It is the challenge of getting all of our tasks completed with a small staff. I bet you expected me to reference the e-book or online issues but we have a niche for gorgeous and meaningful printed books. That’s our strength and that’s what our community wants us to sell. So, our main struggle remains the same as in many years past…….to get all of our work done!
5. What types of books does your store stock and/or specialize in?
As mentioned, we have everything that the buying public would expect us to have, the books that are on the talk show circuit, reviewed in the major publications, discussed on CBC Radio, books that have been adapted into current films, etc. However, our bread and butter, the books that make us special and remembered, are those that maybe only one person would want (but want in a BIG way!) or the single copy of something that a person would want to special order when in fact, we have a copy. The most recent example of a book that we love and the person who bought one didn’t expect to find on our shelves, “Squeeze This! A Cultural History Of The Accordion”.
6. What are some of your favorite titles? Titles coming out this year?
Lori: I’m excited about the new Lisa Genova, Donna Morrissey, Jussi Adler-Olsen
Mike: Personally, it would be Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy, Donna Morrissey’s The Deception Of Livvy Higgs. Everybody is also very excited about Louise Penny’s new title, The Beautiful Mystery.
7. What are you reading right now?
Lori: Absent 1 by Adler-Olsen. Just finished Love Anthony and Dublin Dead.
Mike: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. It is quietly marvelous like his IMPAC Dublin award winner, The Twin.
8. What is your most current best seller?
Lori: 50 Shades of Grey ( don’t judge me!! I think I’m the last person who hasn’t read it!)
Mike: We’ll choose as our current bestseller Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.
Lori: Classic for me is always Anne of Green Gables
Mike: At the moment it would be F. Scott Fitzgerlad’s The Great Gatsby
9. What have been some of your favorite (or most memorable) author events?
Lori: We have had some great events in the last couple of years with Laurence Hill, Linden MacIntyre, and Chef Michael Smith
Mike: Of the many that we’ve enjoyed, there are two very memorable author events. One of the most successful readings we hosted was part of David Suzuki’s Legacy Tour. It represented the perfect marriage of an amazing individual with an incredibly important topic, the health of the earth. The second was a collaborative effort with two other area independents on the occasion of M&S’s anniversary. It featured Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson and was moving, funny and just plain brilliant.
10. Any strange, wild or crazy-but-true stories?
Mike: We’ve had the usual weird and wonderful questions from the lost souls. However, the best time we had under what might be considered stressful circumstances occurred several years ago during the height of Christmas Eve sales. It was a typical Maritime winter with slush and rain and fog and a power outage that day. We were so busy that Saturday morning, the adrenaline was pumping, good will was flowing and we were having a wonderful time when we were thrust into utter darkness. All the shops along our street reluctantly began to close as hope was lost that we were ever going to regain power. Yet, we propped open our doors, got out all our flashlights, took some desperate coffee runs and managed to help our customers for the whole three hour outage. When all the other businesses had given up, we persevered, sometimes finding books only by touch, earning a good penny and some great press when the local TV station came in to do a human interest spot. It was one of those times when we all pulled together, thankful that we’d kept the old credit card imprinter, and had a wonderful December the 24th with our community.
11. What book are you, or will you, hand-sell with a vengeance?
Lori: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You, The Priest, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Mike: This is a no-brainer for me. That book is what may end up being my favourite book of the year, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. A huge bestseller in Europe already, the book is simply wonderful in it’s depiction of a long life well lived, one punctuated with many bottles of vodka and cameos by many of last century’s luminaries. I just fell in love with it.
12. Is there anything else you would like to tell our blog readers?
Only that, yes, small independent bookstores are incredibly viable and important in 2012 in Canada and around the world. The media finds it very sexy to state that the printed book is dead but it is definitely not. All these new technologies that are being used to spread the written word can co-exist with very well with the one Gutenberg perfected so long ago. For me, Gutenberg’s way is the perfect way to read and I know for sure that I am not alone.
Remember..independently owned, independently minded!