Bend without breaking.

If there’s one thing independent bookshop owners are good at, it’s being independent.  The owner of my favourite local reading hole is very single-minded in his approach to book-selling — an attitude that has served him and our community well over the past 9 years.

Gary runs a tight ship, being very particular about the books he sells and to whom he sells them.  More often than not, he has a steaming plate of home-cooked pretension to serve his customers — a dish much-loved or underappreciated, depending on the person.

And while Gary has become a neighbourhood staple, respected and admired by those who frequent his store, he remains largely isolated from indie book-selling world.

For the last few months,  business has taken a turn for the slow.  Employee’s hours have been cut, resulting in at least one person quitting.  Gary’s even had to trim his store hours.

Despite offers from friends and peers to help turn things around, Gary insists on staying the course.  He’s managed to come up with a handful of truly creative ideas that have the potential to keep his shop around for another 9 years or more — only to dismiss or postpone them for one reason or another.

I believe Gary’s stuborn independence may very well be the downfall of his shop — that one of the few indie book stores in this town is living on borrowed time.  And when Gary’s doors close, our sad excuse for a suburban city will be much poorer for it.

What’s even sadder is that no one will step up to fill the gap.  Intimidated by the infestation of Chapters, Coles and a brand new Indigo (6 stores — 3 big box & 3 mall locations– all owned by the same parent company), there are very few people who’d risk setting up shop here.

True, there is one other used book store.  It’s even had a decent run, as small bookshops go.  But, this store often smells of stale smoke, the owner can usually be found hiding in her back-of-store office, and the place feels like someone’s neglected basement.

I’m hopeful that Gary will come around — that he’ll give in just enough to accept the help being offered by friends and customers; that he’ll make what changes are needed to be successful.

Don’t get me wrong — independence is an amazing thing.  And in the book-selling world, it’s needed in great quantity — how else can bookshop owners distinguish themselves from corporate competition?  But, in order to stay healthy, a small dose of co-operation is needed now and then.  Because, the only way your store stands a chance of sticking around, is if it works with the community it serves.

The final word will always be yours —  as it should be.  Every now and then, though, it doesn’t hurt to bend just a little.

2 thoughts on “Bend without breaking.”

  1. My bookstore has been blessed with a volunteer employee for over a decade. When he’s not traveling out of state or out of the country, Bruce works two days a week. He and I read different books, so our knowledge is complementary. He’s friendly and personable. He’s helped me move the bookstore twice, and his knowledge of what we have in stock is second only to mine. Another friend’s husband sat in one day this past summer and did a stellar job at the counter. Not only did he sell books at the correct price, accurately calculating sales tax, but he noted the name of each customer on the sales slip! Without a break now and then, I would not have lasted in business for seventeen and a half years.

  2. Independence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder but a casual beholder perceives only a sliver of information.

    The struggle to survive in business, especially when even a slight downturn in sales occurs, can allow fear, apprehension and mental paralysis to creep into the mind of a merchant.

    History taught us readers all empires and businesses are doomed to fail. An ability to adapt to change delays the inevitable but thinking of yourself as independent is a special kind of stupidity that speeds the journey.

    I used to tell people that I had my own business, a few years later I was telling them the business had me and nowadays I appreciate being a clerk working in the business I had always dreamed about for the customers who built and shaped it into a reality.

    I’m just glad those customers didn’t realize all the obstacles they forced me to overcome along the way. Ideas are a dime a dozen but implementing most of them costs thousands of dollars and a lifetime of work.

    I love playing chess … but I play best over somebody else’s shoulder.

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