The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On If A Book Is But A Hammer

by Denis Taillefer

Were the eggs in your refrigerator hatched by free run hens? Your beef fed only grass and organic grains? Your running shoes not sewn by a child slaving in a dingy basement somewhere in the Philippines? And that coffee you are enjoying this morning, did the farmer who grew those beans receive his fair share on that transaction?

As consumers, many of us have become more ecological and health conscious, more sensitive to the wellbeing of animals that are farmed, cautious of not supporting third world sweatshops. My often overwhelmed eco-health-ethical-conscience has become a bit of a nag, lately. But still, I persevere, and sometimes I will not simply submit to convenience or price when purchasing goods.

And then there are the superstores, or 'category killers', as some call them. Especially since the arrival of free trade, we've seen many of these box stores spring up across the country. So now, even when I buy a hammer, I have to question my motives for shopping at Home Depot instead of Rona. But then again, do I care if I help pad the purse strings of American rather than Canadian stockholders? Not really. But what about the store's chain of suppliers and all the other indirect players whose livelihoods might be affected by where I buy that hammer? 'Ah, shaddup!', is what my confused conscience sometimes receives as feedback on such occasions.

And then there is the business of books. How are independent bookstores faring in the presence of Chapters and Indigo superstores that have sprouted all around them? Is it a simple question, again, of who gets to pocket my money? And what about the local and Canadian writer, the publisher, the reader? How are they being affected?

With these questions in mind, and knowing little about the business of books, I set out to speak with an independent bookseller, and hopefully, someone in the know at a local Chapters, to get their thoughts on these matters.

I first sent an email to Writers Deadline, an email list formed here in Ottawa, which helps share news, events, and various requests related to writing and the arts. I requested suggestions of a good candidate for an independent bookstore, and a possible contact for an interview with a Chapters representative. The response was overwhelming. I received many leads on independent bookstores, yet nothing to do with Chapters.

My interview with Jean Barton, owner of the independent bookstore, Books On Beechwood, Ottawa:

When I entered the bookstore, Jean and an associate were speaking with clients. Everyone seemed friendly, on a first name basis, as they exchanged pleasantries. The store consisted of one large room, well lit, with books lined neatly in sections surrounding the outer walls, and in floor shelves.

I approached Jean and requested an interview. She agreed to speak with me and we moved next door to a café.

Denis: Can you tell me your name, and how long you've owned the store?
Jean: Jean Barton, I had a partner for the first seven years, and we opened in 1994.

Denis: And how is business? Have revenues been decreasing or increasing over the years?
Jean: Pretty much increasing, except last year, but I wouldn't want to have to raise a family on the income of the store. But it's been a good investment for me.

Denis: I've heard that owning a bookstore has to be a passion of love, otherwise you're in the wrong business.
Jean: That's right. You're not doing it to make a pile of money, but you'd have to be doing something pretty stupid to lose your shirt, too.
Denis: Yes, I understand.
Jean: I started it when my kids were gone and I needed something to do for the next twenty years of my life, so I thought, I've always been involved in books, so...
Denis: And I imagine you have to love books?
Jean: Oh, yes. And people. And it is fun.

Denis: Is owning a bookstore what you expected? What are you most proud of?
Jean: It is what I expected. What am I most proud of? I'm most proud of the people's response to the bookstore, they love it.
Denis: As shown by your name coming up so often.
Jean: (laughs) And I'm proud of the staff who are always open, and, I mean it's a great team that we've got over there.
Denis: And I imagine that they also have to love books, and know books in order to serve the clientele.
Jean: Yes, yes.

Denis: Tell me what are, in your experiences, the greatest challenges and rewards in running such a business.
Jean: Well, the reward of course is customer loyalty. That's wonderful. And the challenge is keeping up with all the work. It's a huge lot of work.
Denis: What kind of work, for example?
Jean: Well, for instance, I must write--sixty checks a month.
Denis: For suppliers?
Jean: Yes. Logistically, it's a huge job.
Denis: A bit like owning a confectionary store, I imagine, where you have different suppliers for different-
Jean: But more.
Denis: More? Wow. For some reason I imagined all the books coming from one place.
Jean: Like Random House?
Denis: Uh, yes?
Jean: (laughs) No! As much as they'd like that to be the case, it's not. (more laughs)

(We talk about her store being suggested to me as a good candidate for an independent bookstore. Jean mentions other good ones then speaks of a fellow owner, John Hatfield of Pascal Books, who recently retired...)

Jean: He went out on a high, I think. Which is nice because for years after Chapters moved to town, independents were dropping like flies.
Denis: They were, eh?
Jean: Yeah. Oh, yes, for sure.
Denis: That is a question I was going to ask. So Chapters really did make a difference?
Jean: Oh, it did. And a huge difference. Not so much in Ottawa as in Toronto. Even now, in Toronto, the independent bookstores are hard to find.
Denis: So why are they hanging on, here, in Ottawa? Chapters have many franchises around town.
Jean: I don't know. Maybe people are more protective of their own neighbourhoods and they want their neighbourhoods to be--urban villages. And the big box stores don't.

(We talk about the importance of community events in being successful in running an independent bookstore, such as holding readings, etc...)

Jean: We have had a lot of trouble getting authors in the last few years. The publishers are getting a little bit fettered, but more approachable for us independents to get writers, now. We used to have a great reading series next door at the pub.
Denis: Oh?
Jean: People would have dinner then sit and listen to the authors. And we had tons of wonderful authors, there. And then the pub changed hands, and the crowd that's in there now--they're not the same. Not as literary.
Denis: A little more genre? (smiles)
Jean: A little more dumb. (laughs)
Denis: I won't write that. (laughs)

Denis: How do you choose the books to be displayed on your shelves?
Jean: Well that's the million-dollar question.
Denis: So there's not this general roster where every store grabs the same-
Jean: No, not at all. You have to know your customers. That's the key. You have to know what they want.
Denis: So as they request books you see trends growing and-
Jean: Yes, yes. You have to rely a lot on the publishers reps for new stuff, you've got to know what kinds of books you're likely to sell, then you can make a much better guess on what to order.
Denis: What about bestsellers and such?
Jean: Anything that tends to sell at the grocery store, we tend not to sell, and not that we wouldn't try, but…
Denis: It's not what your clients are looking for.
Jean: No, it isn't.

(We talk about 'location' and how we were both familiar with New Edinburgh before it got so posh, when the shabby Claude Hotel used to stand across the street. Another place where readings would not have been such a good idea. On how they are lucky in the bookstore business in Ottawa, because people here are fairly educated and professional, on the whole...)

Jean: They say that you need a population of fifteen thousand to support a bookstore, but I mean, they have to be literate. (laughs)
Denis: Good point. It might not work, say in...
Jean: (whispers)
Denis: Huh?
Jean: (whispers again) Smiths Falls.
Denis: I was going to say, Arnprior. I'm glad you went first.
Jean: I think they've got a good bookstore in Arnprior.
Denis: Yes, I'm sure they do.

Denis: We already talked about superstores, if they've made a difference, and obviously they have.
Jean: Well we were opened only a year when Chapters came to town, so we don't really know what kind of hit we would have taken. But we certainly saw a lot of independents fold up their tent.
Denis: Right. And mostly because they cut their prices? Is there a big difference in prices?
Jean: Oh huge, for some of the titles, for the high profile titles, for the new blockbuster releases. They discount them thirty, fourty percent. We can't possibly do that.
Denis: Is it because like any other business they get volume?
Jean: They get better volume discount, for sure, and they can afford to lose money for YEARS. We can't.

Denis: Uh huh.
Jean: I like to think that it's us independents that really have our ear to the ground who create the bestseller list because we seem to be a couple weeks ahead of what turns up on that list.
Denis: They reflect what's on the bestseller list, and you'd like to believe that you help create that list?
Jean: Yeah.
Denis: Interesting.
Jean: That may not be true. Maybe. (laughs) But I think because we're so much more responsive, and… That may not be true with the big blockbusters, but for anything that sells on its own merits, then maybe it is.
Denis: In an ideal world, everyone is happy, and no one is stepping on anybody's turf, but in reality these superstores, and even Amazon, are basically taking away sales from independent bookstores?
Jean: Yeah, they are. They are just trying to run a business too, but their predatory practices are pretty awful.
Denis: They are? Can you share in a couple?
Jean: Well, not so much now because the publishers have got smart, but about five or six years ago, Chapters and company would buy up full print runs, tie up the entire stock until after Christmas, then return them all, and we couldn't get our hands on them.
Denis: That's cruel.
Jean: Yeah. And they got away with it.
Denis: But they were probably not breaking any laws.
Jean: No. It's the way the industry works, but…

(We talk about the Canadian Booksellers Association, how they play a role in ensuring fairness in the publishing and bookselling business, and other tidbits. We talk about The Canadian Writers Collective and how this interview might be read by many if we ever go live.)

Jean: I hope I didn't sound to awful about the, uhm-
Denis: Our site won't be advertised until we decide to go forward, so what I'll do is let you read this interview online before we go live, if ever, and if anything embarrasses you I'll understand, and we can talk about it.
Jean: (laughs) Okay.

Jean came across as a pleasant, smart, and passionate woman. I thanked her for her time and we bid adieu.

My interview with Kimberley Ulman, Manager of Chapters, Gloucester branch, Ottawa:

I first called a Chapters store, downtown, and was directed (electronically) to a representative named Jennifer Herman. Her answering machine asked that I leave a message and that she could also be reached via an email address that was included.

I chose to send an email, and I think I am fortunate that she has still not replied. Jennifer Herman represents the area, and in her message alone I could sense that she was a public relations person of sorts, with whom I'd likely get nowhere with the questions I had to pose. I needed someone closer to the floor, so to speak.

When I entered a Chapters store and approached the help desk, a woman was accepting staff application forms from a few young, shy men and women, likely high school age.

I asked if she was the manager, and if she would speak with me.

(Our discussion, prior to turning on the dictaphone:)

Kimberley: I'm sorry, but no one can help you here. You should contact Jennifer Herman. Here's her card. (Jennifer Herman, Area Marketing Manager, Ottawa.) I see you're smiling. Do you know Jennifer?
Denis: I've left her an email. Her phone message says she might be on holidays? I thought maybe you could help me.
Kimberley: Oh no, she was in earlier this week.
Denis: Ah. My questions are general and I'm sure that you can be of help.
Kimberley: Well, I'm fairly new at Chapters.
Denis: That's okay.
Kimberley: All right. I can give you five minutes.
Denis: Should we sit and have a coffee?
Kimberley: No, let's walk through the store.

(Dictaphone turned on:)

Denis: Oops, now it's recording.
Kimberley: (laughs) Excellent. Shall I give my name again?
Denis: No, it's okay, I've got your card. (Kimberley Ulman, Manager) So you were saying you started here in September?…
Kimberley: September, 2005

Denis: So how is business going, for Chapters?
Kimberley: For the entire company, or us as an individual store?
Denis: Well, both.
Kimberley: Both? Very, very well. It's one those businesses where you constantly have to be in the know, keeping things fresh for folks, being on top of things. When something is going to hit, you're ready for it. An example would be, we've got a book right now, The Bird House, and, there's the Ottawa Writer's Festival Happening now?...
Denis: Yes.
Kimberley: She's here! So she's in town and we know that when folks go to see her this weekend, everybody's gonna want that book. So get ready for it because-
Denis: I hear you. Yes.

Denis: That leads to another question I have. How do you select the books that you put on your shelves?
Kimberley: With us, for the large extent, our head office does that. So that's not within our own control.
Denis: Okay.
Kimberley: The control we have, is say for instance, I've been working on the floor and everyone's been asking for a book called Marley And Me. It's a story of a dog, a self-help type thing. And then I would go up to one of the other managers and say, look, EVERYBODY's asking about this book, and we only have five copies on the shelves, can we get more? So we have control in that respect, where we can order more in.
Denis: But not necessarily for titles that other franchises wouldn't have?
Kimberley: One thing that might make us a little different than say, a Chapters in the West End, is that we have a higher percentage of French speaking clientele, here, so we might carry more copies.
Denis: So store managers might have a little bit of pull, in their region?
Kimberley: Yes, exactly.
Denis: But on the whole, these decisions are made by Head Office.
Kimberley: Yes.

Denis: What about the local scene? Is it fair to say that independent bookstores carry more local stuff than Chapters does? And even Canadian books?
Kimberley: Well, I can only speak from my personal experience. For us, personally as a store, we're great with local authors. We have a great local author table, for kids, and for grownups, so…
Denis: And again, is this decided by the managers within a specific franchise, or?...
Kimberley: Well a lot of times authors will walk in and introduce themselves and-
Denis: So I can potentially come in here as an author and say, I have a book to flog and can I have a table?
Kimberley: Yes, yes. So we would put you in touch with the fellow in charge who does all the local authors, and you guys could sit down and have a discussion and work it out from there.
Denis: And you would do that?
Kimberley: We'd certainly try. But obviously, there's no guarantee. I can give you like, another minute.

Denis: Okay. A couple more questions. Now this one's a bit of a hard hitting one. Once upon a time, at least, Chapters played hardball and kinda squeezed out the independent bookstores-
Kimberley: Uh huh.
Denis: What's your opinion on that?
Kimberley: Uhm, can I be so rude as to say I'm not comfortable answering that one? Just because, uhm, I don't know enough about the initial history to answer it accurately.
Denis: But nowadays, they have a vision that you share in?
Kimberley: And I think our vision is now that, when a customer walks in through our doors, they're gonna feel like, our staff is here to help find the exact book, the exact gift, the exact magazine, whatever, so that when you walk through the door it's going to be a relaxing, informative time. You can find what you want, and when you are done, you are going to say, I really enjoyed that. And that what we're providing for you, locally, and across the country, is where you want to be.
Denis: Uh huh.
Kimberley: I know what you're saying, in regards to the small-
Denis: Well, I've heard a few things-
Kimberley: Absolutely.
Denis: ...whereby, nothing illegal I'm sure, because business is business, but practices where print runs were held, and no one could-
Kimberley: In all honesty, I know nothing about that. Neither on a personal level before I was with the company and even now-
Denis: Right.
Kimberley: -so I couldn't answer correctly or incorrectly on that one, at all.

Denis: Last question, because I know you've gotta go.
Kimberley: Yup.
Denis: Do you hold readings here, and other events?
Kimberley: Yes, yes. And now, with me being in the store and having a bit of an effect, we're trying to do that more. We have local writers who meet here once a week. We have a local book club. We do children's events, we do the local author readings, and-
Denis: So you do feel it necessary to be close to the community?
Kimberley: Absolutely. And we want to do that more than we've done in the past.

Denis: Thank you very much for squeezing me in.
Kimberley: Yep. And give Jennifer a call.
Denis: I will.
Kimberley: And have a good day.

Kimberley came across as a no-nonsense, Type A, hyper manager. Afterward, I was exhausted and needed a smoke.

After transcribing these two interviews, I felt I still needed answers. Specifically, what kind of influence does Chapters and company have on Canadian publishers? Are these superstores affecting what is being published, and therefore written, and in turn, read? I hit the net and found an interesting article by Frank Davis, a publisher living on the west coast. I will provide a link to this article, down below, but here is an extract that touches on that very question:

'...that state of affairs lasted about twenty years, an era which saw the rise of what came to be called "the blockbuster syndrome," as the big bookstore chains started calling the shots in publishers' editorial departments.'

'Independent booksellers will continue to suffer the effects of going up against a large, dominant competitor which enjoys vastly better terms of trade than they do. Readers will see a reduction in choice as the big-box stores curtail their selection, and will find it increasingly difficult to get their hands on books they know exist. (Chapters ambiguously reports titles they do not carry in stock as "temporarily unavailable", implying they are out of print.)'

So I ask myself, "Is buying a book like buying a hammer?" No. It seems to me that the simple transaction of purchasing a book has even more far-reaching ramifications. And I have a hunch that Jean Barton will be seeing more of this potential client. Besides, when I walk into a bookstore I usually carry a list of titles to buy, my 'to read list', and rarely are those books stocked on Chapters' shelves. So instead of having them place an order, or going through, why not let someone like Jean have my business?

Related Links:

Indigo Blues - An essay by Frank Davis, 2002...

Books On Beechwood

Canadian Booksellers Association


Blogger Patricia said...

stick with Jean baby, you're a wise man, this was very interesting, very. and you're right chapters never, ever, has the book I want. Great interviews Denis.

Thu Apr 27, 09:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Denis said...

Thanks, Patricia. Cheers.

Fri Apr 28, 03:25:00 pm GMT-4  

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