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My Careen as a Bookseller (11) :: The First Step in a Long, Long March

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The AGM of the People’s Co-operative Bookstore Association held on September 29, 2009 was a well attended and spirited affair; but it was entirely uncontroversial. It was apparent that I was far from alone in my concern about the motion to shut the store down.  Not a single person spoke in favour of the motion. I led the attack on the proposal, concentrating on two points. One, the store lacked sufficient stock to generate its minimum revenue needs. Two, the store had ample resources, and time, to correct the situation.

The meeting unanimously rejected the board’s motion and directed the bookstore’s board to come back to the members at a special general meeting early in 2010 (when the store was to have closed) and in the meantime to develop a plan to keep the store open for the members to consider at that SGM. Most of the old board stayed on, but they were joined by a raft of new members, most of them eager to contribute their time and energy and ideas to a bookstore that was crying out for all of those things.

The background of the new board’s members was varied, and the approaches they took to the problem reflected their varied backgrounds. Most of them had made their bones as progressives in electoral politics, or union activism, or as stalwart supporters of various left-wing causes. Only a Simpsons handful of us had any experience in a commercial situation. Jeannette McConnell, in addition to being a CUPW shop steward, also had a small business selling those wonderful buttered & cinnamoned bannock “beaver tails” at music festivals &c. Conrad Schmidt was the chief party organizer for the Work Less Party. John Taylor had been active in Halifax’s legendary Red Herring Co-operative Books before he and his wife Barb moved to Vancouver in the 1990s. As majordomo of Theatre In the Raw, Jay Hamburger knew about the need to put bums in seats.

The social-activist approach dominated that transitional, 2009-10 year. There was a lot of talk about fundraising — talk that didn’t make sense to me, because we had massive funds. But the entrenched thought-paradigm was that the bookstore would inevitably lose money, and a steady flow of charitable donations was needed to finance the deficit. An idea that had been tried before, to persuade supporters to donate $10, $20, $50 a month or whatever through their credit cards, was revived for the purposes of discussion. The other main strategy embraced by the group was to ramp up the store’s appearances at various political & community events, with book tables and volunteers handing out flyers soliciting share purchases.

Neither of these “initiatives” were new, merely a reiteration of efforts the previous administration had already given up on (thus, the motion to the AGM). But the new board did launch a couple of new ideas. About forty percent of the store was underutilized storage space. The board decided to cut the storage space in half, which created more space for books and let some light into the store. This permitted us to shift some focus, away from out-of-store book tables, to actual in-store events that would draw people to the bookstore. One of the first things that happened in that space was the Third Friday reading series that I organized over the next two years.

We also talked about holding a big benefit party. The store’s 65th anniversary was coming up, a perfect hook; and our showbiz platoon, led by Conrad Schmidt and Charlie Demers, organized a successful party at the WISE Club. Although many longtime store supporters anticipated some sort of farewell party (so unprepared was our staff for the event’s success that co-op membership forms were not even available at the event), the overwhelming message from the benefit was anything but defeatist. The January 2010 WISE Club bash was one of the early, unequivocal signs that the bookstore could reach out and count on a broad base of community support. The event even raised $3,500 — money the store did not, technically, need, as we still had thirty times that much in our reserve fund.

There was little discussion that year of the main point of my AGM intervention, which was that the store needed to buy more books. I made sure however that this point was made in a document that the board was preparing for the upcoming SGM to decide the fate of the store, the Vision for the next 65 years. This document described a range of strategies for turning around the store’s fortunes, and was a fair reflection of the board discussions, giving equal space to activities consistent with the political-activist backgrounds of most board members (fundraising; publicity; events; appeals to member loyalty), and the somewhat more commercially rooted solutions put forward by myself and a couple of others (putting more funds into inventory, attention to display & generally sprucing up the store, making the store itself more of a community hub).

Presented to the Special General Meeting of the Co-op held in May 2010, the Vision was overwhelmingly endorsed — along with an accompanying budget, which called for increased spending on book purchases —  as the basis for the store’s plan to engage with the historical conditions and to stay in business.

This should have ended the lengthy debate over the future of the store. In fact, the struggle was just starting.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (12) :: Regime Change

Start from the beginning: My Careen as a Booksellers (1) :: Before It All Began