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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