New Star Blogs

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

|

Constant Reader will recall that the September 2009 AGM of the People’s Co-op Bookstore rejected a motion to shut the store that had been put forward by the previous year’s board. A Special General Meeting in May 2010 endorsed a new plan to keep the store operating, the Vision for the next 65 years, and at the September 2010 AGM a whole new board of directors was elected, with all but one member of the previous regime choosing not to stand for re-election. John Taylor, a longtime member who is active in Vancouver’s Unitarian congregation, and who wholeheartedly supported the reforms, was the last remaining link with the old board.

At our first post-AGM meeting, a newly elected board member, Elwyn Patterson, put his name forward as chair — a thankless task; we were all I think grateful that a newbie had stepped up. As the big talker about the business end of things, I was a natural choice to be treasurer (and a somewhat more reluctant secretary — nobody EVER steps forward for that one). We got down to work.

It was at this point that the relationship between the board and the store’s employees, and the general functionality of the co-op’s governing structure, broke down.

It is no secret that the fall months are critical to a bookstore’s success, and the board was eager to see how we were doing — how our staff, liberated from the budget-slashing ways of the old regime, would react to their new autonomy in running the bookstore. The news from manager Ray Viaud, however, was consistently gloomy. Sales were down, despite our best efforts — people weren’t coming into the store the way they used to, it was the weather, they weren’t spending like they used to, it was the economy, it was the same up and down the Drive: the narrative, in other words, had not changed.

As treasurer, the manager’s reports concerned me — sales should have been increasing, in line with the greater expenditure on stock, the special events the store was hosting, the publicity we had been generating, much of it through the efforts of a couple of the new board members, Charlie Demers and Derrick O’Keefe. But when the board turned to the financial reports for a more complete picture, these were simply not available.

The Vision for the next 65 years drew attention to the difficulty we faced in hanging onto assistant manager Jane Bouey’s position. The cost of this position was about the same as the store’s annual operating deficit. Unless we could wipe out that deficit, we would have no alternative to eliminating the position. The board’s strategy for holding onto our assistant manager was to allocate some of our reserve fund for new book purchases. More books in the store would generate more sales, and pay for the position.

But our sales weren’t going up as we were anticipating, and our assistant manager, whose job it was to keep the store’s financial books, wasn’t supplying us with the information we needed to understand what was happening.

October, November, December of 2010 went by without the board’s receiving a single line of financial information. It was impossible to judge Ray’s gloomy reports; we just weren’t getting information we needed.

After the January 2011 board meeting took place again without any financial information provided by our staff, it was enough of a problem for the board that as treasurer I was directed to meet with Jane Bouey and discuss the issue with her, a meeting that finally took place in early February of 2011 at the Caffe Bella Napoli.

Jane readily acknowledged that she had not been able, she said, to prepare the financial reports we needed. She had been suffering some health effects due to allergies, and the dustiness of the store’s back room presented problems, problems which had been exacerbated by the renovations, which both reduced the size of the back room and raised the level of dustiness. I brought up the board’s discussion about hiring an outside bookkeeper to get us caught up and properly apprised of the store’s financial situation, and Jane acknowledged that perhaps it was time for the store to look to another bookkeeper (a possibility that had been raised over the winter), but in the meantime she would make a concerted effort to bring the store’s books up to date, and to present the board with financial reports. I asked for bank statements, at least; and Jane undertook to provide these.

But nothing was provided. February, March, April went by without the board receiving financial reports or even bank statements, amid ongoing gloom & doom from Ray. Whether or not we had financial reports, it was grimly obvious that the sort of turnaround in sales that would have justified continuing the assistant manager’s job simply was not manifesting itself. The discussion inevitably turned to what we had to do: by spring, it was pretty clear that we could not keep both jobs.

The board’s discussion about whether we could afford Jane’s position took place over many months and many meetings,  and Ray and Jane were part of this discussion. Indeed, the board activiely sought their input. However, neither took the board up on its invitation (as is their right); it was left to the board to wrestle with the dilemma and, in the end, to make the difficult decision that we couldn’t afford an assistant manager until sales went up again.

This decision was reached, reluctantly but unanimously, at our June 2011 meeting. The very next morning, because our chairman Elwyn Patterson was not available for this duty, as secretary / treasurer, I met with Jane and conveyed the board’s decision. It had been in the wind for two years and Jane took the news with good grace, I thought. I informed her that the board would be hiring a bookkeeper to bring our records up to date, and that Jane would be relieved of that burden (without any loss of pay). We discussed a couple of different scenarios for her exit, but the details were left for Jane to work out with Ray, her manager.

That summer the store’s new bookkeeper began providing the board with an up-to-date picture of the store’s financial affairs. As treasurer, I was in for a couple of shocks.

One, in spite of the clear direction of both the AGM and the board of directors (so-named for a reason) to get more stock into the store, the reports we were finally getting showed that Ray had ignored the board’s direction to increase spending on books, in fact was continuing to hew closely to the previous board’s policy of reducing the store’s purchasing at a steady rate.

The other shock came when Ray informed the board in July 2011 that with the autumn purchasing season upon us, the store had no money to buy books. What do you mean, I said; we still had reserves of $42,000 in a term deposit that we hadn’t cracked. Oh, said Ray, we can’t touch that — it’s locked in until January 2012. Indeed, Ray went into the Christmas 2011 season with yet another decline in the store’s purchasing.

In spite of all this, sales throughout the fall held their own, and December 2011’s sales were the best month the store had ever had, 20 percent up from the previous December. This was due almost entirely to the publicity efforts that board members and volunteers were undertaking. A big in-store pre-Christmas event put together by Charlie Demers had the biggest impact: more than ten percent of the month’s sales were recorded that afternoon.

The progress the board had made was, however, fragile and illusory. Things would come to a head when the Christmas bills came due, around the time that the store’s final $42,000 term deposit matured. Endgame was approaching for the People’s Co-op Bookstore.

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