New Star Blogs

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

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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