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My Careen as a Bookseller (9) :: The People’s Co-op heads for the exit

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It was my involvement in the People’s Co-op Bookstore in the early 1990s that opened the path to Plan A. It was Plan A, and the close relationship it forged between New Star Books and the Co-op, that resulted in me getting back onto the board in 2009.

Plan A, and my normal rounds, was bringing me into the People’s Co-op two or three times a week, where I would pick up stock reports, deliver books, shoot the breeze with Ray Viaud or Jane Bouey, the assistant manager, or buy a book. And so I knew that in the late 1990s the store had averted a crisis, or at any rate a reckoning, brought on by the depletion of the legendary Expo surplus. A longtime co-op member and bookstore supporter who had not got the memo about The End of the Book, had left the store $100,000 in their will. A couple of years later, history repeated itself, not once but twice, as two other longtime bookstore supporters died and left large bequests to the Co-op. Their names are engraved on a large plaque in the store honouring major donors. By around 2003, the store had cash reserves of well in excess of $300,000.

This huge surplus presented the Co-op with an opportunity to put the store on a solid footing. Heck, if the store was concerned about rents in 2003, the co-op could have bought its own property, becoming its own landlord and thus insulating itself from the approximate cause of countless bookstore failures. (One of the secrets of the success of Munro’s Books in Victoria is that they own the old bank they’re in, instead of the other way round.) It could have put a significant chunk of that surplus onto the shelves, in the form of inventory that would generate the level of sales, and the margin, necessary to cover the store’s monthly overheads.

Instead, the store chose to view this windfall as a licence to carry on carrying on as they had for a couple of decades, leaving the surplus to mop up the operating losses that had been built into the store’s budgets. As far as I can tell, no attempt was made to change, or even examine, the store’s long-time practices.

There was certainly room for improvement. I confess that I never felt the People’s Co-op was a particularly good independent bookstore. It wasn’t well stocked, and the store’s staff and volunteers were never particularly well informed about new books or perspectives. For all its “progressive” posing, apart from the old stock of Sovietica, the People’s Co-op in many respects resembled any other mall store, offering a sampling mostly of what the mainstream publishers had on offer that season. Shelves were thinly stocked, and some books seemed never to move.

I was not overly concerned by what I would normally interpret as bad signs in a bookstore, however, because of the sense I had that the store did have some slack to work with. Even if the store incurred a series of losses, it had both the time and the resources to address its problems. As a member of the co-op I was aware of the store’s strong financial position, and was not concerned that the store was in any danger of closing.

I was therefore not prepared when a friend living out of town asked me, in late summer 2009, whether I intended to go to the Co-op’s upcoming AGM, and what I thought of the plan to close the store.

In the course of my regular visits to the store, neither Ray nor Jane had ever mentioned this, or even that the store was in any sort of distress. So on my very next visit to the Co-op, I asked Ray, What was my friend talking about?

Oh! Hadn’t I received the notice? Due to an administrative / clerical error, it would seem, I had never been sent the AGM package with its notice of the intention to close the store. Ray poked around behind the counter, and came up with a copy of the AGM package for me. He explained that sales had been declining steadily throughout the decade in spite of various efforts by the board, and that the board had reached the conclusion that the bookstore simply was no longer viable. They were recommending to the AGM that the store be shut.

This was startling. While I saw that the store’s shelves were but lightly clad in new books, there had been no decline in the sales of our own books. In fact, two years previously, we had embarked on a Plan A arrangement with Kevin Potvin‘s late, lamented Magpie Magazine Gallery a couple of doors down the street; without any drop-off in sales of our books at the People’s Co-op, our sales at Magpie instantly settled at the same level as our Co-op sales. I didn’t see the decline in sales “up and down the Drive, not just here” that Ray was talking about: our own sales had doubled.

As I read quickly through the AGM package, absorbing the blow, Ray told me about the exit package being discussed for himself and Jane. As manager, he would get a $60,000 severance package; as assistant manager (working two-and-a-half days a week), Jane was in line for a $30,000 severance package. The store would shut permanently on March 31, 2010.

You can imagine the thoughts whirling through my head. But when I heard that, the whirling stopped. If the bookstore was in such distress, how could it be talking about such severance packages? Put it another way: if the store had $90,000 for severance packages, how could it be in such distress — why were the shelves so empty?

It wasn’t adding up. It was time to study the AGM package, especially the financial information provided, and to prepare for the upcoming AGM, where the fate of the store would surely be decided.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (10) :: Engineering a death spiral

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