New Star Blogs

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