Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz and co-authored a report saving 200,000 lives, remains unrecognized in Vancouver despite his significant historical impact. Alan Twigg (l.) seeks to change this.” FULL STORY


Rejuvenating a literary landmark

The People's Co-op Bookstore is at a cross­roads. New Star Books publisher Rolf Maurer has joined the campaign to raise funds for Vancouver's oldest bookstore--and he offers a summary of the store's venerable past.

June 19th, 2014

"If it wasn’t for Expo 86," says Rolf Maurer, "there would have been no People’s Co-op Book­store."

People’s Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive has launched a drive to raise about $30,000 to pay off some old debt and to bring some new books into the store.

by Rolf Maurer

As friends, asso­ciates, and the occa­sional reader of my blog  know, I’ve become deeply involved in the affairs of the People’s Co-op Book­store on Com­mer­cial Drive in Vancouver. As of June 1, the Co-op has raised about one-third of its fundraising goal — the part it needs before June 30 to keep the doors open over sum­mer, the slow­est period of the year — and is hir­ing a new man­ager. But the dona­tions and mem­ber­ships are slow­ing down, and the store still needs that next $10k to put some new books on the shelves for the fall. The People’s Co-op isn’t entirely out of the woods yet. Please drop in at the Co-op and join, renew, donate, browse, and maybe take your new dis­count for a spin.

About $10,000 of the money being raised is needed to pay off some debts to sup­pli­ers — some­thing that’s pre­vent­ing the Co-op from get­ting books in from a few key sup­pli­ers. This is money the store needs RIGHT AWAY, before the end of June.

Another third or so is needed to bring more titles into the store. While the Co-op’s addi­tion of used books has given it a much deeper inven­tory, the short­age of cheese in the cup­board makes it very, very hard to bring in the new titles that are a bookshop’s bread and but­ter. The book­store needs that inven­tory to sur­vive: it has to sell a cer­tain num­ber of books to pay rent and salaries, and it can’t sell what it can’t buy.

The Co-op also needs to put a lit­tle money into ren­o­va­tions, fix­tures, and a com­puter/web­site upgrade.

Since Co-op mem­bers rejected a plan to shut­ter the shop in March 2010, huge changes have been intro­duced. The reforms — includ­ing embrac­ing the “Powell’s model”, adding used books to the inven­tory — have reduced the store’s oper­at­ing deficit from about $40k a year, to around $10k — less than $1,000 a month. That’s good, but the num­ber has to be zero. And the only way to accom­plish that goal is to increase the num­ber of books we are sell­ing: not by much, maybe a few thou­sand bucks’ worth per month. But we can’t do that unless we can buy the books in the first place.

The store’s staff, vol­un­teers, and board mem­bers have reached the lim­its of what they can accom­plish with­out the ben­e­fit of a bud­get to work with. The time has come to give the People’s Co-op Book­store and its work­ers the oper­at­ing cap­i­tal they need to work with.

How can you help?

1. By join­ing the Co-op. It costs $25 to become a share­holder in the Co-op, and that gets you a 10 per­cent dis­count for one year. If you’re already a Co-op mem­ber, by renew­ing your membership.

2. By mak­ing a dona­tion of any size to the Co-op. A $250 dona­tion earns you a 10 per­cent life­time dis­count at the Co-op — and gets us sub­stan­tially closer to our fundrais­ing goals.

3. By mak­ing the People’s Co-op Book­store (1391 Com­mer­cial Drive, three blocks north of 1st Avenue) one of the reg­u­lar stops on your shop­ping / fla­neur­ing expe­di­tions. If you haven’t vis­ited the Co-op in a while, you’ll be amazed by the trans­for­ma­tion wrought over the last few years.

4. By donat­ing your time & skills to the Co-op. Through­out its 69-year his­tory the People’s Co-op has relied on vol­un­teers to help out at events, to sort used book dona­tions, and to help out in the store & even work occa­sional store shifts. That prob­a­bly won’t ever change.

5. By donat­ing your used books. Dona­tions have allowed the store to build up its stock — store inven­tory is prob­a­bly deeper than it has been at any time in its his­tory — and used book sales are now pay­ing around half the rent.

6. By shar­ing this appeal with your friends.

(In late March, a Mys­tery Donor stepped for­ward and pledged to match every $2 donated with $1 of their own — so your $25 = $37.50, $100 = $150, $250 = $325, &c.)

From time to time through­out its his­tory, the People’s Co-op Book­store has had to turn to its mem­bers and sup­port­ers to see it through crises. It’s been a cou­ple of decades since the last appeal. This is one of those times. It’s been pretty clear to me, from my vol­un­teer­ing around & in the book­store, that there is an enor­mous reser­voir of sup­port for the Co-op. I hope we can turn some of that sup­port into dona­tions that are now needed to keep the our book­store open.

Since last fall’s Co-op AGM, a fundrais­ing com­mit­tee led by Brian Camp­bell has qui­etly raised more than $8k towards our goal. That’s a great start, but we’ve got a ways to go still. I hope you’ll be able to give some­thing to keep Vancouver’s — and surely one of Canada’s? — old­est book­store going strong.


My career as a bookseller

By Rolf Maurer

(1) Before It All Began

August 3, 2012

Every­body needs a hobby. Mine is bookselling.

In the early 1990s, I was encour­aged to vol­un­teer as a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the People’s Co-operative Book­store Asso­ci­a­tion, the co-operative that has run the People’s Co-op Book­store since its estab­lish­ment in 1945. This would have been around 1991 or 1992; I served two one-year terms as a member-at-large. I have some regrets that I did not pay as close atten­tion as I might have, being some­what pre-occupied by the demands of New Star Books, the pub­lish­ing house that I had recently become pro­pri­etor of.  Still, join­ing the People’s Co-op board was one of the smartest moves I ever made. Thus began my real edu­ca­tion in publishing.

BCBL peoples co-op Binky Marks

Binky Marks (left) was the first manager; seen here in later years with Bill Duthie.

A recap of the store’s his­tory would be use­ful here. It was estab­lished at the end of World War II by a coali­tion of socialist-minded intel­lec­tu­als. Found­ing mem­bers included Lenin­ist mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party of Canada, but also social democ­rats, rank-and-file trade union­ists, com­mu­nity orga­niz­ers and faith-based pro­gres­sives. It was in fact one of the very few book­shops in a town where the book trade was dom­i­nated by the depart­ment stores (the “chains” of their own day). Up the street from where the Co-op set up shop was the ven­er­a­ble Pen­der Sta­tionery & Books, and there was Ire­land & Allan, a stuffy and ven­er­a­ble insti­tu­tion on Granville Street that was itself not much longer for the world. The People’s Co-op Book­store was orga­nized along the same prin­ci­ples as many other co-operative enter­prises in the mid­dle of the last cen­tury: the wheat pools, credit unions, dry goods stores, gas sta­tions,  and the like that were spring­ing up under the “co-op” ban­ner around this time.

From 1945 to 1982, the book­store was located at a series of down­town loca­tions, the final one at the cor­ner of Richards and Pen­der — the loca­tion today of a fancy-pants sand­wich shop called Finch’s. It was run by a series of man­agers, but the most noted are Binky Marks (for his energy and vision, as well as his abra­sive­ness and inde­pen­dent think­ing, which result in Bill Duthie hir­ing him away in the late 1950s to man­age his book­store) and Osmo Lahti (for his ded­i­ca­tion and longevity).  In 1983, with down­town rents hav­ing become a bit rich for the store’s blood, the People’s Co-op Book­store headed for the near-suburbs and its cur­rent loca­tion at 1391 Com­mer­cial Drive. Ray Viaud, the longest-serving man­ager in the store’s his­tory, had been appointed to the post a year before that.

BCBL Coop Viaud, Ray 2

Ray Viaud came to the store in 1994.

The 1980s were, in ret­ro­spect for many of us in the trade, the last Golden Age of Books. It was the last time that the entire trade was not suf­fer­ing from an iden­tity cri­sis and won­der­ing about its pur­pose in life; and it was cer­tainly my lifetime’s Golden Age of the Inde­pen­dent Book­seller, when Duthie Books was in its cli­max stage, and book chains were no more than a small white cloud on the hori­zon, no big­ger than a man’s hand.

The People’s Co-op Book­store, how­ever, had fallen on hard times. And to be fair, it had always had a bit of a strug­gle. The store in fact was depen­dant on con­tri­bu­tions from vol­un­teers, and ongo­ing fundrais­ing efforts, to stay in busi­ness. At the same time, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of book­stores through­out the city in the decades after the People’s Co-op blazed the way — not just apo­lit­i­cal inde­pen­dents, but a plethora of pro­gres­sive book­stores — afforded the lux­ury of sec­tar­ian book­selling. The People’s Co-op had moved some dis­tance from its inclu­sive found­ing and had itself become a some­what sec­tar­ian book­shop, forg­ing a close iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the Com­mu­nist Party of Canada and its par­tic­u­lar brand of Marxism-Leninism. This was to dis­tin­guish it from the var­i­ous other man­i­fes­ta­tions of left-progressive thought as expressed in other Van­cou­ver book­stores. Spar­ta­cus Books, Van­guard Books, the Enver Hoxha Book­store, the Van­cou­ver Women’s Book­store, and a few oth­ers staked out posi­tions in many instances to separate them­selves from the People’s Co-op, which many left­ists thought had lost the plot.

In spite of the move to Com­mer­cial Drive and its cheaper rent (back in the 1980s; it’s not so much cheaper any­more), the store’s exis­tence remained pre­car­i­ous, and the early 1980s saw some con­sid­er­a­tion being given to shut­ter­ing the People’s Co-op Bookstore.

Then, Expo 86 came along; and as every Van­cou­verite knows, Expo 86 changed everything.

(2) The Expo Years

August 29, 2012

I owe my involve­ment in the People’s Co-op Book­store to another his­tor­i­cal fac­tor: Expo 86. For if it wasn’t for Expo 86, there would have been no People’s Co-op Book­store, and no board, for me to join five years later.

A “shib­bo­let” is just an ear of corn, but the Hebrews of the Bib­li­cal times found it was a use­ful tool for sort­ing the human wheat from the chaff. In the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, shib­bo­leths were refined for use to fil­ter crypto-fascists, red-baiting cold-warriors, and weak­lings and vac­il­la­tors from Peo­ple Like Us, who could be counted on in The Struggle.

Expo 86 was such a shib­bo­leth. If it was clear to you that Expo 86 was merely a play­thing for the rich and a tool for dou­bling down on the work­ing class, that marked you for a good egg and a depend­able pro­gres­sive. If, on the other hand, you allowed that some good might come out of this Class 2 World’s Fair that was going to put Van­cou­ver on the map as a world-class Rouen, well the only thing that sep­a­rated you from the black­shirts of the 1930s was the lack of an openly fas­cist party to vote for.

The 1980s were an inter­est­ing time in Van­cou­ver. I was able to use the Expo 86 pass repro­duced here to alien­ate just about every­body in town: my fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies at the bar­ri­cades, most of whom never for­gave me for using it; and my par­ents, from whom it was a gift, and who never forgave me for using it for just one visit.

I could take com­fort from the fact that another pil­lar of the left broke ranks, and embraced Expo 86: the People’s Co-op Book­store. Because when Moscow called, won­der­ing who was going to run the book con­ces­sion at the Soviet Union’s pavil­ion, the pro­gres­sives lead­ing the book­store found a way to rec­on­cile their cri­tique of Expo so that the People’s Co-op could answer the call.

BCBL peoples co-op Russian Pavilion

The Soviet pavil­ion was a sur­prise hit at Expo 86.

The Soviet pavil­ion turned out to be one of the sur­prise hits of Expo 86. No won­der. Where else could you view Tom & Jerry car­toons where the cat always wins in the end? The book dis­play too was mas­sive, and thou­sands and thou­sands of books were sold that sum­mer. Strange books. Odd sin­gle vol­umes of Molo­tov or Bukharin or Lenin. Travel guides to weird cities with bleak, mas­sive squares and boule­vards, dom­i­nated by giant Lenin stat­ues and Marx busts, seem­ingly aban­doned but for a cou­ple of buses: cities that as a west­erner you prob­a­bly wouldn’t be allowed to visit anyway.

When Expo ended, while the giant fab­ric Swatch was folded away, and the McDonald’s float­ing barge was towed out of sight, and the giant hockey stick was on another barge car­ry­ing it up to Courte­nay, the People’s Co-op Book­store counted its sur­plus from the 165-day fair: around $125,000. Not bad: enough to under­write the store’s oper­at­ing losses for quite a few years, as it turned out.

Even as late as 1991–92, nobody on the board seemed to won­der much about the suc­cess of that Expo 86 book­stand, or to pon­der the mean­ing of those Amer­i­can and Euro­pean tourists car­ry­ing home those odd vol­umes of the works of Soviet thinkers. Expo 86 had given the city’s lead­ing (or only, depend­ing on your views) pro­gres­sive book­store in town a new lease on life, and that’s what was important.

(3) Moscow Gold

October 5, 2012

So there I was, a duly elected direc­tor of the People’s Co-operative Book­store Association.

I did not take a par­tic­u­larly active role dur­ing my first, early 1990s stint on the board. For one thing, I was new to the group. For another, I soon learned that it was a vol­un­teer board in more than one sense. You vol­un­tar­ily served on the board, that was the ordi­nary mean­ing. But within the store’s cul­ture, the board was viewed as a com­mit­tee of vol­un­teers who were putting them­selves at the dis­posal of the store’s paid staff to look after book tables, count inven­tory, keep the store clean, maybe even work relief shifts. With my own atten­tion largely taken up by my newish day job, pub­lisher of New Star Books, I was not going to be able to vol­un­teer that sort of time. So I became a board mem­ber of sec­ondary impor­tance and influ­ence; and after two years, I decided not to seek a third term.

Nev­er­the­less, even with most of my atten­tion else­where, I soaked up a great deal. One thing I learned was the dif­fer­ence between a co-op and the usual, strictly heirar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tional logic of a pri­vate, for-profit cor­po­ra­tion. In the lat­ter, you’re con­stantly required to make deci­sions, and the com­pet­i­tive aspect has a lot to do with mak­ing more good deci­sions than bad, and mak­ing more good deci­sions than the busi­nesses on either side of you.

As a men­tor/friend said to me many years ago, “Pub­lish­ing is easy; all you have to do is make deci­sions.” The same wis­dom applies across the spec­trum of work. But a busi­ness that is run along the lines of a co-op (for exam­ple, the East Van­cou­ver Food Co-operative; credit unions; those old Co-op gas sta­tions and gen­eral stores) has an addi­tional dynamic that it has to con­tend with: group decision-making. That, as many of you read­ers already know, is a bit of an oxy­moron — groups seem reluc­tant to make decisions.

For instance: The board in the early 1990s was wrestling with the issue of the store’s wooden sand­wich board sign. It had been built by a store vol­un­teer in the 1980s, a cre­ation of vinyl sheet­ing and Mac-Tac applied to half-inch ply­wood. The sign incor­po­rated Angela Kenyon’s mid-1980s store logo, which employed a styl­ized book and dove of peace, and nicely evoked the clean graphic style asso­ci­ated with mid-century East Ger­man design trends. But it was now aging and start­ing to look a bit tacky, and the board was much occu­pied with find­ing a vol­un­teer who could spruce up the sign: a task which turned out to be sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult, once the deci­sion had been made to com­mit to the vol­un­teer approach (rather than, say, hir­ing a sign painter). When I left the board, they were still talk­ing about that sign, not hav­ing man­aged, in two years, to knock the prob­lem on the head.

Believe it or not, when I rejoined the board in 2009, the very first item dis­cussed at the first meet­ing of the new board arose from the min­utes of the pre­vi­ous board meet­ing: what to do about the sign? It took just two years after that to come up with the new sig­nage that now graces the storefront.

In addi­tion to a les­son on the scle­rotic process of decision-making on the book­store board, I learned one other thing: how “Moscow gold” works. The notion pro­mul­gated by the right was that the local branch of the Com­mu­nist Party was not merely in thrall to the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union, it accepted cash — “Moscow gold” — to pur­sue the ends dic­tated by the Krem­lin, and pre­sum­ably involv­ing the sub­ver­sion and over­throw of demo­c­ra­tic cap­i­tal­ism in Canada.

But this sce­nario could not be more wrong. It prob­a­bly went more like this: one of the big Moscow for­eign lan­guage pub­lish­ing houses — For­eign Lan­guages Pub­lish­ing House, Mir, Raduga, and a few other imprints — would announce some titles, and the People’s Co-op would place orders for them, which would be paid for with cash, cash raised by working-class, pro­gres­sive Cana­di­ans. The mem­bers would sup­port the store by buy­ing these books, although as any vis­i­tor to the store knows, they did not always sell. Many of these books are to this day still in the store’s inven­tory, decades after they were paid for.

So the ideas may have flowed west­ward, from Moscow. But the gold flowed east­ward, towards Moscow. It is cer­tainly all gone now.

(4) The People’s Cold War Bookstore

February 2, 2013

Hey, wait a minute (I hear you say). One moment you’re talk­ing about the People’s Co-op Book­store, and the next minute you’re going on about the Com­mu­nist Party of Canada. Where did that come from? Time for another brief side trip to address the ques­tion of whether the People’s Co-op Book­store is, or ever was, a “Com­mu­nist Party bookstore”.

It is a ques­tion whose answer depends on the con­tin­gent cir­cum­stances. In an atmos­phere of Cold War red-baiting for instance, call­ing the People’s Co-op Book­store “Com­mu­nist” could itself be an act of red-baiting, because “every­one knew” that the store was a co-operative, that the elected board mem­bers were all ordi­nary co-operative mem­bers elected by the annual gen­eral meet­ing, and that you too could join the co-op and run for a posi­tion on the board by buy­ing a sin­gle share for $1. You cer­tainly didn’t have to be a Com­mu­nist (the pres­ence on the board of the odd per­son like me was proof enough of that). The charge that the store was some sort of “Com­mu­nist front” was just reac­tionary garbage.

BCBL peoples co-op Angelo Branca

Even conservative stalwarts like judge Angelo Branca visited People’s Co-op.

An old chest­nut of an anec­dote was reg­u­larly pro­duced in sup­port of this line. A colour­ful and con­ser­v­a­tive judge of his day, and a pil­lar of the estab­lish­ment named Angelo Branca, was known to fre­quent the store. Why, if a crusty old bird like Angelo Branca — and nobody would accuse him of being soft on Com­mu­nism — was a reg­u­lar cus­tomer, how true could those per­ni­cious rumours be?

At other times, how­ever, the People’s Co-op was defended as a beach­head of Lenin­ist thought within the city. A gen­er­a­tion ago, the bookstore’s task was seen by many of its sup­port­ers as stak­ing out a posi­tion: the People’s Co-op man­date, and inven­tory, was to set it and the Lenin­ist beliefs it priv­i­leged apart from the other “false” anti-system move­ments as expressed in rival book­stores, which might be Spar­ta­cus Books, Van­guard Books, the Enver Hoxha Book­store, Lit­tle Sister’s, or the Van­cou­ver Women’s Book­store. For a period in the 1960s and extend­ing into the 1980s, the People’s Co-op Book­store could be fairly described as being in the depths of the sec­tar­ian phase of its existence.

But the “Com­mu­nist Party book­store” posi­tion, whether inhab­ited by Party stal­warts or anti-Communists, simul­ta­ne­ously over­states the CP’s role in the store and under­states the part played by oth­ers: social democ­rats, social gospel Chris­tians, co-op move­ment mavens, trade union­ists unaf­fil­i­ated with any polit­i­cal party, ordi­nary mem­bers of the work­ing class or lower mid­dle class pro­fes­sions, Judge Branca. Nev­er­the­less, there can be no doubt about the fact that the exis­tence today, or in 1986, of the People’s Co-op Book­store is owed to the com­mit­ment, gen­eros­ity, and hard work of party members.

But by the 1990s, the store’s role within the city, and the larger com­mu­nity, was chang­ing. A com­bi­na­tion of polit­i­cal dynam­ics (the “fall of the Wall” in 1989 being a sym­bol­i­cally pow­er­ful moment in this process) and capitalism’s shift from dom­i­nance by pro­duc­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers (mines, fac­to­ries), to dom­i­nance by the finan­cial sec­tor, was trans­form­ing the book­selling land­scape through­out the west­ern world. By the early 1990s, it was becom­ing appar­ent that if the People’s Co-op Book­store was going to sur­vive into the twenty-first cen­tury, it was going to have to recon­nect with its deeper roots in the broader left-progressive community.

This was never going to be easy. And in the mean­time, a cat­a­stro­phe occured, one that would keep the store from grap­pling with these issues for another gen­er­a­tion or so. The cat­a­stro­phe came in the form of a wind­fall; or, rather, a series of wind­falls, begin­ning with Expo 86.

(5) Wall Street Books

March 2, 2013

Before we get to why win­ning the lot­tery set the People’s Co-op Book­store back by a gen­er­a­tion or so, let’s take moment to con­sider what’s hap­pened in the book trade since those golden days of Expo 86.

Publishing’s image as a sleepy back­wa­ter, which was never really accu­rate — the old­est cor­po­ra­tion in the world started as, and still is a printer-publisher — can prob­a­bly be attrib­uted to the fact that, from one per­spec­tive any­way, the book trade circa 1980 was a sleepy back­wa­ter. That per­spec­tive was that of the finance sec­tor: banks, the peo­ple who loan money to cor­po­ra­tions to use as work­ing cap­i­tal. Our his­tor­i­cally low rates of profit repelled their inter­est, so to speak. Until, one day, those inex­orably falling rates of profit, or ris­ing prices of crude oil, or what­ever, finally caused them to turn their atten­tion to us.

That’s when we saw the “boom” in book­store chains and big-box retail­ers. Those exam­ples of hyper­trophic growth were not fueled by any prof­its or suc­cess gen­er­ated within the book­trade itself. Instead, they reflected a hunger to extract more trib­ute from our sec­tor of the econ­omy. The money invested by finan­cial insti­tu­tions in the cre­ation and growth of the book chains rep­re­sented a gam­ble albeit a low-risk one, and the money being ven­tured was not any of ours, at least not in the sense that we might ben­e­fit from its invest­ment. B. Dal­ton and Walden­books, Coles, W.H. Smith, Clas­sic Book­shops: these were by and large not actu­ally suc­cess­ful busi­nesses in the ordi­nary sense. Each and every one of them was an expres­sion of a capitalist-utopian vision in which pools of finance cap­i­tal dom­i­nated the world of man­u­fac­tur­ing, labour, &c.

The result was the reshap­ing of the retail book­selling envi­ron­ment, even­tu­ally into what we have today. Small, single-proprietor book­shops, which for a few cen­turies had been the back­bone of a book writ­ing and read­ing econ­omy, were being swept away, replaced by highly ratio­nal­ized (though hardly ratio­nal) retail oper­a­tions owned by large cor­po­ra­tions with spoons in many dif­fer­ent pots, ulti­mately con­trolled by some bank or finan­cial fund which had pro­vided the loan cap­i­tal. The new boss was def­i­nitely noth­ing like the old boss.

What that meant in turn for a com­pany like New Star Books — indeed, for a coun­try like Canada, with its nascent and frankly frag­ile pub­lish­ing trade — was a shrink­age, begin­ning in the late 1980s (surely a coin­ci­dence), of the shelf space that was effec­tively avail­able to us, though this was not appar­ent at first. The bur­geon­ing chain store phe­nom­e­non went into over­drive with the 1987 acqui­si­tion of the B. Dal­ton chain by Barnes & Noble; and — money see, money do — in 1992 in Canada, with the takeover of Coles by Clas­sic Book­shops / Smith­Books, which had them­selves merged three years previously.

At first, the con­ti­nent was flooded with mas­sive stores fea­tur­ing kilo­me­tres of shelv­ing, cry­ing out for a blan­ket of books to cover up their naked­ness. This was the era that coined the term “wall­pa­per” for book­store inven­tory: an early clue that these new mas­ters didn’t have a clue.

But for a while, it was a party, as pub­lish­ers of all sizes were flooded with orders to fill those dis­play shelves, and to cover those walls. It was never going to last, and this was start­ing to show by 1997 or so.

New Star, like a lot of smaller presses — Press Gang comes to mind — didn’t “fit in” to the new world of pub­lish­ing and big-box book retail. The kind of books we pub­lished didn’t “work” in this new retail envi­ron­ment. Why didn’t we pub­lish more books like, oh, you know, [what­ever]. Inex­orably, as the chains con­sol­i­dated their stran­gle­hold, and as many inde­pen­dents began copy­ing their meth­ods in an effort to com­pete, we were los­ing access to book­store shelf space, which meant eye­balls, which meant readers.

I wasn’t con­vinced that there was no inter­est in the books we did, and I wasn’t inter­ested in retool­ing the list to pub­lish [what­ever] to appeal to the Chap­ters cat­e­gory buyer. As New Star’s pub­lisher, I had to fig­ure out how to get my books in front of read­ers, or get out of the business.

That’s where the People’s Co-op Book­store came along and saved the day.

(6) The Returns Boom

April 22, 2013

My pre­vi­ous digres­sion in this series con­cerned the intro­duc­tion of “ratio­nal” dis­tri­b­u­tion and retail prac­tices to the book trade, and the resul­tant growth of book­store chains through­out the 1980s and 1990s. These changes increased the shelf space given over to books, but it also rad­i­cally changed the rules of com­pe­ti­tion for access to that shelf space. This marked a dynas­tic shift tak­ing place in North Amer­i­can busi­ness, as man­u­fac­tur­ing lost its lead­ing role and was sup­planted by finance. The “big iron” that used to call the shots — Detroit, US Steel, &c. — was pushed aside, as Citibank et al. took control.

North America’s post-war sub­ur­ban build­ing boom, and higher uni­ver­sity and col­lege enrol­ment dri­ven by gov­ern­ment pro­grams, had done much to increase the num­ber of book­shops through­out North Amer­ica. The chain store boom that began in the 1970s brought on another surge of growth in the mar­ket­place, and the large-format stores that appeared at the end of the 1980s cre­ated what seemed like a glut of shelf space. But the glut was illu­sory, con­sist­ing largely of miles and miles of dis­play shelves that were effec­tively cloned copies of the same much smaller stretch of shelves; and access to that dis­play space for books was now cen­trally con­trolled from the upper right­hand cor­ner of the con­ti­nent. Mean­while, the peo­ple decid­ing which prod­uct went onto those shelves tended more and more to believe they were deal­ing with gro­ceries — the back­ground, indeed, of many of the new execs now run­ning the big book retailers

The ratio­nal­iza­tion tak­ing place within the book trade put enor­mous pres­sure on inde­pen­dent presses to turn their dis­tri­b­u­tion over to cen­tral­ized book dis­tri­b­u­tion ware­houses. The num­ber of books in print had in the mean­time swelled to over a mil­lion, while a typ­i­cal book­store had room for some­where between 5,000 and 35,000 titles (for a Duthie class store). Book­sellers couldn’t be expected to main­tain hun­dreds of sep­a­rate accounts with all their publisher-suppliers. The mid­dle­men dis­trib­u­tors and whole­salers would be able to offer effi­cien­cies to both ends — book­sellers, pub­lish­ers — and the abil­ity to order New Star’s books from the same ware­house that car­ried the offer­ings of the big­ger pub­lish­ers was going to be mutu­ally advan­ta­geous. The buzz phrase of the day was “just in time” inventory.

One of the unan­tic­i­pated con­se­quences of this arrange­ment is a phe­nom­e­non of “churn­ing” stock. The book­seller needs to get in some copies of The Book Everybody’s Talk­ing About. But they’re at their credit limit with the dis­trib­u­tor, and there’s no cash lying around. Solu­tion: round up a bunch of books sup­plied by the same dis­trib­u­tor, and return those books to free up the credit you need. Book­Man­ager, the locally devel­oped soft­ware pro­gram used by about 250 Cana­dian inde­pen­dents to man­age their inven­tory, even has an impres­sive set of tools designed for this purpose.

It sounds like I’m talk­ing about inde­pen­dent book­sellers here. But the techique was pio­neered by the chains, who used returns to, nom­i­nally, keep within the terms of sale they had agreed to (though in prac­tice, these are changed to their spec­i­fi­ca­tions when­ever the old terms prove incon­ve­nient). Inde­pen­dents who ramped up their returns were merely fol­low­ing the trail blazed for them by their big broth­ers — another instance of “Money see, money do.”

This sig­naled a sig­nif­i­cant change in the way the book­stores oper­ated. For the first time, books began to be returned to their sup­plier, not because they had failed to sell in a rea­son­able period of time (about a year), but because they hap­pened to be shipped by a dis­trib­u­tor with some­thing poten­tially more lucra­tive in the ware­house. While the prac­tices of the big chains have dri­ven the returns boom, inde­pen­dents adopted the same big-box prac­tices, and return rates from inde­pen­dents have been every bit as high if not even higher.


Remain­der mar­kets and stores like Book Ware­house flour­ished under the post-1980s com­mand econ­omy.

The his­tor­i­cally high rate of returns we enjoy today are a phe­nom­e­non of mod­ern book retail prac­tices — which have been largely dri­ven by changes in dis­tri­b­u­tion prac­tices, not by  con­sumer pref­er­ences — and are an arte­fact of the mod­ern sup­ply chain. But returns are not some­thing books do; they are some­thing booksell­ers do. Today’s extrav­a­gant return rates are not a sign that acqui­si­tions edi­tors, book­sellers, or read­ers are stu­pider than ever.

One phe­nom­e­non of this post-1980s com­mand econ­omy that char­ac­ter­ized the book trade is the remain­der mar­ket and stores like Book Ware­house, which flour­ished dur­ing this era. This sec­tor of the mar­ket depended on the over-production of skids of this year’s $40 best­sellers for their avail­abil­ity next year at $6.99 while the paper­back sells for $10.99, or $19. (It is the remain­dera­mas of the world that are now being imper­illed by e-books, which so far are mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant inroads only in this sec­tor of the trade. E-books may not end up doing as much dam­age to the book trade as claimed, but they were surely a fac­tor in the demise of the Book Ware­house remain­der chain.)

The decline in ini­tial orders for new books, com­bined with the greater propen­sity on the part of book­sellers to return sooner and in greater quan­ti­ties, as they in turn expe­ri­ence the pres­sures of “ratio­nal­iza­tion”, was by the mid­dle of the 1990s pos­ing a threat to New Star’s exis­tence. Book­sellers that in 1980 had read­ily taken 10 or 15 or 20 copies of a new New Star title more or less on spec, and return­ing no more than 10 or 15 per­cent of them, were by the end of the decade tak­ing 1, 2, or 3 copies, and return­ing upwards of 30 per­cent or more for credit after a few months.

This was not just facil­i­tated but fueled by cen­tral­ized book dis­tri­b­u­tion. Even stores that thought of them­selves as sup­port­ing small presses were exhibit­ing these symp­toms. The People’s Co-op, which used to sell $1K to $2K a year’s worth of New Star titles in a year, installed Book­Man­ager in the late 1980s, and adopted the prac­tices built into that soft­ware. By 1997, New Star’s sales through the People’s Co-op, employ­ing the lat­est in inven­tory man­age­ment tech­niques, had fallen to under $300 a year.

My response to all this was Plan A, a con­sign­ment pro­gram that saved the press a few years later when our trade dis­trib­u­tor lost the Man­date of Finance, and was put out of busi­ness in 2001.

(7) Plan A

May 24, 2013

My career as a book­seller really began in the late 1990s, when I dreamed up a scheme for get­ting New Star’s books into a few stores, a scheme that I called Plan A. My People’s Co-op con­nec­tion was the key here. Plan A would never have hap­pened, had store man­ager Ray Viaud not accom­mo­dated my pro­posal back in 1997. Plan A saved New Star Books when our dis­trib­u­tor failed in 2002, and the rest of the Cana­dian pub­lish­ing indus­try was decid­ing to go all-in with Indigo-Chapters.

To recap, the prob­lem I was grap­pling with as New Star’s pub­lisher was the shrink­ing space for our books — in spite of the sup­pos­edly bur­geon­ing retail book trade. The People’s Co-op was typ­i­cal, in that New Star’s sales of $1K to $2K per year there had fallen to less than $300. The stan­dard nar­ra­tive was that us small pub­lish­ers had lost touch with the mar­ket. Our books were being ordered in 1’s and 2’s and 3’s instead of the for­mer 5’s and 10’s, because that’s what the “mar­ket” was dic­tat­ing. Don’t worry, our reps, and the book­store buy­ers, reas­sured us; “just in time” inven­tory man­age­ment tech­niques would see to it that books for which there was demand would be stocked.

But that promise was not kept. Most of the time, those 1’s and 2’s and 3’s would not be re-ordered when they sold, sim­ply because they fell under the bookseller’s radar. A book that was ini­tially ordered in quan­ti­ties of less than 5 had already been judged as not likely to sell in the quan­ti­ties required by the book­seller. The soft­ware tools they were increas­ingly reliant on were not trained to spot poten­tial steady-sellers, they were look­ing for bestsell­ers. Worse, our books, which since the early 1990s were avail­able through main­stream dis­trib­u­tors, were also being returned pre­ma­turely to those dis­trib­u­tors to free up the bookseller’s credit: the tech­nique of “churn­ing” that I described in a previous post.

There is a fun­da­men­tal truth about book buy­ers that has been stead­fastly ignored by the archi­tects of this re-engineering of the book trade. It is the fact that, as sur­vey after sur­vey and study after study has shown, some­where between two thirds and three quar­ters of all book pur­chases are what they call “impulse pur­chases”. That is, the vast major­ity of books are pur­chased by peo­ple who had no inten­tion of buy­ing that par­tic­u­lar book that day. Maybe they had heard some­thing about it, maybe the cover caught their eye, maybe the book­seller hand­-sold it to them. In any case, the book was pur­chased only because of its pres­ence in the bookstore.

Let me under­line the impor­tance of the “impulse pur­chase”. The most valu­able bit of real estate in any retail estab­lish­ment is the cash desk. Shop­keep­ers will clut­ter that space with dis­plays of inex­pen­sive, but high-margin, items that shop­pers will pick up on impulse as they pay for their pur­chases. Retail­ers who demand pay for dis­play (gro­cery stores, and the stores mod­elled on them: e.g., chain book­stores) often won’t rent this space out at all, but reserve it for themselves.

The con­cept of “just in time” inven­tory is based on the premise that a cus­tomer enter­ing the book­store has a shop­ping list, lay­ered with the belief that they will ask the book­seller to spe­cial order a title they can­not find. This sup­pos­edly amounted to pretty much the same as hav­ing stocked the book all along. Mean­while, the store’s valu­able real estate could be devoted to the “big” books from the “big” pub­lish­ers because, well, that’s what was going to be dri­ving their sales, and their prof­itabil­ity, here in the New Economy.

In my head I heard what was being said, but in my guts I knew it was nuts. “Just in time” was never in time. Con­sumers would not be rewiring their behav­iour to con­form with some com­merce professor’s self-serving the­ory about proper behav­iour in a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket­place. Book buy­ers, never the most tractable of con­sumers, con­tin­ued to behave the way they had always done. Some­times they special-ordered a book, sure. (More and more, that “spe­cial order” was a book that would have been on the shelf under the old regime.) But most of the time, at least two times out of three any­way, they lim­ited their pur­chases, includ­ing their unplanned pur­chases, to what was avail­able in the store that day. And if what had been cho­sen for them didn’t appeal, they just left it. This “com­mand econ­omy” in books, which looks more like the way the Soviet Union did busi­ness than it resem­bles any the­o­ret­i­cal model of free-market cap­i­tal­ism, is prob­a­bly the biggest dri­ver of the returns bloom that has seen return rates rock­eting from 10 to 15 per­cent on the eve of the giant chains, to the present-day 30 per­cent or more which is con­sid­ered “nor­mal” and work­able by main­stream publishers.

What if, I thought, New Star was able to replen­ish that ini­tial order for 1 or 2 of our books when they sold? So I asked our man­ager Ray at the store if I could run a lit­tle exper­i­ment. He was quite agree­able (an act of gen­eros­ity I did not fully com­pre­hend until I learned, years later, how dif­fi­cult con­tem­po­rary book­store sys­tems make this sort of behav­iour). Start­ing in 1997, the People’s Co-op stopped order­ing our books through what­ever big Toronto-based dis­trib­u­tor they were get­ting our books from, and allowed us to sup­ply directly, mon­i­tor stock lev­els, and replen­ish as necessary.

The effect was instan­ta­neous. Sales did not dou­ble, and they did not triple. They quadru­pled. Not over an extended period of time, either: overnight. One year after we imple­mented Plan A, our sales at the People’s Co-op had gone from less than $300 in the pre­vi­ous year, right back up to $1,500 — the same level it had been at, before all this crazy ratio­nal­iza­tion gripped the trade.

If a book sold, we replaced it. If the replace­ment book sold, we replaced that. If a book sold steadily, we made sure that we were never out of that title: “just-in-time” inven­tory in actu­al­ity. In let­ting New Star try Plan A, Ray not only pro­vided some much-needed vin­di­ca­tion for my unortho­dox views; he inad­ver­tently saved the press. Because thanks to the People’s Co-op exam­ple I was able to point to, I was able to per­suade fif­teen or six­teen other book­sellers over the next decade or so, to sign on with New Star’s Plan A. For a time around the col­lapse of our dis­trib­u­tor, Gen­eral Dis­tri­b­u­tion Ser­vices, the cash flow from our Plan A stores made it pos­si­ble for New Star to con­tinue. At its peak, Plan A was bring­ing in around 20 per­cent of our sales to the inde­pen­dent sec­tor — an aston­ish­ing fig­ure; remem­ber that Plan A was never more than 15 or 16 stores at any time. Over the ten years of its exis­tence, Plan A sold prob­a­bly 4,000 to 6,000 books that would oth­er­wise not have been bought, because they would not have been avail­able for purchase.

Plan A went too much against the grain of the book trade, how­ever; and a few years ago I was obliged to wrap it up. I’ll delve into Plan A, and the rea­sons for its demise, in the next post in this series. But in the mean­time, Plan A, and the People’s Co-op Book­store, and the store’s man­ager, Ray Viaud, saved New Star Books.

(8) Culture Clash

June 14, 2013

Previously I described Plan A, New Star’s con­sign­ment dis­tri­b­u­tion pro­gram that ran for four­teen years after Ray Viaud offered the People’s Co-op Book­store as a launch site for it in 1997. Before we get back to the Co-op and its own adven­tures in the mod­ern book trade, I want to take a moment to explain what hap­pened to Plan A, and why we even­tu­ally had to aban­don it.

Under Plan A, the part­ner­ing book­seller granted New Star a lot of lee­way in plac­ing, and restock­ing, our titles in the store. Once a month, or once a quar­ter (Plan A was very flex­i­ble, scal­able, cus­tomiz­able), the book­store would report sales activ­ity to us. We would mon­i­tor stock lev­els, invoice the store for the pre­vi­ous month’s sales, and make replen­ish­ment deci­sions based on what the store had been report­ing to us.

Some of the stores that adopted Plan A include Duthie Books, Black­berry Books, 32 Books in North Van­cou­ver, the old Black Sheep on West 4th Avenue, George Sipos’s Mos­quito Books in Prince George, Cad­boro Bay Books, Crown Pub­li­ca­tions, Min­ers Bay Books, even a cou­ple of “non-trad” out­lets for books such as Pollen Sweaters in Pow­ell River. The book­seller would use the report­ing tools pro­vided by Book­Man­ager, or Word­stock, to gen­er­ate the reports that we would use at New Star to fig­ure out sales and restock­ing deci­sions. Typ­i­cally, a store would carry any­where from 20 to 30 or 40 titles. Duthie Books and the People’s Co-op went a lit­tle broader, car­rry­ing almost all we had in print.

Mean­while, Plan A and our local adver­tis­ing were tied in together. We never ran an ad with­out list­ing some of the (Plan A) stores where the adver­tised book could be browed and pur­chased. And when­ever any­body local called look­ing for one of our books, we would refer them to the clos­est Plan A store, whether it was Duthie’s on the west side, the People’s Co-op on the east side, or wher­ever, know­ing that they would find the book.

BCBL peoples co-op Cedar Surf

Niche titles sold well under Maurer’s ‘Plan A’ for marketing books.

At its peak, Plan A oper­ated in 15 or 16 stores. Over its exis­tence, it moved at least 4,000 and pos­si­bly as many as 6,000 books that would not have found their read­ers under our highly cen­tral­ized, costly, and remark­ably inef­fi­cient mod­ern book sup­ply chain. The cash flow from Plan A saved New Star when Gen­eral Dis­tri­b­u­tion Ser­vices was put out of busi­ness in 2002.

Plan A was also balm for the publisher’s soul in an era where we were told that prac­ti­cally any­thing New Star pub­lished was “not the sort of thing the mar­ket is inter­ested in”. The Cedar Surf by Grant Shilling, which reps & book­sellers assured us was a regional, “niche” title, pos­si­bly of inter­est on the west coast of Van­cou­ver Island (with, you know, its major urban cen­tres and richly stocked book­stores), man­aged to sell 59 copies at Black­berry Books on Granville Island, 65 copies at Duthie Books, another 13 copies at 32 Books. We had a remark­ably tough time con­vinc­ing any book­seller to stock John Arm­strong’s bril­liant punk rock mem­oir, Guilty of Every­thing. But where Plan A gave it a foot in the door, it did very well, sell­ing 28 copies at Black­berry, 74 copies at the People’s Co-op, another 46 at Duthie’s. Fifty-seven copies of Matt Hern’s Field Day sold at the Co-op. The list goes on and on. Carellin Brooks’s cheeky Wreck Beach, too risque for many book­sellers (includ­ing, noto­ri­ously, BC Fer­ries), sold 35 copies at Black­berry, 43 at the Co-op, another dozen at 32 Books. Some­times a par­tic­u­lar title devel­oped a fol­low­ing at a par­tic­u­lar store, an inter­est which we were able to grat­ify: for exam­ple, the 32 copies of A Voice Great Within Us pur­chased over the years from lit­tle Min­ers Bay Books on Mayne Island.

I go into this detail because under nor­mal trade stric­tures we would have been lucky to get an ini­tial trade order of 3 to 5 copies for any of these titles, and even more for­tu­nate to have the books re-ordered more than once or twice, or even at all. It’s not like we planted pyra­mids of books into the Plan A stores. In none of these instances were there ever more than two or three copies of the book in stock, even when it was brand new. The num­bers were achieved sim­ply by mon­i­tor­ing sales and replac­ing copies that walked out the door.

I dis­cov­ered along the way that I had not invented Plan A, as I imag­ined. Back in the 1960s the same light­bulb went off inside the head of a man named Leonard Shatzkin, then a Dou­ble­day exec­u­tive. Shatzkin writes about this in his book In Cold Type; he passed along a con­sid­er­able amount of intel­li­gence and pas­sion for the book­trade to his son Mike Shatzkin, who has had the wis­dom to make his own liv­ing not in pub­lish­ing per se, but as an expert on it. (In fact, Mike has just recently writ­ten about ven­dor man­aged inven­tory). Leonard Shatzkin had the mus­cle of one of the big pub­lish­ing houses behind him. Even he couldn’t make it work.

The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem with Plan A is that it goes against the grain of book­selling cul­ture. This is because it’s what is known as a “ven­dor man­aged inven­tory” sys­tem, which is anath­ema to the inde­pen­dent entre­pre­neurs who want their book­shop to bear their own stamp, not any­body else’s. “Ven­dor man­aged inven­tory” is high-end con­sign­ment, and con­sign­ment is a dirty word among book­sellers — never mind that, effec­tively, the entire book sup­ply chain is an inef­fi­cient con­sign­ment model writ large.

Plan A, in short, pre­sented a cul­ture clash. In the end, the prob­lem was that Plan A — “ven­dor man­aged inven­tory” — intruded in the bookseller’s space, by tak­ing away from them one of the few perquisites of the book­seller: the power to decide which books to dis­play in their shops. Inde­pen­dent book­sellers find them­selves in a very unequal strug­gle with their sup­pli­ers, and sub­jected to the gen­tle bul­ly­ing and manip­u­la­tion by the reps for the biggest pub­lish­ers. The bookseller’s lim­ited range of options for shap­ing her shop are crit­i­cally impor­tant, not merely psy­cho­log­i­cally, but mate­ri­ally — their sur­vival depends upon it.

So while the Plan A book­sellers were by and large happy to stock our titles, happy to do us a favour, they might be con­ster­nated by the num­ber of titles, stocked in 1’s or 2’s, that we were ask­ing them to put back onto their shelves. It’s just as much work to receive one book as it is ten, or twenty copies.

Mean­while, inde­pen­dents con­tin­ued to be scythed down by the new book retail­ing land­scape — or, to be more spe­cific, by the com­pact made between the major­ity of pub­lish­ers and the new retail­ing giants — and the toll included many of the smaller, more independent-minded book­shops New Star dealt with. After a high-water mark in 2005-06, when I went so far as to believe that Plan A could be extended across the coun­try, could even be extended to include a pas­sel of press (my fel­low mem­bers of the Lit­er­ary Press Group, for instance), Plan A went into decline. By 2010 it was plain even to me, a hope­less opti­mist, that Plan A was never going to be taken up in any form by the trade. I decided to call it a day, and resigned myself to the preva­lent terms of trade.

Our sales declined.

(9) The People’s Co-op heads for the exit

July 5, 2013

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.

(10) Engineering a death spiral

July 19, 2013

In 2009, I decided to speak out against the rec­om­men­da­tion of that year’s board of direc­tors of the People’s Co-operative Book­store Asso­ci­a­tion to close the store down, at a time when it still had around $150,000 cash in its reserve fund.

Any­body who has ever wanted to start his or her own small busi­ness — cer­tainly any­body who’s ever wanted to start a book­store — will see what was wrong with the pic­ture that the bookstore’s board was try­ing to present to the co-op mem­bers. A per­son will some­times give up their career as teacher or what­ever, and re-mortgage the house they’ve just spent twenty-five years pay­ing off, so that they can ful­fil a life­long dream of run­ning their own busi­ness, with $100,000 or $150,000 in the bank to work with. Here, we had a well-established book­store, unen­cum­bered by sig­nif­i­cant debt, with that much cool­ing in its reserve fund; and it was clos­ing?

A lit­tle time spent look­ing at the store’s finan­cial state­ments revealed some bad signs. The board’s response to a decline in sales was to attack the largest expen­di­ture item in the bud­get — it directed Ray, the man­ager, to order fewer books. But this resulted in the store’s actu­ally buy­ing fewer than the min­i­mum num­ber of books it needed to keep its doors open. The store’s board was not merely lack­ing entre­pre­neur­ial spirit: it didn’t under­stand lit­er­ally the first thing about run­ning a book­store, which is that you can’t sell what you haven’t bought.

It’s true that the People’s Co-op had been oper­at­ing at a loss for years. Con­sis­tent oper­at­ing losses, of $10,000 to $30,000 every year, were draw­ing this down the store’s mas­sive reserve fund at an alarm­ing rate — it was sur­pris­ing how quickly a third of a mil could turn into a quar­ter of a mil, and no time at all before it seemed inevitable that the store had just a cou­ple of years left in the fund, and on the clock. It was as if it was a nor­mal thing for a small shop on Com­mer­cial Drive to lose so much money, and have a reserve fund to make it good year after year.

The nar­ra­tive con­structed around the store’s long, slow decline was the 140-character one that every­body is famil­iar with by now. What with Ama­zon, e-books, and The Chains, books were over, peo­ple were stu­pider than ever, fail­ure of whichever inde­pen­dent book­store was immi­nent / inevitable, it was all hope­less, blah blah blah. As a mem­ber of the trade, I under­stood that what­ever ker­nels of real­ity this account con­tained, it left out too much. Here’s what was wrong with the pic­ture that the bookstore’s board was try­ing to pass off to the membership.

Sales had been declin­ing in recent years, that seemed true enough. But sales at the People’s Co-op were mod­est, minus­cule really com­pared to the sales of some other Van­cou­ver retail stores where I knew the fig­ures. They were about a quar­ter of what Duthie Books on West 4th, which closed in 2010 (an orderly clos­ing; the store had not failed), was post­ing. They were a sim­i­lar frac­tion of what Granville Book Company’s sales had been before it had closed five years pre­vi­ously. Com­mer­cial Drive wasn’t West 4th, and it wasn’t Granville Mall; but it wasn’t Tobacco Road either, and there was no rea­son from its loca­tion that it could not sell a lot more books. It seemed to many of us that it was lim­it­ing itself by strik­ing a pose as a shop of a par­tic­u­lar, nar­row polit­i­cal stripe. It would have to recon­cep­tu­al­ize itself as a neigh­bour­hood book­store, and offer to serve a broader com­mu­nity of left­ists, envi­ron­men­tal­ist, social activists, &c. (There had been, over the decades, much talk about this move, though not much was ever done). There did not seem to be any rea­son to accept the store’s mod­est sales as an unchange­able given.

Rent — the biggest buga­boo for a book­store, or any retail affair for that mat­ter — took up a lit­tle more than 10 per­cent of the store’s turnover. That was a lit­tle more than what you want to pay; but if the store was doing the busi­ness it could and should be doing, it was a pretty rea­son­able amount; rent wasn’t the prob­lem. I was pretty cer­tain that the store’s decline was due to the fact that its shelves were being starved of stock; and we had ample means to address that problem.

A book­store like the People’s Co-op takes in almost all its money from the sale of books. But it spends its money in two dif­fer­ent areas. Of course, it has to buy books. But it also has to pay cer­tain costs regard­less of whether it sells one book, or a mil­lion books in a year: staff salaries; rent; light; heat; the com­puter sys­tem it relies on to track inven­tory; etc.: all of these together con­sti­tute oper­at­ing over­head, “the nut”. In 2009, the store’s “nut” was around $12,000 to $15,000 a month.

The ques­tion a busi­ness like the People’s Co-op Book­store has to ask itself is this one. Given that the store’s over­heads costs are $150,000 a year, say, how many books does the store need to sell to cover its costs? Well, a typ­i­cal dis­count on books the store pur­chases from its sup­pli­ers is 40 per­cent; when the store buys a book, it pays the sup­plier 60 cents on the dol­lar, and when the book is sold, the the store gets the other 40 cents to apply to its own expenses. The for­mula would be 10/4 x $150,000 — the store’s sales would need to be about $375,000, at those lev­els of overhead.

Now, it would seem obvi­ous that in order to sell $375,000 worth of books at retail, you’d have to buy them first: about $225,000 worth. And that’s where the store was cut­ting its own throat. By 2009, the store’s pur­chases had fallen to around $180,000 a year,  and were declin­ing steadily, by about $10,000 per year. The store had put itself into a down­ward spi­ral, guar­an­tee­ing oper­at­ing losses that could only rise as the extent of under-purchasing grew. Yet it had the means to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion sit­ting in its reserve fund.

In prepa­ra­tion for this upcom­ing AGM, which would surely be a fate­ful one for the co-op, I read the Co-operative Asso­ci­a­tion Act, the provin­cial statute that gov­erns co-ops in the province, and learned a cou­ple of use­ful things. For one thing, in the event that a co-op had assets at the time it decides to wind itself up, the pro­posal to spend the store’s last $90,000 on a buy-out for its employ­ees had to be put to the mem­bers. And there was no such motion going to the AGM — no word at all about the dis­posal of the $100,000 or so that would be remain­ing in the store’s reserve fund. Just a sim­ple motion: to close the store for­ever on March 31, 2010: the year of the Co-op’s 65th anniver­sary, which it had no plans to celebrate.

I was far from the only per­son won­der­ing about some of these ques­tions, and the 2009 AGM of the People’s Co-op Book­store was the best-attended in many, many years.

(11) The First Step in a Long, Long March

August 3, 2013

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.

BCBL Peoples o-op sign

The board over­whelm­ingly endorsed a long-term vision for the store.

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.

(12) Regime Change

September 16, 2013

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.


One Response to “Rejuvenating a literary landmark”

  1. People’s Co-op Bookstore: An Obituary
    For those who are unaware, several years by People’s Co-op Bookstore was subject rather clandestine hostile takeover/coup led by one Rolf Mauer. Rolf Mauer has had Jane Bouey and Ray Vioud (members and sympathizers of the Communist Party of Canada) respectively purged. He and his clique have since seen to it that the bookstore be purged of Communists, radicals and made more “moderate” (read: more like Chapters). He has shut down the ordering selling literature from the Soviet Union (literature that would otherwise be virtually inaccessible). The last message I received from them (before I removed myself from their email list) involved asking people to sell them Gutenberg Bibles (no joke). Below is a letter I had sent to the putschists of the now grossly misnamed “People’s Co-op Bookstore”.
    ” I am completely disgusted with the current leadership of Co-op Bookstore. I think it is pretty ludicrous that they insist Co-op Bookstore be “moderate”. Chapters is “moderate” but they have Kobo. I think it is a safe bet that people buying from Chapters will never buy from Co-op Bookstore no matter how “moderate” you become. On top of that, you are alienating your base.

    I am opposed to this bookstore being purging of members from the Communist Party of Canada. Firing Ray Vioud and Jane Bouey out of work was particularly low and completely reactionary and anti-working class.

    I have no intention of supporting you.”

    Here are the other comments I made:

    “For the record, I opted to unsubscribe from their email list and I was asked why. The answers I had to choose from didn’t fit. That is with the exception of saying “other”. They then asked if I could specify so I gave them the answer I did.”

    “What is particularly low about firing Jane Bouey is that she has a kid who is special needs. So People’s Co-op Bookstore is harming her child as well. Both Jane and Ray are older adults and older adults often have harder times finding work. But of course for the new clique of People’s Co-op Bookstore (who are NDP Social Democrats by the way) purging Co-op of Communists takes precedent over people having jobs and special needs children being supported.”

    “The last email I received from People’s Co-op Bookstore they were asking people to sell them your Gutenberg Bibles. More recently someone spam the wall of their official page with crap from some Jesus freak trying to convert people. Ironically, the book he was offering to sell is sold at Chapters and Amazon and NOT Co-op Bookstore.”

    “The ad was from November and has yet to be pulled down. How low can you go, pandering to the Christian right.”

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