Author Tags: Publishing
Rolf Maurer was born in St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, April 13, 1955. School at St. Andrew's Elementary and Vancouver College, later, a BA (English) from UBC. Ubyssey co-editor, 1976-77. Officer gofer fer Jack Wasserman, summer 1975. Cub reporter and copy editor for The Province, where I acquired some good stories, 1976--Great Lockout of 1979. Ass't editor, BCTF Newsletter, 1980-81. Hung around in China, June 1981. Editor / typesetter / &c. / increasingly &c., &c. at New Star, September 1981-- 1989. Owner/operator, 1990-- present.
As the publisher of New Star Books, Rolf Maurer received the Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award in British Columbia, in 2011. Here are the introductory remarks given on the occasion by author and publisher Howard White:
It gives me the greatest pleasure to introduce this year’s winner of the Jim Douglas Award for Publisher of the Year in British Columbia: New Star Books and Rolf Maurer.
New Star is actually one of our senior publishers, having started 41 years ago. From the beginning it was a different kind of press. Its first publications came as free inserts in the Georgia Straight. Quite a lineup they had too: Jack Spicer, Milton Acorn, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Stan Persky, Gladys Hindmarch, Dan McLeod. Dan was a poet before he was a tabloid tycoon and a very good one, very cerebral and complex. I remember seeing those pullouts with their unreadable psychedelic designs all over the city like Canadian Tire flyers. It was probably the best showing poetry ever had in this town. At that time New Star wasn’t New Star yet, it was just called the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement. Of course littering the sidewalks with poetry wasn’t sustainable and following one of many putches at the Straight the literary supplement crew departed to form an urban commune in a big old house in Kitsilano which became known as the York Street Commune. Everybody ate, edited and slept together. This is a corporate model you won’t learn about at the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing. By the mid 1970s the early dedication to highbrow literary art was replaced by an equally fervent devotion to down n dirty radical politics, which is when the New Star name appeared. Stan Persky was one of the figures who had been pivotal with the project since the beginning. He still is a strong supporter. What a record he has. But he kept more to the writing side and left the publishing to a brilliant but reclusive man named Lanny Beckman, who was seldom seen in the light of day and in fact I`ve never laid eyes on to this day.
But when it came to books, he was all for maximum exposure and during his tenure New Star became known for very topical (and critical) books about current affairs that were printed in mass-market format and distributed on newsstands in great numbers. There was Son of Socred by Persky, Bennett II—The Decline and Stumbling of the Social Credit in BC also by Persky; Restraining the Economy: Social Credit Economic Policies for BC in the Eighties; Pattison: Portrait of a Corporate Superstar; The Solidarity Sourcebook; After Bennett: A New Politics for BC; School Wars: The Assault on BC Education in 1985—that`s how long that one`s been going on.
These were some of the most necessary BC books of the time that now stand as an unmatched historical testament to BC life of those times. But New Star was not solely focused on BC. They also published Sandino`s Daughters an Poor Women Speak Out by Margaret Randall; At the Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union and America, God and the Bomb: The Legacy of Ronald Reagan—anybody who thinks Reagan was a great president ought to read that—And The Supreme Court Decision on Abortion. And many more—an astonishing body of work in retrospect whose influence was probably much greater than we even realized at the time. Certainly Noam Chomsky thought so, or he would not have given three of his books to New Star to publish. It tells you something that Chomsky, who could publish anywhere, would choose New Star.
Rolf Maurer started showing up at ABPBC meetings in the early 1980s. He looked about 15years old and in fact he continued to look about 15 next 15 years or so, I didn`t notice when he started looking grown up, let alone when he started being an elder--I think it was when he got that pork-pie hat. I still have the hardest time not thinking him as that brash outspoken kid Lanny sends out to give us a hard time. He seemed to be born fully armed with a full set of unshakeable conclusions about just about everything, and sometimes he was even right. He got more right as years went by, or at least we came to agree with him more. But the thing about Rolf, agree or disagree with what you were doing, from the very beginning he chose to be involved. He came to every meeting and volunteered for every committee. When it came to the idea of service to the book community, he walked the walk. He still does today. He has earned this award for that alone.
But he also published books. As Lanny Beckman withdrew deeper into his own world, Rolf became the face of New Star and in 1990 he became its official publisher and majority owner. And he kept doing great books. Working Harder Isn’t Working. Gold Mountain: Chinese in the New World. Fantasy Government: The Fall of Bill Vander Zalm and the Future of Social Credit. This Ragged Place by Terry Glavin—always liked the title of that one. Caring for Profit: How Corporations are Taking over Canada`s Health Care. Crossing the Line: Canada and Free Trade with Mexico by Jim Sinclair. Highwire Act: Power, Pragmatism and the Harcourt Legacy. The innovative Transmontanus serries edited by Terry Glavin. Free Trade and the New Right Agenda. Last Stands: A Journey through North America`s Vanishing Rainforests. Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver`s Newspaper Monopoly and Asper Nation: Canada`s Most Dangerous Media Company—the only book by the only publisher who had the guts to talk about the elephant in the room that was our converging media. And increasingly under Rolf, a return to the quality literary titles by such writers as George Bowering, Roy Miki, John Harris, Luanne Armstrong, George Stanley, Marie Baker and others.
Hundreds of fearless, important books that took everyday issues and everyday people seriously and have helped shape the political climate of our times, books of the sort nobody else did then and almost nobody at all does today—for a lot of reasons that I hope some thoughtful young Persky disciple will explore and publish a book about one of these days. And I hope there is still a New Star Books or it might not matter that it was written, because there will be nobody with the community spirit and expertise to make that crucial linkage between the private world of the writer and the public world of readers that is and always will be the special province of publishers.
I am fully aware of the irony and also the importance of making this award in a year when New Star, whose great contributions have never been properly appreciated by our funding agencies, has had its operating grant brutally cut by the BC Arts Council. Rolf has been forced to let his one remaining employee go is once again reduced to working single-handedly to get out a list of a dozen new books. All BC publishers are facing daunting challenges these days, but that is ridiculous. But if there is one quality of Rolf`s you can really count on, it is tenacity and I know he will stay true to his purpose, gear down, and power through to many more years of outstanding books.
Jim Douglas Award
Rolf Maurer’s acceptance speech, Jim Douglas Award for BC Publishing, 2011
Jim Douglas himself would high on any list of people I'd have to thank for the fact that I'm standing before you tonight. From the outset Jim set an example for collegiality, generosity, the sharing of wisdom and experience, and respect, that has shaped my own actions. Surely I'm not the first person to stand here and wonder if I live up to the name on the trophy.
The Jim Douglas Award is, of course, for the publishing house and not the individual, and I did try to explain that to my Mom, who's here tonight, along with my oldest brother Lotar and his wife Wendy, over from Qualicum Beach; unfortunately my Dad, who never liked crowds or hullaballoo, would have been worn out by the occasion. To my Mom, of course, I owe the pre-eminent without-whom; and to my parents and to my entire family I owe a debt of gratitude for the support, both spiritual and material, that they've afforded me and my little enterprise.
And on the bridge of that little Enterprise is Audrey McClellan, who's been with New Star since October 1988, is a minority shareholder, and continues to be the editor of our most important books. I'm glad that Audrey could join us tonight from Victoria, along with her husband, my good friend Chris Gainor. I'm very glad too that Stefania Alexandru, a stalwart at the New Star office from 2006 until a couple of months ago, could be here tonight too. Those people, but also numerous others, too numerous to start naming.
Like every press, New Star can only build on the work of its writers. And so I'd like to recognize their contribution to New Star, and their rightful share in this prize. (There's no cash attached, so that'll be easy.)
You want to know why publishers do this, what motivates us? Naturally it varies, the truly crazy ones are in it primarily for the money. But many of us, and I'm one of these, do it for this reason. We want to pick up a manuscript that isn't like anything else out there, and publish it anyway; and have people say to us later, “You were right about that writer.” That's the drug. And for me, the writer that gave me my initial supply was Terry Glavin, whose first four books were published by New Star, and whose Transmontanus series will be issuing its 20th number this fall, written by Terry Glavin and Ben Parfitt. To Terry and to all the writers with whom I've had the privilege to work so far, on behalf of all of us who've worked on your books over the years --- our profound thanks.
One more person I want to mention Jack Stoddart, because he also figures in an I-wouldn't-be-standing-here-tonight story. Also, I do not believe that Jack ever got the recognition, and the thanks, he deserved for the tremendous contribution he made to Canadian literature throughout the 1990s by offering distribution services to a host of literary presses when nobody else would. It wasn't his fault that it didn't work out.
On Christmas Eve, 2001, just before knocking off at 2 o'clock for the holiday, I mailed a letter to Jack, giving notice that I was dissolving our ten-year distribution arrangement effective midnight the following June 30. Oh, I thought, I should probably give him a heads-up that it was coming, so I dialed his number to leave a message on his voicemail. Jack picked up the phone on first ring. It's 5 o'clock, Christmas Eve, on a dark and cold night, and there's one little light burning in an office above a warehouse on Lesmill Road. Jack understands my decision, he too wishes that things had worked out better; and we wish each other good luck.
That decision saved my business, because that year, while my colleagues scrambled and maneuvered to get their inventory out of the GDS warehouses, I was able to continue selling New Star's books out of the back of our office at 18th and Commercial; and to start rebuilding my business, which modern book distribution methods had brought to the brink. And I want to say a few thing about that, because I was once a true believer myself.
In 1985 I drove New Star's acquisition of its first two XTs. A year later, I got New Star into its first Canadian distribution agreement with Nancy Wise at Sandhill Books, and a year or so after that I had a national sales representative for New Star, our first, who told us that our returns were too low.
In 1990, I was one of a group of small mostly literary presses that, with their combined sales volume, met UTP's entry standards, and when that deal fell apart two years later, I was one of a larger group that accepted Jack's invitation at General.
I'm not going to enumerate the gory details that lead me to that Christmas Eve phone call --- there are two boxes of fanfold reports in my office, all our distributor reports from the 1990s, if anybody's curious.. Naturally when your business isn't doing so great, you take a lot of it on yourself, and no doubt I made, and make, my share of mistakes. (It's called publishing.) But at the same time, I couldn't help notice something else.
The introduction of computers to the back end operations of even small firms; the industry-wide implementation of just-in-time inventory control methods and the modern supply chain and all that entailed, backed up all we had been able to learn from selling groceries, hardware, even clothing --- all things people needed---would allow us to achieve three things.
One, we were going to do a much better job of getting the right book, into the right reader's hands, at the moment they want it. That in turn, as we learned how to understand all that feedback those barcodes were giving us, would let us “grow the market”. And that, after all the disruption and when we got the hang of the new rules, we would all become more profitable.
My sales rep told me my returns were too low because they were 8 percent. That indicated that my books were not properly saturating the marketplace; a return rate of around 15 percent, I learned that day, would indicate that the right number of New Star books were out there. Well, okay. Today, the rate, industry wide, is at least double that and there to stay. We have to print, ship, warehouse, order, pick, pack, receive, and shelve three books for every two we can sell. If those books weren't on recycled paper to begin with, they sure are once they've gone through our modern supply chain.
And if average discounts --- i.e., retail mark-ups --- have increased over the period, that's another indicator of growing INefficiency in the supply chain. The costliest part of our books' journey from the farmer's field to your reading table today is from the back of the store to the front.
As for “growing the market” --- even I never stopped to wonder how anybody who would use such a phrase could expand the readership for literature --- not even the posters of Harrison Ford and Antonio Banderas and Michelle Pfeiffer clutching volumes really made much difference.
Well, I don't know about you --- everybody's different --- but Michelle Pfeiffer in glasses, I'm not thinking about literature at that moment. So we didn't “grow the market” either; if anything, we're suffocating it.
So we come to the third promise, that this was all going to lead to greater profitability througout the book trade. Right.
I think we can all agree, and the events of the past few months underline this: The old reliable “If it ain't broke don't fix it” isn't going to work. As an industry we need to do a little thinking outside the box if only because we have no choice: the box is on fire.
While I have ideas, and have been putting some of them into practice for years, I don't have the answers, and a solution that might work for one company in a broken system is probably not the answer for a whole bunch of companies in a system that works.
What I propose is that we as Canadians had this conversation, and had it in the context not of business models and economic ideologies, but what it is and always has been: a question of art, and of culture.
In 1951, the Royal Commission on National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences delivered its report, the Massey-Levesque Report. It resulted in, among many other things, the establishment in 1957 of the Canada Council for the Arts, and in general laid the groundwork for the cultural transformation of Canada during my lifetime.
In 1982 Louis Appelbaum and Jacques Hebert delivered their Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee. It carried forward the work of Massey-Levesque, giving Canadians in the 1980s an opportunity to weigh in, and in the end reconfirmed Canadians' commitment to a strong role for government in the nurturing and dissemination of the arts.
Another 29 years, more than a generation, has passed since Appelbaum-Hebert. We are told that the immense changes that have swept our world since the late 1990s mandate reexamination of our copyright regime. Surely the same applies to the very realm that gave rise to the idea of copyright.
It is time that the work of Massey and Levesque and Appelbaum and Herbert and their Royal Commissioners, be picked up and carried forward. This generation of Canadians is entitled to be heard in this debate about the role of art in our lives, and the role that our governments can play in the arts. It is time for a new Royal Commission on the State of the Arts in Canada. Tonight I am calling for such a thing. I hope you will join me.
Saving People's Co-op (PART 1)
When People's Co-op Bookstore was at a crossroads in 2012-2013, News Star Books publisher and Co-op board member Rolf Maurer wrote a series of commentaries that comprise a personal essay that he called "My Career as a Bookseller." By 2014, People's Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive had launched a drive to raise about $30,000 to pay off some old debt and to bring some new books into the store.
INTRODUCTION 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.
ESSAY BY ROLF MAURER
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[See continuation below]
Saving People's Co-op (PART 2)
Essay 2014 (continued)
(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.
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 spruc ing 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.