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Pulling up stakes at a store that took years to establish can be daunting

BookstoreFeature_Illustration_CR-KyleMetcalf

(illustration: Kyle Metcalf)

Mega booksellers, whether online or brick-and-mortar, dominate the literary retail landscape. Though independents have a loyal customer base, they’re still vulnerable to upheaval, such as changing demographics, rising rents, or construction. For some, this can mean relocation – not an appealing prospect when your store is entrenched in its neighborhood.

When the owners of Kidsbooks, a children’s bookstore in Vancouver, learned the building that had housed its flagship store for more than 20 years was going to be demolished, founder Phyllis Simon and co-owner Kelly McKinnon were deeply concerned. “We said, Uh-oh, we’d better figure out what we’re going to do. Should we close the location? Look for another place to rent?”

The prospect of relocating Kidsbooks seemed daunting, not only because of the logistical headache of moving an inventory of 90,000 books into a new space, but also because of the cost. “We knew it was going to be expensive to move, renovate, and build,” says Simon, adding that despite their landlord giving them a year and a half’s notice, they still had to take out a bank loan to help finance the relocation.

Simon and McKinnon knew they wanted Kidsbooks to stay in the same Kitsilano neighborhood. When a location four blocks away came up, they grabbed it. But finding the right space was only the first step – next came the actual move. To prepare, Simon and McKinnon cut their inventory almost in half, to 50,000 titles. Then they colour-coded the stock based on category – baby, preschool, middle grades, and so on. Their potentially exhausting February move was made easier by a group of volunteers, consisting of book lovers, regular customers, reps, and teacher-librarians, among others. Within a few hours the whole store was packed and ready to move. Two and a half hours later, all 1,430 large book boxes (donated by friends at Raincoast Books) sat in the new space, ready to be opened.

The whole experience was heartwarming for Simon: “It showed what’s really special about an independent bookseller. The store can be a cultural centre. It matters to the community. We weren’t looking to move, but it’s been a good story for us.” The partners were not expecting the 50 per cent year-over-year sales jump the store experienced at its new location, especially considering it reopened in the traditionally slow mid-winter season. “I thought it would take a while to get the word out,” says McKinnon. “Boy, was I wrong.

A rent increase was the impetus for Monkey’s Paw, the Toronto-based antiquarian bookstore in the city’s west end, to relocate, but it wasn’t the only reason. Owner and founder Stephen Fowler had long felt his store had outgrown both its 9′ x 50′ space and its rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood near Dundas and Ossington.

“It used to be this sleepy neighborhood,” says Fowler, who opened his store a decade ago, as younger families began buying starter homes in what used to be a working-class Portuguese area. Fowler says his international clients began to complain the store was difficult to get to, thanks to the increasing popularity of the locale, combined with slow streetcars and traffic snarls. “As the years went on, it was like a blank slate for developers to open bars and restaurants,” he says.

For several years, Fowler dreamed of being on the subway line. Then, at the end of 2015, the building that housed Monkey’s Paw was sold. When Fowler learned his rent was about to triple, he decided it was time to make his dream come true. After much searching, he found his spot in the nearby Bloordale neighbourhood. In contrast to the experience of Kidsbooks, Fowler’s need to move required less of a barn raising. His inventory consisted of about 10,000 books, (around 5,000 displayed in-store). Fowler enlisted the help of a few dedicated employees, rented a van for $500, and spent a week in late June hauling boxes of books to the store’s new 13′ x 65′ space.

The new Monkey’s Paw has room for about 1,000 more titles. Fowler also has plans to add more salvaged prints, artwork, photographs, and maps to his inventory. One change he is especially excited about: no more “dusty, tragic” bottom bookshelf, a space customers didn’t notice and where his stock tended to languish in perpetuity. In its place are some spiffy new cupboards – extra storage space for back stock.

Words Worth Books, in Waterloo, Ontario, has seen its business disrupted first by a move, and then by construction. Owners Dave Worsley and Mandy Brouse moved Words Worth five years ago to avoid a rent hike at their previous location, where they had resided for 25 years. The initial move went smoothly, thanks to the help of a team of volunteers, and the owners felt King Street, Waterloo’s main strip, was a much better location. Three years after the move, the city began building a new light-rail transit line between Kitchener and Waterloo. Words Worth soon noticed a drop in foot traffic and heard complaints from customers that nearby construction was restricting store access and parking. This February, the city closed the section of King between Erb and William streets, where Words Worth Books is located, which saw store sales drop by 20 per cent. The closure originally was slated to last four months, but this past February it was extended to nine.

“We’re the main street of Waterloo,” says Worsley. “It’s hugely important. This is how you get to uptown.” Worsley says he and the other businesses in the area have been “fighting a battle of perception.” The road is closed, “so people think everything is closed,” he says.

The store owners took matters into their own hands and came up with several plans to keep the store open and customers coming in. Worsley and Brouse posted regular construction updates and maps on their website, advising customers how to best access the store and where to park. They opened the store’s back door for easier access from the north parking lot and used social media to promote themselves. “We beat the hell out of our Facebook page,” says Worsley. “We also used Twitter, Instagram, and our newsletter, which goes out to more than 3,000 email subscribers. You take a small bookstore out of a community and it’s not something that’s easily replaced.”

So far, the community has stepped up to help Words Worth. One employee offered to use his bike to courier books to customers, and John Kolb, a local courier and long-time Words Worth customer, offered to help. If customers are having trouble finding their way through the construction to the store, Kolb will deliver their books to them at a discount: “The lower profit is more than made up by the feeling that I’m helping in some way.”

With friends like that, says Worsley, “suddenly stupid dollars-and-cents stuff doesn’t seem insurmountable.”