Staying Independent: An Interview with Jessica Walker

by Neil Wadhwa

Neil Wadhwa is a writer based out of Toronto, Ontario. He is the Content Manager for FreshGigs.ca and Technology Intern for House of Anansi Press. Learn more about him at neilwadhwa.com.

Jessica Walker is the Managing Partner of Munro’s Books in Victoria, British Columbia. She has spent her entire life in the book and publishing industry, having worked in publishing sales and at general, university, and specialty bookstores before arriving at Munro’s Books where she’s spent the last 15 years. Jessica became the majority shareholder and de facto face of the company in late 2014 when Jim Munro, founder of Munro’s Books, announced his retirement.

This interview took place in the fall of 2014 over the phone.

 

Neil Wadhwa: To begin, congratulations are in order for Munro’s Books having recently celebrated its 50th anniversary—not an easy feat for an independent bookstore. Munro’s Books was once described as “Canada’s most magnificent bookstore” by journalist Allan Fotheringham. How would you describe the store?

Jessica Walker: Well, we’re in an old bank building in the middle of Old Town in Victoria—it certainly is impressive. It’s a grand old heritage building that was designed for the Royal Bank of Canada over 100 years ago, around 1909. We’re fortunate to have enormous ceilings that are nearly 24 feet tall right when you walk in the door. So I would just say … it’s beautiful. I think Jim [the founder of Munro’s Books] called it his “palace of books.” At any given time we have between 30,000 and 40,000 different titles on our shelves.

NW: With that many books on your shelves, is there a genre or category of books that you consider to be Munro’s Books’s specialty?

JW: We consider ourselves to be a full-service bookstore, so we stock everything including kids’ books. We have traditionally prized ourselves on having a fair number of British titles, too. It’s a big deal for us that people can come up from the States and buy books that they can’t find there. Back in the old days, people would even come up and bring spare suitcases to fill with all these British titles. So our strengths are definitely literary fiction, history, and politics along with the British titles we carry.

NW: Are these genres and British titles the ones that sell best?

JW: In my experience, yes. Traditionally, books that win the Giller or Man Booker Prize are also huge for us along with books on a range of political subjects—everything from Noam Chomsky to big American political biographies. And we do sell a lot of local interest titles like local history.

NW: How long will a book remain on your shelves before it’s returned to the distributor?

JW: That really depends on the book. There are certain books that we feel like we couldn’t call ourselves a bookstore if we didn’t carry.

I would say probably six months if we’re being ruthless and nine months if we’re being generous, but, you know, it really depends. Take the “Classics” section. We would be much more lenient with returning a book to the distributor from that section—and our normal six-to-nine-month return period is probably more lenient than most other bookstores as it is.

NW: With so many books on your shelves, do your staff members have specific genre expertise?

JW: It doesn’t always happen, but I think we’re probably unlike a lot of other bookstores in that most of our full-time staff who have been here a little while are given sections that they look after. So, someone will look after the history section or the games section, and they’ll be responsible for helping customers and reordering the bookshelves in that section.

There are a few of us who order the new inventory, the front list, for the store, but then a number of different people are responsible for looking after reordering and returns and things like that, obviously with guidance when needed. Even if staff members don’t originally have a burning passion for a particular area, they at least become quite knowledgeable about the books they’re responsible for.

NW: Munro’s is also unique in that it operates out of Victoria, a city at the Southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, with a population of slightly under 80,000 people. Does Munro’s Books’s location present any operating challenges?

JW: As we sit here waiting for a couple of books that we know are out in other parts of the country … being on the far West Coast has its challenges. Sometimes it’s a challenge when we’re waiting for books that have a really hotly anticipated release date because the simple logistics of getting books to us isn’t easy—I mean, we’re about as far west as you can be.

NW: Is there a reason that Munro’s Books never moved to a bigger city?

JW: A lot of people asked Jim about that over the years. He owns our building, and owning the building is a key to the success of the store. I can’t speak to whether at one time he might have considered expansion, but I don’t think owning a building and operating from a different city, especially in a city like Vancouver, has been an option for a very long time now.

NW: With the challenges that independent bookstores face these days combined with your “Far West Coast” location, how does Munro’s manage to compete with large chain bookstores?

JW: Well, it helps that we don’t have an Indigo bookstore around here. We do have Chapters bookstores in Victoria, and when they first arrived, those first few years at Munro’s Books were pretty grim because Chapters was the new kid on the block and everyone was all excited about it. Those were some hard years for the store. Munro’s does profit sharing for our staff, and during those years when Chapters opened up, there was no profit for us!

But a big part of what sets us apart and what gives us a competitive advantage is just the feeling in the store; we’ve got classical music playing, we’ve got the architecture, we’ve got the location—it’s a mix of genteel and funky. I think “curated” is such a buzzword now, but people who shop at Munro’s Books regularly get to know and understand that there are books they can expect to see on the shelves because they know our tastes, and we also feel like we know our customers’ tastes, too.

NW: I guess it’s also the history behind the store. People will go to Powell’s Books in Portland or Strand in New York City just because of the history.

JW: We’re certainly continuing with the principles that Jim had. We’re not trying to compete with Chapters or Amazon. I mean, you can’t, so there’s no point in even trying. But we like to be consistent, so what’s on sale doesn’t change every month—if there’s a book we like to feature, it’s featured for the season and it’s discounted for the season, so it’s not like if you came in one day it’s on sale, and the next day it’s not. But we try to not fall into that trap of competing for price, because that’s not what we’re about. 

NW: How does Munro’s stay alive in a digital world without hurting the history and traditions the store has built up over the years?

JW: Well, you know, it’s funny. There was such a huge interest in e-books initially, and we did have people asking us if had free Wi-Fi so they could download something right on their iPhone or iPad while they were browsing the store, but it’s a non-issue now. E-books have certainly affected our sales, and e-books have changed the whole industry, but we don’t really get asked about them anymore.

NW: Do you sell or rent e-readers at the store?

JW: No, and part of that is because there haven’t been many e-reader platforms in Canada besides Kobo. Even though I do know of a few independent bookstores that do have arrangements with Kobo, we felt like e-readers are just not an area we want to go. I mean, we would make such a laughable sum of money from the sale of an e-reader, and then we’ve also just handed that person a reason to not come into our store for however many months while they play with their new toy.

NW: You mentioned that e-books have influenced your sales numbers. Have you found it necessary to expand your non-book items to make up for the minor drop in book sales?

JW: We do carry more stationery than we have in the past, but we have stayed pretty focused. We try to have things that are either book or writing related, so we carry more pens, drawing books, book bags, and things like that, but we don’t carry scented candles, yoga mats, or fluffy pillows. In the end, it’s all about the book selection.

“It’s a big deal for us that people can come up from the States and buy books that they can’t find there.”

You know, we just had someone on our Twitter saying, “OMG! Munro’s is the best—it’s a bookstore full of books!” So, you know, we don’t want to lose that. That’s a really important part of who we are.

NW: Similar to non-book items, do you find yourself arranging more book launches or events at Munro’s than before?

JW: We have an events series—we have three large tables in the middle of the store that are thankfully on wheels, and we can move them apart when needed, creating the perfect space to hold events.

The events we hold are normally in the fall and to a lesser extent in the spring. We just had an event this past Saturday that brought in around 110 people, and in the past, we’ve held events offsite for authors like Margaret Atwood that have brought in up to 800 people. It’s important for an independent bookstore or publisher to hold events like these as it brings people into the store and keeps the name of the bookstore or publisher at the top of the mind. 

NW: Just going off that point on the need for independent bookstores to stay at the top of the mind, what are some of the other challenges you face as an independent bookstore?

JW: When the economic crash happened in 2009, we had to reassess everything. We cut our advertising budget way back, and that budget still hasn’t rebounded—except last year for our 50th anniversary—we dipped into our budget for that. We had to cut staff, and we cut an awful lot. In the past year or so we’ve been finding that things have been growing, and so we actually have more staff now than we’ve had in the last three or four years. But that was really hard in 2009. It was really important for Jim that staff not be hurt as much as any other part of the business, so we didn’t have to actually fire anybody, we just cut budgets for other areas of the business back, which allowed us to still have profit sharing and things like that.

You know, the information age is not proving to be very efficient—we’re finding it to be really time consuming trying to keep on top of all the changes to the industry. There is a big move to using online catalogues, but there is no standard system just yet, and publishers are announcing new titles continually throughout the year rather than just in their seasonal lists. And for the future, our hope is that publishers will ensure the print side of publishing still remains viable by producing a good number of interesting books. We also hope that publishers put money behind these books to help support them.

The relationship between publishers and bookstores—independent bookstores in particular—is going to be that important moving forward. Publishers helping bookstores put on events and things like that. Everyone is going to have to figure out how to make a living in this new landscape because it’s been proven time and again that bookstores are key to the marketing of books—the ambiance and sense of discovery in a bookstore is unique.

“ … people who shop at Munro’s Books regularly get to know and understand that there are books they can expect to see on the shelves because they know our tastes … 

Online algorithms can give you recommendations on what books you might like, and you can get suggestions that way, but it’s not the same as coming into the store and browsing the aisles and flipping through the pages until you find a book you like.

Other trends including online purchasing and the competition constantly discounting books—these are challenges that I don’t want to minimize.

Online shopping and discounting continue to be a challenge for all retailers, but the “shop local” movement has been really helpful in terms of combatting these challenges. I don’t like guilt tripping customers and making them feel like they have to shop local—people shop in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons—but I think a little bit of conscious shopping is a good thing.

NW: Considering how many challenges that bookstores are facing these days, what characteristics do you think a person needs to be a successful independent bookstore owner?

JW: A real love of books beyond what’s probably rational or normal and probably not a huge desire for financial reward. But as I’ve said, we’re very lucky that Munro’s pays very, very competitively compared to other industries. And another necessary characteristic is being generally curious about everything. I mean, one of the best things about being in a bookstore is that you kind of you get exposed to a little bit of everything on all sorts of different subjects. The biggest satisfaction, for me, is connecting someone with the right book, and it’s doubly nice when he or she comes back with “Oh, that was a great recommendation!”

NW: And that’s a perfect segue for my last question: what’s your vision for Munro’s Books now that Jim Munro has retired?

JW: It’s pretty much to keep on keepin’ on, and I think that’s partially why Jim chose the four of us [store manager Jessica Walker, operations manager Ian Cochran, senior buyer Carol Mentha, and comptroller Sarah Frye] to run the store; he knew that the four of us have a great respect for the tradition of the store.

So, we don’t foresee any great changes. We’ll continue to build on our connections with customers—social media has been really helpful on that front, especially for an independent bookstore like Munro’s.

Jim’s never been afraid of change. In many ways, the store has been a bastion of tradition, but he’s always been willing to consider new options—and we’ve certainly made a lot of changes over the years. I mean, we used to sell computer books and we got rid of them entirely for nearly ten years, and only recently have we slowly reintroduced them and only on subjects like “iPads for Grandpas.” You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but you have to continually be looking at what you’re doing and tweaking and changing, and that’s true for anyone involved with bookselling or publishing. People were saying, “Oh, you know, nobody’s going to be using travel guides; they’ll just continue to use apps,” but that’s actually not the case for us. On the flipside, do we sell fewer dictionaries than we used to because emergence of mobile apps? Definitely, but you know, I think we just have to be as culturally aware as possible. 

And for Munro’s specifically, I would say we are a bit of an anomaly. We’re in a high traffic tourist area, and Jim’s first wife is Alice Munro, so when she won the Nobel Prize [in 2013] it was craziness in here. We have a fairly high profile in Canada and abroad, and we’ve been very fortunate in recent years to receive some great attention in the media. Like many others in our industry, we’re feeling more optimistic about the future of books and bookstores, and we look forward to sharing our passion in the years to come.

 


Neil Wadhwa is a writer based out of Toronto, Ontario. He is the Content Manager for FreshGigs.ca and Technology Intern for House of Anansi Press. Learn more about him at neilwadhwa.com.

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