Independent bookstores give customers a relationship besides a receipt

Bookstore owner Wayne Greene’s personal connection to books make his store different than a big box store.

by Maia Kowalski

Wayne Greene, owner of The Last Word bookstore, sits at his desk among piles of books. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

There’s a bike that guards a wonky shaped bookshelf in the middle of The Last Word second-hand bookstore on Windsor Rd. Its rider is Wayne Greene, the store’s owner, and, like the bike, he is surrounded by piles of books that range from cookbooks to Canadian literature.

Shelves take over every inch of the store’s walls, without a gap in sight between the crammed books. Small handwritten signs guide customers to their preferred genre, but old classics are jumbled with modern classics and books rise up in piles from the floor.

Inside of The Last Word. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

On Spring Garden Rd., there’s a similar place, except the shelves are yellow and plastic instead of a battered wooden brown, the floors are clear, and it’s called Bookmark.

Both of these stores are two of only a handful of independent bookstores within Halifax. With nine Chapters, Indigo or Coles locations in Nova Scotia, and plans to expand the company outside of Canada within the next few years, the mainstream market doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

And with The Book Room’s closing in 2008, then Frog Hollow Books in 2009 and rumours of Bookmark closing back in January, independent stores seem to be a dying breed.

Something Chapters doesn’t offer

But the key to these stores’ survival lies in their commitment to their local customer base.

Operating since 1997, The Last Word came into being from a combination of Greene’s childhood love of books and his retirement from working as a merchant marine. His long business experience working at the store has allowed him to pick and choose books he knows his demographic will like.

The Last Word bookstore. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

“I buy new and old [and] whatever I think I can sell that people are looking for [or] interested in,” Greene says. “I try to use some taste.”

Michael Hamm, manager of Bookmark for 16 years, does the same, and credits most of Bookmark’s success to their “personal touch.”

Bookmark on Spring Garden Road. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

“People who shop with us have been with us for decades. We know them by name,” he says. “When I’m buying books for the store, I know enough about a lot of people that I’ll order one or two [books] with certain people in mind.”

Bookmark also supports a number of local authors and publishing companies. Employees frequently attend book talks to scope out new material and the store makes sure to “get behind a lot of local books that we have,” says Hamm.

A neighbourhood feel

People are just as willing to get behind their local stores.

“The shopping locally movement is really building steam,” Hamm says. “They [people] don’t want to see the same stores along a big downtown street. They’re making kind of a political statement [when they come in] because they want small businesses to stay here.”

Greene agrees.

“I think they [Chapters] are rather blasé,” he says. “The bigger stores don’t take enough chances anymore. They buy what’s sellable. To find a gem in there used to be easy.”

A few of the books available for purchase at The Last Word. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

And there are a lot of gems to be found in both The Last Word and Bookmark. While Greene’s store offers intricately designed hardcovers of classics such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Jane Eyre” and “Of Human Bondage,” Bookmark tries to cover every genre available, no matter how small.

“We have developed sections that people love to see, and a lot of sections that are underdeveloped in other bookstores,” he says. “When you’re smaller, you can fine tune your inventory. People really respect that.”

Some of the sections offered by Bookmark. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

The Chapters challenge

Neither Greene nor Hamm finds Chapters to be a threat, but Hamm does find that there’s a bit of competition, or “challenges,” as he prefers to call them.

While he respects a big box store’s centralized inventory, he knows an independent store has an edge when it comes to their localized customer base.

“A lot of the things that they [Chapters] sell, we sell a little,” he says. “But that’s not what people come to us to buy.”

The sticker as seen on the inside of one of Bookmark’s doors. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

Along with their tailored book sections, Bookmark prides itself on its special order option.

“Quite often, people are surprised that we have that one single book that they want to special order,” he says.

Friends, not enemies

Rather than seeing other small stores as more competition, it’s the opposite.

“We’d often pool our money [with other stores] and do advertising together,” Hamm says. “If I don’t have something, we’ll all direct people to [for example] Woozle’s, the children’s bookstore down the street, or Spirituality, or Strange Adventures with anime and manga books. If one of us does well, we all do well.”

Greene personally holds Bookmark in high esteem.

“They have very, very good taste in what they buy. They’re not following some kind of formula,” he says.

He also relies on them for his own inventory.

“As a second-hand bookstore, you need new bookstores to sell books,” he says. “If they’re not available new when they come out, they’re not going to be available used.”

A different pace

But aside from the sales, independent stores have a distinct flow about them that mainstream stores just can’t offer.

“I like the pace. You have some incredible conversations at times,” says Greene. “I can always be surprised. I don’t think there’s that many jobs where you can be surprised.”

FireWorks Gallery brings custom creativity to jewelry

If you want a one-of-a-kind ring, the three-person creative team at FireWorks Gallery will create it for you.

By Maia Kowalski

A few rings in progress with a Celtic design. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

On a Thursday afternoon in FireWorks Gallery, a man in a green overcoat and jeans hunches over one of the gallery’s glass jewelry cases. He listens as a salesperson describes different types of diamond carats, and looks down to examine the samples she’s brought out.

“Do you know what she wants?” the salesperson asks kindly. She smiles at him as he pauses.

“No, I don’t really know,” he replies. “This is my first rodeo – and hopefully my last,” he adds, laughing sheepishly. He shuffles a little in his spot, and then asks how long a custom design will take.

The salesperson explains that it’ll take about four to six weeks, and he nods. Standing up straight, he proceeds to go over to the cash register to make a request for one.

Custom jewelry design isn’t new to Halifax. A handful of other stores, such as Fawcett’s Fine Jewelry and James Bradshaw Goldsmith, offer this same option. Only a few of these stores also sell jewelry from other artists.

What makes FireWorks different, though, are the ideas and styles that come from their solid three-person creative team, made up of owner and goldsmith Judy Anderson, goldsmith and designer Bruce Trick and master goldsmith Ha Luong.

The beginning on Barrington

FireWorks Gallery on Barrington Street. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

The store sits at 1569 Barrington St., and has been in operation since 1977. With three intricate signs bearing the store’s name and a bright red (although rolled-up) awning, it’s hard to miss while on a walk through downtown Halifax.

Anderson opened the store herself when she was only 22 years old. A Connecticut native, she moved to Halifax at 17, and was initially only interested in making pottery. She eventually found herself drawn to jewelry, and began creating and selling silver jewelry for the wholesale market and craft shows.

photo 14
FireWorks Gallery owner Judy Anderson. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

However, in 1977, she decided it was time to open up her own shop, after the one she had been selling to went out of business.

Her first location was at the corner of Blowers and Grafton streets, but she soon stumbled across the current Barrington location. She’s been there ever since.

From craft shows to custom designs

All the design magic happens on the second and third floors of the building. A narrow and creaky staircase upstairs opens up to a disorganized office space, but not before unlatching a dog gate, which Anderson explains is there to prevent her dog Luna from wandering downstairs. Soon enough, the small shiba inu makes an appearance, running up to say hello to her owner.

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Luna, Anderson’s dog, sits obediently in her owner’s second-floor office. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

Stacks of paper and file folders cover every inch of a long table that hugs the curve of the wall. Anderson’s personal workspace is just a small round table in the corner, partially cleared of different coloured paper and writing utensils.

Bruce Trick sits with his back to the staircase, his desk overlooking the main floor of the gallery, and fiddles around with a new ring design on his computer.

Anderson estimates that the gallery receives about three or four custom requests a week. They also offer a jewelry repair service, and she says they receive about 10 of these requests daily.

She never has to look far for new design ideas.

“I get inspired by the works that we carry by other people, going to trade shows and seeing what’s going on, reading trade magazines,” she says. “I get very inspired by antique jewelry.”

Her team uses JewelCAD software to create custom designs. It allows the designer to play around with band shapes, carat sizes and colours before creating a solid ring mould.

photo 1
JewelCAD design software with a ring in progress on designer Bruce Trick’s computer. The software’s website describes it as “a 3D free-form surface modeler.” (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

After a ring design is created and saved, it can be accessed on the third-floor computer that’s hooked up to a ring casting machine. The third floor is also home to master goldsmith Ha Luong, who’s worked at the gallery since 1980 after leaving Vietnam.

Anderson credits Luong with showing her the ropes in goldsmithing.

“[I’m] pretty much self-taught, working with silver wire and silver jewelry,” she says. “[But] he taught me a lot on how to work with gold.”

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Ha Luong carves out a ring design in his third-floor workspace. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

But what’s the difference between a master goldsmith and a regular one?

“It’s someone who has worked for 10 years and trained professionally in goldsmithing,” says Trick. “Ha is definitely a master.”

“But not everyone who works for 10 years is a master goldsmith!” laughs Anderson.

Team effort

To create something like an engagement or wedding ring – two of the most popular custom requests – the whole team throws their ideas and skills together.

Although they ask clients for a four to six week window, it’s usually just a 1-3 day process. The team splits up the work in segments.

Trick and Luong usually do the CAD work, and once the design is complete, Anderson makes the waxes and casting for it. She then passes it off to Luong to finish it off.

The starting price for one of these rings is around $1200, but depending on the size of the requested diamond, the price can increase drastically.

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The third-floor casting machine, where Anderson receives a design on the computer and begins to carve out a mould. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

Surrounded by love

This collaborative work ethic between the creative team is reflected in the jewelry they create, but also within the staff that work the main floor.

Renee Warner, a sales consultant, enjoys working at the gallery.

“It’s nice to be surrounded by things that are made with lots of love, and are made by hand,” she says.

photo 15
Sales consultant Renee Warner. (Maia Kowalski/Peninsula News)

Although she’s only been working at FireWorks Gallery for eight months, she says she’s already learned a lot about repairs and different kinds of metals and stones.

Warner explains that she often runs up to the second floor to discuss with the designers what types of repairs can be done to fix certain pieces of jewelry.

“Communication is really important between upstairs and downstairs,” she says.

Open to originality

While the FireWorks Gallery team creates unique pieces out of their own ideas, sometimes clients come prepared with ideas they’d never even dream of.

Recently, Anderson has been working on a cast of a ring made with a client’s grandfather’s ashes.

“We get a lot of memorial requests,” she says.

She pauses and shivers a little. “It’s kinda weird.”

She’s also had the honour of making a medal for the Dalai Lama.

“It was a big gold piece with lots of detail,” she says. “It was a gift given to the Dalai Lama from the Kalapa Court by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He’s the head of the Shambhala, and I’m his jeweller.”

But wherever her job takes her, she’s loving every second of it.

“I’ve been here for 37 years and never worked for anyone else in my life,” she smiles.

“[I like] making pieces that will hold special meaning for people.”

Anticipation for DISA’s International Night grows with completion of final auditions

The Dalhousie International Students’ Association (DISA) held its final auditions for its annual International Night on Saturday.

By Maia Kowalski

Karthik Damodaran and Iman Aftab Khan audition with “Jai Ho.”

The Dalhousie International Students’ Association (DISA) held its final auditions for its annual International Night on Saturday.

“The International Night has been the only cultural event that binds all the diverse cultures on Dal campus together,” said Ishika Sharma, vice president of external affairs for DISA.

This year’s event will happen on March 15, and DISA expects it to attract an audience of about 200. The council held three auditions in the last month, inviting international students to dance, sing, act or do all of the above to show their peers what their culture is all about.

Mandy Peng, vice president of DISA events, emphasized that the most important thing to take away from this event is the celebration of diversity among students.

“We’re trying to collaborate [with] all the different cultural societies,” she said. “Maybe we have a traditional dance from China, from India, [or] a singer from Turkey. We’re trying to make the event more diverse.”

Auditions begin

While the last two auditions attracted 15 to 20 people each, only a handful of hopefuls showed up to the final audition last weekend in the Killam Library.

Hidaya Ahmad, a student from Malaysia, auditioned as an MC.

“I’m always involved in DISA,” she said. “I’m always backstage, but this year I thought I should get out there and reach out to people.”

Two other students, Karthik Damodaran and Iman Aftab Khan, auditioned with a rendition of “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. Their performance was met with instant applause from Peng, who said she would “definitely say yes” to putting them in the show.

“I’m really interested in performing culture-wise,” said Damodaran, a fourth-year Dalhousie student.

“It’s [also] really important to get together with the international people. I’ve made good friendships [here],” he said.

Decisions, decisions

The council has yet to decide who will go through to the actual event and will decide at the next council meeting, held at the end of this week.

Four members of the DISA Council. From left: Xinyu Wang, marketing rep; Ding Fan, VP executive; Mandy Peng, VP of events; and Jinrong Ge, first-year rep

Sharma said that it’s “usually really difficult” and “the people who audition are usually really passionate about performing arts.”

“We do judge based on the quality,” she added. “If there is no expert in a particular line to judge, we ask someone who is an expert.”

With hundreds of audience members expected, the stakes are high to put on a great show. But the council is not too worried.

“It has been a success ever since it’s come into being,” said Sharma.

DISA’s International Night is being held this year on March 15 at 6 p.m. in the McInnes Room (within the Dalhousie Student Union Building). Tickets cost $15 for students and $25 for non-students and can be purchased at the DISA Office (on the second-floor of the Grad House) or at the International Centre.