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.”