While traveling around Canada on assignment, I usually try to visit museums and art galleries and, when they’re available, local bookshops.
While they’ve long been battered by big box stores and the website of Indigo-Chapters, by the ease of Amazon shopping and by e-books, I frequently find that many independent sellers in Canada are not only still around, but apparently thriving.
This week, reporting for an upcoming article about mitigating wildfires took me to Kelowna, British Columbia, where I added Mosaic Books to the list of bookstores I’ve visited. Kelowna, while unusually affluent and a popular tourist destination, has a population of just 157,000. But at 8,000 square feet and packed with about 17,000 current titles, as well as thousands of remaindered books, Mosaic looks like a shop you’d expect to find in a city many times Kelowna’s size.
I met the other morning with Michael Neill, who owns Mosaic with his wife Michele, and Alicia Neill, the store manager and Mr. Neill’s daughter, to talk about the state of booksellers in Canada.
Mr. Neill has broad and particular insight into the sector. Up above the bookshop are the offices of Mr. Neill’s other business, Bookmanager, which makes software systems used by about 530 independent bookshops in Canada and the United States. That company also directly led to his purchase of Mosaic and his family’s move to Kelowna.
First, let’s look at some numbers. The latest analysis from Statistics Canada, which dates back to the distorted pandemic year of 2020 when shops were closed, found that physical bookstores remained the largest source of book sales in Canada, a 1.5 billion Canadian dollar market at that time.
Mr. Neill said that there’s been no single model for success, or at least survival, when it comes to bookshops.
“The interesting thing about independent bookstores is that they’re all so different,” he told me in Alicia’s office at the back of the store, which is already filled with merchandise for Christmas. “Everybody’s doing their own thing, and I like that. That provides some diversity.”
Mr. Neill got into the book business through his mother, Madeline Neill, who started Black Bond Books in Brandon, Manitoba, and eventually grew it, with his sisters, into about a dozen stores in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland region. During the 1980s he began developing software to order books and manage the store’s inventory as an in-house project.
Other shops began buying the software, and, in 1994, Mr. Neill left Black Bond to set up Bookmanager as a separate business. Within a year, however, he realized that he still needed to have a store to serve as a test bed and laboratory. Mosaic, which was founded in 1968, was on the market.
It was sold to the Neills by an absentee owner. The store was directionless, Mr. Neill said, unprofitable and generally a rundown mess.
The Neills moved it from a side street to Kelowna’s main street to attract tourists. One renovation included a cafe, which ultimately proved unprofitable and was replaced by remaindered books. (Even in an age of cafe overabundance, Kelowna stands out for its extraordinary number of coffee shops.)
But as its sales gradually returned, Mosaic was not immune to the blows that hit booksellers generally. The opening of a Costco store slashed best seller sales. Then sales immediately fell by about a third after Chapters appeared in a local shopping mall, a problem Amazon’s move into Canada accelerated.
For Mr. Neill, a turning point in the industry broadly came with the rise of e-book readers late in the 2000s. He said that about half of Bookmanager’s customers at the time decided to close their stores rather than take on that digital challenger.
“When I talked to owners, they said ‘Michael, I’m done,” Mr. Neill said. “E-Books are going to be the future. You saw what happened in music. You saw what happened to video. Books are next.”
The Neills disagreed with that forecast — correctly, as it turned out — and continued to invest in Mosaic to recover and grow its sales.
Ms. Neill said that one sign of the comeback of independents can be found at her father’s other business. She said that there’s now 100 shops on a wait list for Bookmanager systems and that the wait-list itself is not taking any new names until November.
This comeback by independents, Mr. Neill said, might reflect what book shoppers found lacking online when the pandemic forced them there.
“It’s fun to try to build a place where you come in, and you don’t know what you’re looking for or what you’re going to buy,” he said. “You just can experience all the stuff, and then you find things, whereas otherwise you’re just searching for something.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for two decades. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
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