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Jim Munro retiring, four employees will take over Munro’s Books

One of Victoria’s best-loved bookstores, Munro’s Books, will soon belong to its staff. Jim Munro, 84, said he plans to give the company to four long-time employees when he retires this September.
Tuesday: Jim Munro, 84, plans to retire in September after running Munro's Books for 51 years.

One of Victoria’s best-loved bookstores, Munro’s Books, will soon belong to its staff.

Jim Munro, 84, said he plans to give the company to four long-time employees when he retires this September.

“I have to tell you, I’ve been in the book business for 51 years,” Munro said in his wood-panelled office tucked in the corner of the Government Street store.

“It’s time to go.”

Munro owns two companies — the holding company and the book store. He plans to give ownership of the store to employees, who will pay rent to the holding company, which owns the Government Street building.

Manager Jessica Walker will own a majority share, while comptroller Sarah Frye, operations manager Ian Cochran and senior buyer Carol Mentha will share the remainder.

“I have every confidence in the people I’m turning it over to. They’re very good, they’re very smart, very dedicated,” Munro said.

“These are tough times in the book business. It’s not that I’m giving them a cash cow or anything. But they’re very competent and they deserve to be successful.”

Munro opened the store on Yates Street in 1963 with his then-wife and now-Nobel laureate Alice Munro, after 12 years working for Eaton’s in Vancouver. While independent bookstores tended to scoff at paperbacks as drugstore fodder, Munro embraced them. He and Alice also chose to carry the “in” poets, like Leonard Cohen, and was the first Canadian bookstore to carry the City Lights Books that had already taken off in San Francisco.

“People thought I was crazy to leave Eaton’s,” Munro said. “Guess what? [Eaton’s] is gone and I’m here.”

After a five-year stint on Fort Street, Munro’s moved in 1984 to its current location, a former Royal Bank of Canada building built in 1909, with 24-foot coffered ceilings, marble and hardwood floors, and decorated with colourful banners designed by textile artist (and Munro’s wife) Carole Sabiston.

Changes to the business landscape have challenged the vitality of the store in recent years: First there was Chapters, the chain book-and-everything-else store only two blocks away. Then there was and its e-books.

“It’s all changing so fast,” Munro said. “But we figure there are some people who still want to own a book.”

Munro said his younger staff are more equipped to keep up with the pace.

Walker — whom Munro described as extremely smart, good with people and capable of making tough decisions — said she’s optimistic about the future of the store.

“I feel more encouraged than I would have felt a couple of years ago. E-book sales are really plateauing, they’ve found their market,” she said. “Many of our customers have Kindles or Kobos and they still come in, because it’s not the same experience.”

The “Shop Local” movement has made a noticeable difference, too, she said. Customers are beginning to recognize that supporting local businesses means visiting them more often than once a year.

Walker joined Munro’s in 2000, after 14 years working at a university bookstore, cookbook store and with a publishing company. She’s become the face of Munro’s in recent years, organizing and hosting events on behalf of the store, including “surviving” a public interview with Margaret Atwood, who is notoriously tough on interviewers, in October.

“We were all so pleased with her,” Munro said with a smile.

He said he considers all 22 of the store’s current employees extended family.

Walker said that she, Mentha, Cochran and Frye don’t take the compliment lightly.

“The idea of being responsible for making sure the store continues and thrives is a real honour for us and we take it seriously. It’s something daunting, but exciting at the same time,” she said.

“The Munro’s name in Victoria has an important legacy, so we’re proud to continue to fly the Munro’s flag.”