Capital bookstores begin new chapter

Bookstores are opening again in the region, but be prepared for lineups and limited browsing time.

Jessica Walker, managing partner at Munro’s Books downtown, said only 12 people are being allowed into the store at a time, and perusing is being limited to about 20 minutes to reduce wait times for others.

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“We’re not clocking people, but we are giving people gentle reminders,” said Walker.

Munro’s opened on May 26. Walker said it is offering “browsing by appointment,” where book lovers can get a half-hour to shop and read inside the store on Government Street. “We heard bookstores in the U.S. were offering it, and thought it would add a level of convenience for people,” she said.

Cliff McNeil-Smith, owner of Tanner’s Books and the mayor of Sidney, will open his store today with a limit on customers allowed inside at any given time.

He said the store will attempt to limit browsing time if lineups are long, but added: “I’m sure we’ll find a balance.

“We know many of our customers very well and I’m sure people will be understanding.”

McNeil-Smith, who has been selling books online during the pandemic, said booksellers in general have missed the personal interaction. “It’s a key part of our job satisfaction as a bookseller to find the next great read for someone,” he said. “It’s exciting to be opening again.”

Colin Holt, manager at Bolen Books, said safety protocols by the province have resulted in changes inside the independent bookseller’s store at Hillside Centre.

He said two mall entrances with cashier stations have been closed and only the exterior entrance facing Hillside Avenue is open. The store is allowing 15 customers in at a time and operating hours have been reduced.

“There are lineups, but it goes fairly quickly,” said Holt, who has about half of the usual 50 staff back on the job.

Russell Books, which opened an 18,000-square-foot, two-floor store on Fort Street last summer, won’t re-open until mid-June, co-owner Andrea Minter said.

Russell Books has had its curbside window and online ordering open through much of the pandemic, but Minter said reopening the downtown store is taking time, as the family-owned business hires more staff and incorporates safety protocols set out by WorkSafe B.C.

“We have to open up to pay the rent,” Minter said.

“Customers are asking us to open. We have this big, beautiful store just waiting for them, but we want to do it right.

“None of us have ever done this before, so there’s no point in risking it. It’s not only the Plexiglas, hand-sanitizer and distancing — it’s every aspect of the business we need to get right, so that our customers and staff are comfortable.”

Of Russell Books’ 60 staff, about 45 were laid off in mid-March. Those who stayed kickstarted online and curbside pickup sales.

Ivy’s Bookshop on Oak Bay Avenue was doing a brisk business for pickup orders this week, but hasn’t opened the store yet. A spokeswoman said the store was awaiting its order of Plexiglas screens before a full reopening.

Indigo/Chapters at Mayfair Shopping Centre is open with reduced hours and customer limits inside the store.

The UVic Bookstore is providing service by phone, email and a pickup window, but the textbook buyback service is closed until further notice.

As with other downtown businesses, Munro’s is preparing to take a serious financial hit after the federal government said last week it was banning cruise ships until Oct. 31.

The announcement scuttled Victoria’s cruise-ship season, which had been forecast to bring about three-quarters of a million passengers and $130 million in economic activity to the city.

Walker said the cruise-passenger business brought “huge sales” for Munro’s.

“[Cruise] buses let people off right across from our store … we were open 12 hours on those days,” she said. “The passengers would often comment that the U.S. does not have independent bookstores in the towns they live in.

“It’s going to have a dramatic impact for the rest of the year. [Cruise passengers] were a great plus for us for a long time. It wasn’t quite Christmas, but August was always great for us.”

Walker hopes locals can make up for some of the loss by shopping at home.

Munro’s is helping out its retail neighbours by acquiring $25 gift cards from other downtown businesses. Walker said Munro’s is giving away one of those cards each day to its customers so they can support other nearby businesses.

Online sales, while helpful, have only brought a trickle of revenue as businesses struggle to reopen amid reduced hours and limited customers inside their stores.

“It’s our survival and we’re hoping locals can rediscover downtown,” Walker said.

McNeil-Smith believes online sales during the store’s shutdown have helped Tanner’s Books gain new customers. He said the virtual purchases, when augmented with personalized service and comments, shows a small bookstore “can punch at the same weight as the big companies.”

Booksellers had been seeing upticks in sales of puzzles, self-help titles and children’s books during the pandemic lockdown. Now they are seeing more variety in their sales, including new releases, older novels and history books.

This week, books with anti-racism themes are flying off the shelves, Walker said.

“Books with ‘Black Lives Matter’ [content] has overshadowed everything else,” she said. “It’s a turning point and people want to read and learn more.”

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