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Munro’s Books in Victoria

As the release of The Puritan’s new issue approaches, The Town Crier has decided to leak an excerpt from an upcoming interview with Jessica Walker of Victoria’s Munro’s Books. This preview is just a teaser of the great new non-fiction appearing in The Puritan Issue 29, due out in early May.

Neil Wadhwa’s interview concludes Bookstore Month at The Town Crier and, after features on booksellers in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Philadelphia, finally takes us to the West Coast. Bookstore Month at The Town Crier was an effort to take readers deep into the bookselling industry, past the top ten lists and obituaries and into the inner workings of both corporate and independent bookstores. Many of the pieces we’ve published, including this interview, have brought up the challenge posed to bookstores by digital media. While we love bookstores, The Puritan changed formats in 2010 from print to digital and hasn’t looked back. However, digital and print publications are not antithetical to each other. As The Toronto Star points out, journals are spaces where writers appear before they have published books. They are integral to the sales and publicity of new Canadian books and they provide the forum and the audience for new critical voices. New authors and new critics go hand in hand. If Bookstore Month has accomplished anything, I hope that it has shown some evidence that digital literature and print bookstores don’t have to exist at odds with each other. The two share one thing, at least. They exist for the written word.

Without further delay, The Town Crier presents an interview with Jessica Walker of Munro’s Books.

Neil Wadhwa: With the challenges that independent bookstores face these days, combined with your Far West Coast location, how does Munro’s Books manage to compete with large chain bookstores?

Jessica Walker: Well, it helps that we don’t have an Indigo bookstore around here. We do have Chapters bookstores in Victoria, and when they first arrived, those first few years at Munro’s Books were pretty grim because Chapters was the new kid on the block and everyone was all excited about it. So, those were some hard years for the store. Munro’s does have profit sharing for our staff, and during those years when Chapters opened up, there was no profit for us!

But a big part of what sets us apart, and what gives us a competitive advantage, is just the feeling in the store; we’ve got classical music playing, we’ve got the architecture, even where the store is located—it’s a mix of genteel and funky. I think “curated” is such a buzzword now, but people who shop at Munro’s Books regularly get to know and understand that there are books they can expect to see on the shelves because they know our tastes, and we also feel like we know our customers’ tastes, too.

Neil Wadhwa: I guess it’s also the history behind the store. People will go to Powell’s Books in Portland or the Strand in New York City, even with other bookstores available, just because of the history.

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Munro’s 24 foot ceilings

Jessica Walker: We’re certainly continuing with the principles that Jim had. We’re not trying to compete with Chapters or Amazon. I mean, you can’t, so there’s no point in even trying. But we like to be consistent, so what’s on sale doesn’t change every month—if there’s a book we like to feature, it’s featured for the season and it’s discounted for the season, so it’s not like if you came in one day it’s on sale, and the next day it’s not. But we try to not fall into that trap of competing for price, because that’s not what we’re about.

Neil Wadhwa: How does Munro’s Books stay alive in a digital world without hurting the history and traditions the store has built up over the years?

Jessica Walker: Well, you know, it’s funny. There was such a huge interest in eBooks initially, and we did have people asking us if we did have free Wi-Fi so they could download something right on their iPhone or iPad while they were browsing the store, but it’s a non-issue now. eBooks have certainly affected our sales, and eBooks have changed the whole industry, but we don’t really get asked about them anymore.

Neil Wadhwa: Do you sell or rent eReaders at the store?

Jessica Walker: No, and part of that is because there haven’t been many eReader platforms in Canada besides Kobo. Even though I do know of a few independent bookstores that do have arrangements with Kobo, we felt like eReaders are just not an area we want to go. I mean, we would make such a laughable sum of money from the sale of an eReader, and then we’ve also just handed that person a reason to not come into our store for however many months while they play with their new toy.

Neil Wadhwa: You mentioned that eBooks have influenced your sales numbers. Have you found it necessary to expand your non-book items to make up the minor drop in book sales?

Jessica Walker: We do carry more stationery than we have in the past, but we have stayed pretty focused. We try to have things that are either book or writing related, so we do carry more pens, drawing books, book bags, and more things like that, but we don’t carry scented candles, or yoga mats, or fluffy pillows, or anything like that. But in the end, it’s all about the book selection.

You know, we just had someone on our Twitter saying, “OMG! Munro’s is the best—it’s a book store full of books!” So, you know, we don’t want to lose that. That’s a really important part of who we are.

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