Small is beautiful
Blackberry Books on Granville Island has chopped its space, brightened its lighting and fine-tuned its inventory
Rebecca Wigod, Vancouver Sun
Published: Saturday, May 20, 2006
Blackberry Books, which opened in 1979, mere months after nearby Granville Island Public Market, has trimmed down its floor space and amped up its lighting. And, most important, it has stopped trying to be all things to all people. It's hoped that the changes -- achieved through a renovation that cost nearly $100,000 -- will sharpen the store's appeal and profitability.
"It didn't seem like a midsize bookstore was really the way to go any more," manager Joseph Stewart says of the remake, which has chopped his store's square footage from 1,400 to 800. We're not going to have everything Chapters has, but we can compete by being a good bookstore with a good list in a sort of boutique setting."
The store, in Granville Island's Net Loft, reopened April 14. Now it's concentrating on the genres its customers favour: high-quality fiction, mysteries, history/current events, children's books and cookbooks. Sections that weren't as important to customers -- gardening, crafts, art books, architecture, religion and philosophy -- but were, paradoxically, targets for thieves, have been given the heave-ho.
"People don't buy how-to books and craft books and gardening books any more. They can go look all that stuff up online," says Stewart, who believes business savvy -- not just a love of books -- is a must for independent booksellers in the age of Chapters, Amazon, Costco and Wal-Mart.
Stewart, 31, has grown up at Blackberry Books. He was four years old when his parents, Lucy and Dale, opened the store. (They were taking a chance, since no one could be sure that Granville Island would become a hot destination.) From the age of 12 until he finished university, he worked at the store part-time. And in the mid-1990s, when things got really tough for independent bookstores, he started managing it.
He and his parents didn't renovate out of desperation. "Last year, we probably had our best year in six years," Stewart says. "But we want to stick around, and we want to be smart about it." Brighter lighting in the store makes shopping easier for older customers. And, combined with the more compact floor plan, it makes shoplifting harder. The recently departed religion section was always being stolen from, according to Stewart. "Somebody stole The Good Karma Handbook. I am not making this up." Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, also finds its way into the pockets of the dishonest because "people love to steal Bob Dylan."
Blackberry's renovation also includes new shelving and new computer software. Using the software, the six employees (three full-time, three part-time) can locate the books that customers request and bring them in quickly.
And now they have the Internet at their fingertips. Stewart says that, in the past, when a customer came in and asked which writer had just won the Man Booker Prize, "you either knew it or you looked a little stupid. Now, Google-Google, boom -- you have that information immediately."
When an independent bookstore closes its doors after a long run -- Women In Print, the Granville Book Company and Black Sheep Books have all folded their tents in recent years -- it always make the news. But Stewart insists that not every story in the world of independent bookselling is a sad one. To him, Blackberry's new look feels like a rebirth.