The independent bookstore is a cultural and community hub – authors are introduced, works read aloud to an audience and ideas are shared.
Each month, we will be featuring an independent bookstore from across Canada, proving what a special role these shops play in fostering authors, community and a love of reading. For March, we are featuring Mosaic Books. Trevor, the manager, takes the time to talk about his bookstore, his infuriating but amazing co-workers, and how a thief led him on a wild chase!
1. Tell us a little bit about the history of Mosaic Books.
Mosaic Books was established in 1968 in Downtown Kelowna, where it was operated by two wealthy sisters for twenty-odd years. It became Kelowna’s largest and most revered bookstore, and was eventually sold to a company in Calgary that had very little interest in the business. As a result of long distance ownership and no management, the store began to tank. At this time, my family was living in the Greater Vancouver Area having established a small chain of family operated bookstores called Black Bond Books. My parents, needing a change of scenery and a more intimate bookstore setting to develop our primary business, BookManager (software and data solutions for indie booksellers) looked at Mosaic Books. Remembering Mosaic Books from our years of travels to Kelowna’s nearby ski hill, my father, being a second generation bookseller, was able to painstakingly analyze the failing bookstore and rebuild its reputation. We enjoyed four great years on a side street in the downtown core. But with the arrival of Chapters, we had to relocate the store to a larger, more central location on the main strip where we currently reside. We are still considered Okanagan’s largest and most respected independent bookstore; a legacy achieved through family value, good old fashioned hard work and customer service.
2. What made the owners want to open a bookstore?
The main focus for Mosaic’s owners, Michael and Michele Neill, has been their software company, BookManager, one of Canada’s leading data and software providers for independent booksellers and publishers. In order to develop quality software that meets the needs and standards of evolving, modern day bookstores, Michael and Michele required a guinea pig store to discover and test all the problems a regular bookstore faces on a day to day basis. Our goal is to create the best indie bookstore in Canada so we can share our example and knowledge with the rest of the community. What better way to promote BookManager to bookstores than with a flagship store utilizing all the company has to offer?
3. What made you want to work as a bookseller?
My introduction into the book industry came at a young age, when my parents saw an opportunity for cheap labour and daycare all rolled into one. Both my parents working almost non-stop to build a bookstore and software company, I spent a big portion of my childhood hanging around the back receiving area of Mosaic. Soon that hanging around turned into delabeling returns, flattening boxes, and stickering remainders. I turned 14 and was given the choice of working weekends during the summer break and Christmas, or paying rent at home. My parents are strong believers in earning your way through life, a lesson I didn’t quite agree with at the time but wholly respect and am thankful for now. My involvement steadily increased throughout high school, and after a short stint at UBC in Vancouver, I returned to Kelowna to become fully involved in every aspect of the business. It’s honest to say that I didn’t start out wanting to be a bookseller, but the uniqueness and pride of the industry have me fully engrossed. I have never once felt morally ambiguous selling books; bookstores are the keepers of community, knowledge, and culture.
4. What do you like best about your job?
The best part of my job is also the most challenging: my completely amazing, and sometimes infuriating coworkers. It’s by no mistake that I work with a group of people I also spend most weekends with. It can be dangerous befriending coworkers to the point of complete comfort. But when done right, it can push the business into a whole new level of creativity and personality. Cheap books, a constant flow of colourful people, and the challenge of increasing sales are all great perks. But what keeps me coming back for more day in and day out is the framework of people I respect and trust.
5. What does the book-buying public understand least about independent bookstores?
The most glaringly obvious misunderstanding about bookstores is the reason behind American and Canadian printed prices and their often wide gaps, but that’s a problem the industry as a whole faces, not just the indies, so I’ll leave that one alone. A problem indies face exclusively is that a large portion of the book-buying public do not realize our selection is better and ordering service quicker than the big box chains. Because indies do not work on bulk case quantities of titles, we can fill that redundant space with variety and hand-picked gems that may not be in the spotlight but are nonetheless desirable. Not having to go through a chain of systems and central ordering centres like the big boxes do, indies can special order titles very quickly, most of ours arriving within 3-5 business days with no extra cost for shipping. I believe more and more people are recognizing that a big store doesn’t necessarily equate to more variety, but it is a common misconception that I hear every day.
6. What’s the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2012?
No doubt in my mind, the hardest part about being a bookstore store owner during these technology saturated days is all the competition we have with other distractions and sources of leisure. I am no different than most, my iPhone fast becoming a replacement for many traditional sources of entertainment and research, and I have had to make a conscious effort to not let it completely dominate traditional mediums. With the ease of streaming TV, music, and movies on your laptop; video games getting more complex and engrossing; and the general usefulness and quality of the internet improving every second, it is obvious that books are having a hard time slotting themselves into our busy days. I’ve grown up on books, but still have to remind myself from time to time the importance and value of good old fashioned, 4000 year old reading technology.
7. What types of books does your store stock and/or specialize in?
Mosaic Books is a general bookstore, encompassing a little bit on every subject for adults and kids, so we don’t have a particular claim to fame besides all-around awesome. We pride ourselves on the amazing priced and vast selection of remainders or bargain books, numbering 10,000 individual titles in stock at the moment. I have also been able to carve out a niche market for ourselves supplying brand new vinyl records and CDs, and quality, hard to find gift items. Couple that with a huge kids section masterminded by an extremely passionate staffer, and you are hard pressed to leave the store empty handed and not beaming from a good deal.
8. What are some of your favorite titles? Kids titles? Titles coming out this spring?
My all-time favourite reads are, and in no particular order: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, John Dies at the End by David Wong (the only book to give me vivid nightmares, yet kept me coming back for more), Cherry Electra by Matt Duggan, the Hitchhiker’s Guide series by Douglas Adams, Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Watchmen by Alan Moore, Getting Things Done by David Allen, and anything by Hunter S. Thompson. For kids storybooks, nobody beats Bill Peet for classic stories and beautiful illustrations, but close seconds are Oliver Jeffers, Melanie Watt, and Jon Scieszka. I was big into the Animorphs series as a kid, and am stoked to see Scholastic bring it back. I’m looking forward to Christopher Moore’s new release, Sacré Bleu, due out early April, and A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy, also due out April.
9. What are you reading right now?
Like most bookstore operators, I have a handful of books on the go at any given time. I am currently reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.
10. What’s your most current best seller?
We divide our bestsellers into categories, so our top picks are as follows: Fiction Hardcover – Death Comes to Pemberley; Fiction Paperback – The Sisters Brothers; Non-Fiction Hardcover – Eating Dirt; Non-Fiction Paperback – Something Fierce.
11. What have been some of your favorite (or most memorable) author events?
Two author events really stick out in my mind, and both were successful for varying reasons. A few years back we hosted an evening with Diana Gabaldon at the local theatre, selling 600+ tickets and a ton of books. Jack Whyte made a guest appearance, he and Diana being long time pals made their on-stage banter was pretty hilarious. She was fantastic to work with, and so generous to her readers, signing everybody’s books and posing for countless photos. We had her at our store ten or so years previous for the grand re-opening of Mosaic at its current location, and we were astounded to have 300 people crammed inside. She’s a real pro, both at writing and speaking, and has a passionate fan-base here in Kelowna.
Two summers ago we also had Grant Lawrence in-store for his book launch Adventures in Solitude. In-town for the Canadian music awards and conference Breakout West, Grant was laid back and entertaining, showcasing his witty CBC radio personality. He was also able to talk Said the Whale, a fantastic Canadian alt group, and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald into performing a small bookstore set after the signing. It was mainly memorable due to the constant PA problems we were having, me having to run home to grab my equipment to get the show going. Red faced and embarrassed at the unexpected setbacks, I was calmed by Grant’s kindness and patience.
12. Any strange, wild or crazy-but-true stories from your days at Mosaic Books?
My most crazy moment at Mosaic came last summer when a woman with a large gift bag walked out the store, setting off our security gates. Unfazed, she continued up the street to her bike locked to a post. I immediately followed her outside and politely explained that she had set the security gate off and if she would kindly return inside so we could deactivate whatever was triggering them. “I’m in a hurry!” she exclaimed, and with one swift motion pulled her bike free and back handed me in the chest. Completely taken aback by the assault, my pride got the best of me and I gave chase to a woman madly peddling away on her bike. Zigzagging through the downtown alleyways, the woman soon realized she had just pissed off a habitual runner and store owner. Keeping pace with a bike is exhausting, and soon the distance between us widened until she turned a corner and disappeared from view. I kept chase, and eventually caught a glimpse of her once again in the distance. She had stopped to talk to a fellow vagrant, and I used this opportunity to politely borrow a passerby’s cell phone and call the police. Mid conversation with dispatch, the accused thief looked back and saw me staring right at her. Once again she took off, heading towards our very busy highway. Handing the phone back to its owner and shouting, “Send back up!” I once again bolted. Keep in mind it is a blazing 32 degrees Celsius, and I was wearing jeans and a dress shirt, so not exactly optimal running conditions. Traffic whizzing by at breakneck speed, the thief was temporarily blocked off at the highway, giving me some valuable catch-up. Throwing caution to the wind, she decided to play Frogger and traverse the 6 lanes of moving traffic. With so much adrenaline skewing my reality, I also decided it was a good choice to play dodge the auto. Emerging safely on the other side, I continued the pursuit for two kilometers, having run a grand total of about 4k. At this point the woman was once again disappearing into the distance, and my hopes dwindled. About to stop and admit defeat, I saw up ahead that the woman had dismounted and started locking her bike up outside an apartment building. With my last bit of gusto, I sprinted towards her building, reaching the lobby doors before she could slam them shut. Throwing the door wide open, I raced after her up four flights of stairs, through a door, and down a hallway. The woman had managed to reach her place, unlock the door and slide in, but before she could slam it shut I threw my foot in its path. “Why are you following me?!” She shouted. “You… stole… books… from… me…” I panted, barely able to see. Our loud showdown had attracted all the other tenants into the hallway, a free show of sorts. “I’m calling the police on you, stalker!” the woman threatened, but her scare tactic was no use on someone with a squeaky conscious. “Fine then, call the police. In fact, I called them before and they will be here in moments,” I lied, “and they will clear this whole thing up.” Eyes locked, brows slanted, we stood motionless, contemplating our next move. “Fine then, stalker, have ’em!” She tossed her bag into my arms, at which I stumbled back in awe, releasing my foot from the entrance. The door slammed shut and locked. I looked down into the bag, which was chock full of books… our books. Two hundred dollars’ worth. That was the sweetest, sweatiest walk back to work. After that, theft pretty much dried up at Mosaic Books; I guess word had spread that Mosaic’s manager is one bad mother that will chase you back to your home if he catches you stealing. Since that day, I keep a skateboard at work and cell phone in my pocket, just in case.
13. What’s book are you, or will you, hand-sell with a vengeance?
Sarah Winman’s When God Was a Rabbit is my go to hand-sell as of late, simply because it appeals to almost any demographic or reader. Sibling camaraderie is a subject that hits home with many people, and Sarah’s first novel is modern, quirky British prose at its best.