Indie Bookstore Spotlight: Bolen Books

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 May, we are featuring Bolen Books in Victoria, BC. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook!

1. Tell us a little bit about the history of Bolens.
Bolen Books was founded in 1975 from the now defunct chain of Julian bookstores by my father and then taken over by my mother in 1977. Mel Bolen, my mother, grew the store from 800sq feet to our present size of just under 20 000 square feet in 5 moves within our mall. I have been involved seriously with the store since 1990. I worked here before that but more as an employee than an owner.

2. What made you want to work as a bookseller?
I didn’t really want to work as a bookseller at first to tell you the truth. It was something my parents were doing so naturally I rebelled against it. However, after I returned to the store in 1990 and came to understand the operation of the company, selling books became so much more motivating to me. My deep love for books only happened for me in my 20’s when my daughter was young and I began to re-read her my favourite kids’ books. I then began exploring what I loved as an adult.

3. What do you like best about your job?
What I like best about my job is how what we sell is directly in line with what is going on in the world — whatever is popular, whatever is topical, and whatever is important to the world. Our store staff and customers remain current, as well as being completely respectful of the past. I guess the other thing I love is how our customers are unique even compared to other stores within the city and this individuality allows Bolen Books to read the communities wants and needs and fulfil them.

4. What does the book-buying public understand least about independent bookstores?
I think the public doesn’t understand margins. In most retail places, the price of the product is invoiced at wholesale cost and the retailer makes a decision on what they think they can sell the product for based on what the market will bear.  In our industry, we receive the books at selling price and are given a discount on that price. In order to run our businesses successfully, we cannot be selling significant amounts of books below the suggested retail price or our business model quickly crumbles.

5. What’s the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2012? 
The hardest part about being a bookstore owner is having the right people. I am extremely blessed to have the best staff in bookselling working with me. Some of my staff have been here for over 30 years and many of them have other family members working here. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, we all seem to get along too! I have a fantastic manager and the buyers I have are unparalleled in our industry. The one thing that we are always working on is cross training our staff so that if someone does leave, we are not stuck.

6. What types of books does your store specialize in?
We are a general bookstore; however we have a huge children’s section and staff devoted to that area. We have an amazing science fiction fantasy section as well as a very good history section. Because of our demographics here in Victoria, we also sell a tremendous amount of British books.

7. What are some of your favourite titles? Kids titles? Titles coming out this spring?
I am excited about the John Irving book. I really love him and this book is pushing the boundaries of everything he has written before. I am excited about the books by Jeffery Deaver, Mark Haddon, Chris Cleave, AJ Jacobs, and Richard Ford. And of course, like everyone else I am excited about “The Age of Miracles”.

8. What are you reading right now?
Right now, I am reading Richard Ford’s Canada book, the John Irving book and a book called Let’s Pretend this Never Happened by Jenny Lawson.

9. What’s your most current best seller? 
The Hunger Games is our best seller right now, but before that, Steve Jobs was the big book for quite a while.

10. What have been some of your favorite (or most memorable) author events?
Over the years, we had some of the most amazing events in bookselling history! We hosted Anne Rice who had the most riders in her contract out of anyone we have ever seen. We had to import Tab and have 6 different kinds of halls throat drops for her at all times and her back had to be against a wall. At Chuck Palahniuk’s event, someone passed out because of the story he was reading. We hosted with great success many hockey legends from goalie Vladislav Tretiak to Jean Beliveau to Eddie Shack. We had Robert Jordon, A.J. Jacobs, and David Sedaris. One of our proudest moments was when Robert Wiersema, one of our staff, was first published. We hosted every one of his book launches.

11. What book are you, or will you, hand-sell with a vengeance?
Last holiday season, I decided to give a money back guarantee on the Night Circus. I felt that book was the kind of book that would appeal to lots of different genres and different age groups. The book sold very very well for us and I only gave money back to two people.

I would like to find another book like this to stand behind. As I am forced to spend less and less time on the floor, taking a stand like this on a particular book is a kind of hand selling I can still do. It may be Canada by Richard Ford, but I am not quite done reading it so I reserve the right to change my mind. I have been selling Luther: The Calling to anyone that loves a good mystery. I thought Neil Cross did a fantastic job with that book.