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Three Things

Jim Munro on the challenges of running a bookstore Add to ...

Eighty-year-old Jim Munro is the owner of Munro’s Books in downtown Victoria, dubbed by columnist Allan Fotheringham as “the most magnificent bookstore in Canada, possibly North America.” Now in its third location, Mr. Munro founded the bookstore in 1963 with first wife, Canadian author Alice Munro.

How is 2010 shaping up?

Not too great. Tourism is down. It dropped last year, too, but it just doesn’t seem to be recovering this year. We depend a lot on tourism because Victoria is very much a tourist location. People come from all over but we have a lot of Americans coming up by boat or by ferry. The biggest drop has been with American tourists. Visitors from the Orient are probably up but they’re not big book buyers of English titles.

We have cruise ships here, full of people, but they’re mainly budget cruises for younger families. It’s wonderful that these people visit Victoria, but they’re not big spenders. The cruise people interested in books are the older ones, but there’s fewer of them. But tourism is only one aspect. The other is the iPod or the iPad and downloading books onto computers. It’s certainly a growing trend. The digital book keeps getting better and easier to read, so that’s a competition that we’ve never had before. You don’t have to go into a bookstore at all.

Back in the nineties, when Chapters came to town, we had to battle them. They opened up a big store a couple of blocks away and set us back for several years, but we were able to overcome that. But the invisible competition is a real challenge because nobody knows where the book business is going. We may have to become a pub some day. You can’t download beer.

I’ve been in business for 47 years and books were always very solid. I’ve seen the growth of the paperback and a much wider readership as the population became better educated. The computer is a wonderful thing – you can Google anything – and it’s helped us in the book business. We’re all computerized. It makes life easier, more efficient and more profitable, too. But now, all of a sudden, things are changing.

If anyone is thinking of opening up a bookstore, don’t. Do not even contemplate it.

What could the banks or the government be doing to help your industry?

We’re in a free-trade agreement, which I think is a good thing for the country. I don’t want to go crying to the government. I don’t think it’s fair to the customer to ask for government protection. We’re in a competitive world. I can’t say, ‘we don’t want any more downloading.’ You can’t legislate against that. The whole book industry, or any industry, is geared to the consumer. Let’s face it, tourism comes and goes. The real threat to the industry is the digital book. The price is minimal. If the price was similar to what people would pay for a “real” book, there wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but they’re very, very cheap.

What makes you angry in your industry?

The discount structure. What you’ve got now are big box stores like Wal-Mart carrying books, such as all the bestsellers – books that a few years ago, you’d have to go into a bookstore to buy. They don’t know anything about books. It’s just merchandise to them, but they can offer them with incredible discounts. We feel that because we display and carry a large range of books, there should be certain advantages and discounts for us. But the people who get the big discounts are Chapters and these megastores. If something isn’t done, the independent book seller – who displays not only bestsellers but also new authors, and has staff who can recommend books and a rapport with the customer – will be gone.

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