I came to independent bookselling, like a lot of things in life, via a certain circuitous route.
I was a high school co-op student in an off-campus pilot project called the Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies (CfES).
The year was 1989.
Though I went to school in Ancaster, Ontario, the CfES was located in the beautiful and historic nearby valley town of Dundas. As a part of the CfES experience each student would work at one of the local small businesses for a semester, learning everything they could and reporting back to their class various metrics and things that would hopefully be of some use in their future lives as globetrotting financiers.
For me it was an excuse to spend an entire semester away from school and, by magical happenstance, to work at the legendary independent bookstore, Chapman Books.
Chapman Books was no ordinary bookstore. It was a huge white building of about 150 years of age that was part bookstore, part home, part architects office, part wildlife sanctuary and garden.
It was the prototypical small town independent bookseller.
The front lawn was a wildflower garden with a giant laburnum tree and turtle pond. The antique front door rang a little bell when someone entered into a sprawling old place.
Once inside a person would behold books on handmade wooden shelfs, an comfy old chair under a lamp beside a fireplace, a couple of cats prowling the floor or lolling on the counter near the rotary dial phone and the antique hand cranked receipt machine.
There were no computers at Chapman Books. No devices designed for inventory management beyond the bookseller him/herself.
The only piece of technology that was admitted for us to use was a solar-powered calculator. We were allowed to use this only because it performed an important function and was powered by the sun.
Everything was done by memory. Every book was shelved and sourced by a bookseller.
No Word Stock. No Amazon.
Just real human interactions, memory, and a (relatively) pure connection between writer, publisher, bookseller, book, and reader.
I showed up at the gate to Chapman Books on my first co-op day like a question that no bookseller wanted to answer.
Full-on mullet, mall-bought Billabong surfer shorts, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk t-shirt, and a copy of HP Lovecraft’s Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre in hand.
I was reading Poe, Lovecraft, record sleeve liner notes, and role-playing games manuals almost exclusively in those days.
The summers were longer then if I recall correctly.
My co-op placement at Chapman Books changed my life in more ways than I can recount here.
By the time it was over I was reading Dorothy Parker and Jeanette Winterson, Kurt Vonnegut, Vlad Nabokov, and Martin Amis.
I witnessed the hysteria and uncertainty surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
In other words I sold a lot of copies of that book. I got to listen in on those conversations. The daily news and books and ideas – life and death! – were colliding at that time.
Rushdie went into hiding. Granta published some of his little essays in pamphlet editions. It was an amazing time.
I was hooked.
But the greatest story of my time as bewildered, eager, and increasingly curious co-op student becoming indie bookseller happened on a Thursday afternoon when I handed Joanna Chapman, the owner of Chapman Books, dear friend of mine, and relentless champion of all that is worth fighting for, a report for my co-op class at CfES that she needed to initial.
The report was one of those two page stapled sheets that lists a series of tasks and objectives to be covered that week by the student and then confirmed by co-op placement proprietor.
That particular report wanted to know various percentages of display place allocated for merchandise versus revenue generated per square foot and perhaps strategies for discounting older product or some such capitalistic breakdowns of the business/consumer relationship.
Joanna took the stapled sheets from me and scanned the pages.
A slight shake of her head had me thinking that I’d made some foolish notation somewhere. Then she openly scoffed, put the sheets down on the desk and pulled the pen from behind her ear and leaned in to sign her name on the appointed line.
Instead of just signing her name Joanna, in that loose looping handwriting that came to confound me almost daily over the next 10 years, wrote, “THERE IS MORE TO THIS BUSINESS THAN THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR! (signed) JOANNA CHAPMAN.”
At that moment so much was revealed and confirmed for me.
I took those papers back to my class with pride.
I spent 10 years working for Chapman Books – with gaps here and there for travel and school.
I don’t regret a single second of it. Bookselling is an incredible experience and education.
I hope that more indie booksellers take a chance on young co-op students.
It’s the right thing to do.