Thursday, April 25, 2013

40 Years Young

Forty years ago, a very young couple looking for something that would allow their passions to shape their life decided to open a bookstore. They had no idea whether it would work—in fact, publishers from Toronto told them that Guelph had enough bookstores. Well, of course they didn’t listen, and who does at that age? With desire overruling reason, glee leading the way, and a ridiculously small amount of money, they took the plunge.

After months of incessant talking and neurotic planning, they opened their first 900-square-foot store at 67 Macdonnell Street in May, 1973. They knew nothing about the book business and studied their own bookshelves for titles and publishers. They knew nothing about retail and, in fact, six months later they were so exhausted from working at Christmas that they closed the store between Christmas and New Year’s—one of the busiest weeks of the year.

What they also didn’t realize is that they would come of age in the golden years of Canadian writing and publishing. The Canada Council was flush and stimulated the literary economy with young writers who would soon become famous: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Timothy Findley, Farley Mowat, Dennis Lee, Margaret Laurence, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Al Purdy. These names still give Canada literary gravitas.

The following decades were full of change and challenges. Friendly service and knowledge were The Bookshelf’s raison d’être. The three national chains—Classics, Coles, and W. H. Smith—pummelled each other and everyone else and ended up insolvent and are no more. Then there was the era of computerization.  At first Bookshelfers had to go around the store and squint at endless checklists to reorder the small number of precious titles. Then they had to write the order up, keep carbon copies on file, send it via snail mail, and perhaps receive it in about a month or so. This was painful and cumbersome so, as true DIYers, they designed their own elegant and efficient computer system that is still the envy of every bookstore in the country.

Because necessity is the mother of invention, when a large mall opened in the late 70s and hollowed out the downtown, they decided to relocate and start the first bookstore café in Canada. A few years later they added a second floor and created the only bookstore/café/cinema/bar in the world! And in the 90s they created the first online bookstore in Canada, sold it to Indigo, and promptly gave all of their businesses more breathing room by expanding into the building next door. They called this The Great Leap Sideways, and it allowed them to host hundreds of writers, many of Canada’s best indie bands, and even a director or two.

These two (now old) people have had thousands of employees in the last forty years. In the 80s a common question from customers was, “Is this a cooperative?” We presume this question reflects the fact that people who work here actually care about their jobs. So we express our gratitude to all of our employees, with particular attention to long-time partners Peter Henderson, Ken Hood, Peter Coleman, and Dan Evans, more recent stalwarts Michelle Soucie, Cat Novoa, Bruce Dadey, Stephanie Minett, Edwin Hammond, Karen Leslie, Andrew Hood, and Dave Bazinet, and a few notables from the thousand stars of the past: Brian Skerrett, Jeff Sample, Kirsty Coles, Rich Gorasso, Patrick Martin, Scott Nelles, Jordan Gabriel, Dino Busato, Jocelyn Palmer, Val Morse, Susan Turner, Joy Weiss, Joan Rentoul, Dawn Matheson, Russel Spears, Carolyn Pletsch, Nancy Giovinazzo, Noah Genner, Tim Middleton, Mark Laird, Joan Freeman, and Michael Tamblyn.
What of the future? Everyone says these are grim times for the book industry. What has allowed The Bookshelf to endure and, we hope, thrive has been the kind of innovation that makes it, for some people, a cultural centre of Guelph. Maintaining links with the community through readings and book launches, local CD releases, movies, and many other community activities has been the lifeblood that makes it all worthwhile. We are very proud to say that our two adult children, Ben and Hannah Minett, have taken over general management of The Bookshelf. They couldn’t imagine Guelph without it. They will have two very seasoned veterans to mentor them during an uncertain but exciting retail era. And we know that you also will wish them luck and success. Please stay tuned, as our latest innovation will be revealed soon!

Watch on our website for details about our 40 Years Young celebration, which will take place June 7. Thank you so much for collaborating with us for what seems a lifetime!

- Barb and Doug Minett

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