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Owner of Munro’s Books in Victoria hands over shop to employees

An Alice Munro book on the shelves at Munro's Books in Victoria.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As Jim Munro exits the bookselling business after 50 years, he has a sobering bit of advice for anyone who would consider following him into the same line of work.

"I would say 'Don't do it,' Too uncertain, it always was," says Munro, who is retiring from running his iconic Munro's Books, located in an early 20th-century bank building in downtown Victoria. "It's a tough time for the book business."

He notes that before Amazon, people had to buy books from booksellers. That isn't the case now: "It is a real challenge for any independent bookseller these days," he says.

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Despite the caution, things worked out well for Munro. He started a store in Victoria with his then-wife, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and it eventually moved into its current location. Munro says he spent many years working six days a week.

But he was up to beating the odds. At the age of 84, he gladly faces retirement having passed the store on to four senior employees who will operate it starting this September. Although they will pay him rent for the 4,500-square foot operation, he is basically giving them the store and its inventory.

A chuckling Munro says in an interview that he decided, once he turned 80, that it was time to begin plotting his departure from the independent book business.

"Once you get past 80, you realize you're not the person you once were. It's just a very slow decline," he says, laughing. "I want to get out on a high note because you, sort of, lose it when you get older. You forget things more, and so on."

The four new operators aim to carry on Munro's retailing tradition. The inventory hovers around 30,000 books at any given time. The successors will be store manager Jessica Walker, senior buyer Carol Mentha, comptroller Sarah Frye and operations manager Ian Cochran.

Munro says his staff – "my extended family" – face challenging times, but are up to surviving them. "The book business has changed so much. We're on Facebook now. There's a whole new generation that has taken over in the last 10 or 15 years. It's time to let them run things," he says.

Over the years, he says, senior employees had a big hand in making the store a success. "It's going to require a great deal of energy and thought and originality to keep it going, but they have got it," he adds. "I have every confidence they can run it."

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He says Munro's survived by offering what consumers were looking for and emphasizing customer service, from special orders to knowledgeable recommendations. He says he always found it important to closely track what is selling. Certain books, such as dictionaries, are no longer selling, for example, while there's still a market for art books, biographies, Canadiana and children's literature.

If certain categories of books were selling well, he would build up those sections. "I check out everything every month to see how we're doing," he says.

Owning the building that houses Munro's was also key. In 1984, he bought it for $360,000, then had it restored, stripping away cheap linoleum floors and a false ceiling to restore its intended splendor. It was not just a store to Munro; he saw it as a tourist attraction.

He says the previous owners had done "a lot of dumb things" in the 1950s as they tried to modernize the space. "Nobody wanted a used bank building. It took me two years, but they came down to my price," he recalls. "Everybody thought I was crazy at the time."

But he acted because he had always been a bit of a megalomaniac. "My hero was Louis XIV," he says wryly with a chuckle that suggests he's kidding, sort of. "I say it was partly sheer megalomania that made me buy the building, but I thought it would work. I looked at what we were paying for rent where we were and the payments on the mortgage, and I thought, 'We could do that.'"

"I've had a really good time," adds Munro, who was a manager in the fabric department of Eaton's department store in Vancouver when he decided to pursue his love of books and open a store in Victoria. Vancouver was a non-starter for opening a bookstore because the market was dominated by the venerable Duthie Books chain (which would close down in 2010 after 52 years). "Somehow I just feel this is the time to go."

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Walker, who has worked at the store for 14 years, says she and the team are mindful of the responsibility ahead: "We're really looking forward to the privilege of being able to carry the Munro's legacy forward," she says.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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