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It’s harder than ever to be a bookseller but I’m not shelving my business dreams

This First Person column is written by Annabel Townsend, a business owner based in Regina. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.

Once upon a time, I opened a bookstore. A week later, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared.

I knew entrepreneurship was not for the faint of heart, but I’ve come to realize that I fear boredom more than I fear catastrophic failure.

My bookselling dreams came about almost by accident — as all the best adventures do. I had first begun my entrepreneurial career with a coffee shop in 2009, but as a lifelong book lover and aspiring writer, books soon followed me into the cafe in the form of a large book exchange. In the years since then, I’d opened a few other coffee shop ventures. 

Those cafe ventures didn’t prove successful, but then I realized there are a great many coffee shops in Regina, but very few bookstores. Slowly, an idea formed. Instead of a coffee shop with books in it, I switched to a book shop with a coffee bar in it.

Surviving the pandemic disruption

When the pandemic hit, I didn’t shelve my entrepreneurial plans to find an alternate safe, comfortable salaried job. I persisted and grew not in spite of COVID-19 but perhaps because of it. When else but during lockdown would people get around to reading their book piles? Suddenly, books were in high demand.

Not being able to open my doors, and later, enforcing capacity restrictions inside my bookstore pushed me into new and unwelcome territory. Out of necessity rather than choice, I built a digital store where people could buy books online. The fatal flaw with this pivot was, of course, that there is already this fairly large company that also sells books online, and now I was trying to compete with Amazon.

A sign saying Book Shop hangs outside a business stoop, with snow in the background.
Keeping the lights on and a business running feels hard, but the cold Saskatchewan winters can pose an extra challenge for Townsend to get customers through the doors. (Submitted by Annabel Townsend)

But all was not lost. I discovered I had a unique selling point: free local delivery — by bicycle. It wasn’t merely a gimmick. I don’t drive so my bike is a mandatory part of operations. The pitch worked. My deliveries and curated book subscription boxes, coupled with overwhelming community support, kept the business going throughout the pandemic.

I kept pedalling. At times, I would cycle to work in the snow, feeling appropriately bleak about the world as befitted the frigid environment. On days that reached as cold as -40 C with windchill, my eyelashes would frost over and give me Canadian mascara.

“Entrepreneurship requires dedication” — that’s what I would tell myself as I pedalled, digits aching with cold as I slogged through 90 minutes of cycling. 

I tried to convince myself I would acclimatize. My business survived four winters already. Four difficult holiday seasons, four Januarys with record-breaking extremes of temperature and 1,044 kilometres of deliveries clocked on my bicycle. Four years of tracking public health mandates, masking, restrictions, checking vaccination statuses, interest rate hikes, inflation, adapting, pivoting and leaping through hoops. 

A call for help in desperate times

The worst is supposedly over and I’m determined not to let this winter be the one that breaks it.

But times are extremely hard in retail just now — well, times are hard for everyone.

WATCH | Rising costs for craft breweries: 

its harder than ever to be a bookseller but im not shelving my business dreams 1

Craft brewers struggle to stay afloat amid soaring rents, dropping sales

2 months ago

Duration 1:56

The affordability crisis is hitting Canada’s craft beer industry hard as soaring rents and declining beer sales are pushing some brewers to the edge. Some entrepreneurs say if things don’t turn around, they’ll probably go out of business.

In general, people are buying fewer books. In 2023, our holiday sales were insufficient to cover the brutal Saskatchewan winters when no one goes out shopping. The store was quiet. The bills piled up. I had exhausted my borrowing options. Things were looking desperate.

I texted my husband.

“What does your credit rating look like?”

I was half-joking but he called his bank. They didn’t even ask what the money was for. Within minutes, he had solved the financial catastrophe that I had been losing sleep over for months.

To say I’m relieved is an understatement. I am gushingly grateful. But I can’t shake the resentment it was that easy for him. It feels like he’s the responsible adult in this relationship — he has a sensible salaried job with benefits, he has savings and even a pension. On paper, he’s the safer bet.

But it feels so unfair. I was the one who built the bookstore from nothing, who works more hours, who employs and pays four people, who forgoes a salary when times are tough, who plans and schemes and pivots and does financial acrobatics and learns everything on the fly and worries all night. I do it on my own without guidance or instruction and without a safety net. 

And yet, I needed my husband’s help. 

My friend sympathized with me. “It really stings in the feminism, doesn’t it?”

A red-haired woman in a black shirt opens boxes of books.
Despite the challenges, Townsend says she’s committed to doing her best to keep her business going. (CBC News)

Mild economic envy aside, my husband has saved the day. Soon after his intervention, I get another online order. I emailed the invoice and it was paid within minutes. The delivery address was right behind my house so I didn’t need to go on a freezing bike ride.

I took the book home with me and put it in his mailbox as I passed. When I checked my phone one last time before bed, I found a 5-star review waiting. 

“Ordered this at lunch. On my doorstep by 4 p.m. Beat that, Amazon!”

And that allowed me to relax. This is why I do it all. And this is why I will continue, no matter what.

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This article is from from (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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