Making use of local talent has been an important part of Jane Hirst (left) and Lois Watson’s method of operation. Here they pose for a picture taken by local photographer Erin Wallis

Buying Coho Books a good story for two Campbell River women

Vancouver Island is a bit of a hotbed for independent booksellers

The owners of Coho Books can relate to the old expression “a kid in a candy” shop.

Jane Hirst and Lois Watson bought the longtime independent book retailer in April because the avid readers “couldn’t imagine living in a town that didn’t have a book store.”

“We loved reading books. We loved talking about books. We loved reading about books,” Hirst says. “So that was sort of the passion part of the decision to buy the business.”

Hirst and Watson met at a local book club and became friends. One day Watson came to Hirst and asked if she would be interested in buying Coho Books. Then-owner Pirkko Anderson was retiring and had the Shopper’s Row business up for sale. Watson was just closing a small business and was looking to get involved in something else. Hirst, meanwhile, has worked in the non-profit sector for most of her career. Neither had owned a book store before.

One thing that made the prospect of owning the bookstore more palatable was the fact that it was a well-established business and well-known and respected in the community.

It might have seemed like a risky prospect getting involved in an industry that was undergoing change due to technology and dominance by large corporate book sellers. But Hirst points out the initial surge in interest in e-reader has abated somewhat and stats are showing that the purchase of printed books is increasing.

“That certainly reflects the experience of our customers,” Hirst says.

Hirst says eBooks are a great if you’re going away on a trip and want to load up on some reading material. But a lot of people are still showing a preference for the printed product and holding a novel in their hands.

“People continue to still talk to us about the importance to them of being able to open a new book and to hold a new book and to have books around their home,” Hirst says.

And the independent bookseller is not going anywhere any time soon, either. In fact, Vancouver Island is a bit of a hotbed for independent booksellers.

“A lot of the communities support independent book stores,” she says.

Hirst expected that online sellers like Amazon or Chapters would be their main big competitor but that is not proving to be the case. It’s not just that Coho customers are often not interested in shopping online or don’t like to use their credit card online but it’s also because a lot of Coho’s business is special order books. Whereas online retailers carry bestsellers, Coho’s customers are often looking for a specific book and know that Coho can get it for them.

“They come in with their list because they know we can (get it for them),” Hirst says.

But there’s another component of Coho customers’ behaviour and that is their belief in not just shopping local, but living local.

“People often comment about the importance of supporting the local store,” Hirst says. “We believe in that as well; shopping local and living local and the importance of doing that.”

There’s an ethic of supporting local businesses but also in dealing with real people, face-to-face interaction and enjoying the atmosphere of a bookstore.

“You can’t talk books with people on Amazon,” Hirst says.

But old fashioned values of customer serivce are still important too. Customers who believe in an ideal don’t eliminate the need for a business to provide people with a great experience when they walk in the door.

And shopping local works both ways for Coho Books. They work with local businesses to provide them with services like graphic design products and photography.

Hirst points out that they benefit from shopping local in another way. She says they’re thankful for the support they get from local teachers. Coho doesn’t supply textbooks but district teachers make a point of shopping with them when it comes time to providing supplementary reading material for their students and that is greatly appreciated.

She also says there’s a real camaraderie amongst Shopper’s Row and downtown retailers. Their fellow merchants are often quick to provide advice and assistance.

“People have been very generous with their advice and words of wisdom for a couple of retailers who haven’t done retailing before,” Hirst says.

When they first got into the business, one of their biggest challenges was finding out what Campbell Riverites like to read. One thing that has helped them with that is the use of a data base service which keeps track of what is selling and who is buying. It also keeps track of trends across the province.

They buy their books from large and small publishers but they tend not to focus on mass-market paperbacks. Those kinds of books are readily available from large retailers like Walmart and Costco.

“We can’t compete with the Costcos and Walmarts of the world so we choose not to,” Hirst says.

What they do well with is children’s books, fiction, mysteries and fantasy. During the tourist season, guide books, outdoor books and West Coast non-fiction do well. “Mind, body, spirit” books are also popular.

Genre popularity can be seasonal, as well. The afore-mentioned outdoor books and local travel material are popular in the tourist season. Then as you move into the late summer and fall, cookbooks and how-to books that deal with things like canning come into demand.

In the immediate future they intend to explore ways to keep bringing people into the store with things like readings and author visits.

So, for a couple of new booksellers, Coho’s Hirst and Watson seem to have hit the ground running and are keeping the local bookstore concept alive and well in Campbell River.

“It’s going really well,” Hirst says. “We get lots of positive comments about the store.”

They moved the store two doors down from its longtime previous location. The new address is 1066 Shoppers Row and, of course, it has a website at www.cohobooks.com.