Inside Bolen Books' four-plus decades of success in Victoria
How the family run business competes with other bookstores (and Amazon) in 2021
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How the family run business competes with other bookstores (and Amazon) in 2021
Capital Daily business coverage is supported by Tiny but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Tiny had no editorial input into this story.
Samantha Bolen always found it ironic that she succeeded her mother as owner of Bolen Books.
It’s not because she didn’t work in the store as a kid; she did. It’s not because she didn’t enjoy how Victorians resonated so positively over the years to her family’s book store; she did. It’s not because she didn’t help plan out the store’s move to its current location in 1996; she did.
It was because she was turned off from reading at a young age.
“I always tell this story because I would read a book at school, and I’d enjoy it. Let’s say it was [George Orwell’s] 1984, and then [teachers] would tell me that everything that I thought about that book was wrong. They’d say this is what this book is about and give this deep analysis,” Bolen said.
“I like to read as an escape.”
As she got older, Bolen rediscovered her love of books—today, she primarily reads biographies and fiction stories at her own pace—and gravitated towards the operational side of the family business.
In 2010, she purchased the business from her mother.
Bolen Books was founded in the winter of 1975 inside Hillside Shopping Centre, and has moved locations four times within the mall to accommodate its growing audience.
In 1996, Bolen Books moved into a near-20,000-square-foot location in the south end of the mall and received attention nationwide for becoming one of the biggest independent bookstores in Canada.
Although Bolen worked in the book shop as a kid at the age of 10, she says the move in 1996 solidified her passion for working in the store.
Specifically, before mega chain stores like Chapters/Indigo popped up across the country, Bolen was excited by working with her mother to plan Bolen’s big move.
“We designed it together [with] an artist friend of hers, and we were interviewed nationally because publishers were thrilled this was a big book store,” Bolen said.
“At that point, I felt that people were looking at this store as something that was a little bit unusual. That I had a hand in that made me feel proud, and this is more of a destiny for me.”
The Capital Region District boasts a rich history of local bookshops.
Bolen Books has been recognized nationally by winning the Bookseller of the Year award by the Canadian Booksellers Association on two separate occasions.
Alongside Bolen’s, Munro’s Books downtown was ranked as the third best book store in the world in 2016 by National Geographic—edging out Portland, Oregon’s famous Powell’s Books, the world’s largest independent bookseller, who ranked fifth.
Over in Sidney, a cluster of local bookstores near Beacon Avenue has helped establish a tourist attraction in the city called “Sidney Booktown.”
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Bolen enjoys how bookshops in the region have helped contribute to a strong literary presence in Victoria, and she takes pride in the fact that Bolen is recognized as a successful operation among her competitors.
A reason why her store may succeed over others, Bolen says, is their location.
Being nestled in a popular shopping mall at the junction of various neighbourhoods has helped make Bolen’s a community hub.
“We are in an area that pulls from Uplands, Gordon Head, right around here in Oaklands neighbourhood,” she said.
She adds that introducing card sets, stuffed animals, and board games to the shop’s floor has made Bolen’s feel like a neighbourhood centre for folks of all ages.
“It’s a very walkable area, it’s very unusual to have a mall that has a backdoor to homes that are right there… This is more of a hub, and Bolen Books has become more of a ‘thing to do’ rather than just a ‘place to go.’”
Competing in 21st century
It’s no secret that the book industry has evolved over the decades since Bolen Books first opened their doors in 1975.
Since launching in 1995 as a website that only sold books, Amazon has become a global force in online retail. The pandemic only helped grow Amazon’s brand as their profit grew by 220% last year. In the final quarter of 2020, specifically, CNBC reported they made $950,000 in revenue per minute.
While it’s tough for any business to compete with those staggering figures, Bolen admits they have had to adapt to keep up with consumer trends—namely the ordering and stocking processes.
“Looking at competition with online retailers who tell you that you can have a book in two days, and the publishers were taking three weeks to receive our copies,” Bolen said. “How can we adapt?”
Bolen employs staff whose sole job is to order, reorder books, and diagnose sales in store and on their website to see what customers are purchasing minute by minute. Bolen’s ordering staff will also scan through the book catalogues of publishers, and then provide an estimation of how many books of an author or genre they believe their consumers would be interested in.
“What am I looking for? I’m looking for each book I buy to be successful,” Bolen says.
There’s a variety of factors that go into the purchasing process: including the physical cover, author, season of the year it’s released in, price point, and level of publicity behind the book.
However, Bolen believes it’s important for her book shop to serve as a library that has a collection of different topics—including areas of readership that have been historically underrepresented, or authors she doesn’t personally agree with.
“This store has got to be a safe place for people to come and express their feelings in an unjudged place… If you think about Trump, there are pro-Trump books in the store. Why is that? Because you want to know what those people are thinking,” Bolen says.
“We try not to take a position politically, but we feel that there are some issues like the Black Lives Matter or horrors we’re discovering about Canada’s Indigenous children that we need to support.”
Bolen’s daughter, Madeline, is also involved in the store which makes it a third-generation business. Madeline recently had a child, and although she was briefly deterred from reading in grade school, Bolen has enjoyed picking up Dr. Seuss books to read with her granddaughter.
Maybe, she jokes, a fourth generation of family will enter into the family business.
Capital Daily: What does Victoria need to make it easier to run a business here?
Samantha Bolen: A Victoria business association who realizes the City of Victoria is more than just downtown. Bolen Books pays City of Victoria taxes but we rarely receive the benefits or recognition that the downtown tourist businesses receive.
What worries you the most about your business?
Bolen: I worry that the rising costs of everything from taxes, rent, staff costs, and shipping will make it difficult to support a business with set pricing. Most businesses can adjust their pricing to reflect the rising costs but our books are priced by the publisher so we cannot change or accommodate the increases.
What excites you the most about your business?
Bolen: I love how all our books change every season. When something exciting happens, or a new trend begins in the world, there is always a book to support it. We stay current with what is happening because we see all the new ways people are living in the world through this store.
What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?
Bolen: James McKenzie from Monk Office has been a dear friend to me as has Len Wansbrough and Marsha Mara. All three have influenced [my] business decisions over the years. My accountant Mike Dickson has also held my hand through our transitions and negotiations for decades. I really want to take this opportunity to thank all of them so very much.
If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?
Bolen: What a great question! I think I would try to run the Market Garden! They are so eclectic in their product and food choices and everyone who works there seems to love their job. Also, they have the best poppy seed strudel in town.
If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?
Bolen: Today, I would invest/donate that money to the Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour (SNIWWOC.ca). Investing in the community and lifting up the voices of women in our community who have been silenced before is something I feel will change Victoria for the better moving forward.
How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?
Bolen: Before the pandemic I was in a transition where I was moving towards semi retirement. Now through all the difficulties we have faced as a business I have emerged feeling completely renewed in my energies and inspiration for Bolen Books. The staff that work with me at the store are so loyal and unbelievable in their dedication to this store that they make me excited to come to work every day. I am so grateful to all of them for working so hard through such difficult times
What, if anything, did you learn from the pandemic about your business?
Bolen: We can change so quickly. We can and will do anything to keep our customers. We had made so many accommodations for our customers during the pandemic from after-hours shopping to curbside pickups and home deliveries. Everyone here was invested in the store's continued success, including customers. Some customers were so grateful for what we were able to do for them they would send cards or gifts which lifted the spirits of the staff when we needed it most.
We will continue to change as the restrictions lift but some things will stay and never go back to the way they were before. For example, right now I believe, we will always have a greeter at each entrance to the store as this has proven to be an excellent way to engage the customer in a new way and make them feel comfortable in our environment.
What do you consider your biggest failure, and how did you overcome it?
Bolen: I do not have a post secondary education. I have felt insecure about that my whole life. I [felt] frustrated I might [not] have been able to drive my company in ways I can't even imagine.
How did I overcome that? I engage and employ smart educated people who recognize and love this store to help me make the right decisions. I also have an amazing husband who tells me every day how smart I am. If you want to know my biggest strength, obviously answering interview questions, but really it is work-life balance. I feel strongly that time with family is just as important as work.
What do you wish you knew before taking over as owner of Bolen Books?
Bolen: When I purchased the store from my mother in 2010, the mall was in the process of renovating the aesthetic. Since then, so many things have happened, from Target opening then closing and then Canadian Tire taking forever to open. I think if I had more experience, I could have negotiated my lease to reflect the downturn in mall traffic during those hard times.