“I think indie bookstores are a unique part of a community. They provide a place for people to commune and share what they enjoy reading or learning about with like-minded people.”
2023 marks a major milestone for Allison the Bookman in North Bay, ON. This beloved, family-run shop has been in operation for 50 years and is known for its wide selection of new, used, and rare books, as well as its knowledgeable staff and friendly atmosphere. We spoke with third-generation owner, Annette Allison-Vander Waal, about the store’s incredible history, growing up in a family of booksellers, and more.
You’re celebrating 50 years in 2023. That is an amazing achievement! Can you tell us how the store came to be?
The store was founded on May 1, 1973, by my grandparents Gord & Esther Allison – an interracial couple and one of the few in the area at the time. My grandfather’s dream was to open a bookstore that focused on good, old-fashioned customer service. He had been a printer and a postman prior to become a bookseller, but he always loved books – especially poetry and history. As did my grandmother, who was an avid reader of mysteries. It was through their combined passion that the store came to be.
The store has been passed down through three generations. What was it like growing up in a family of independent booksellers?
As the store is only one year older than me, I’ve been running around it since I was in diapers. It was always like having my own lending library – I remember stopping at the store to grab books before spending the weekend with my grandparents and grabbing more on the way home. We were always encouraged to read growing up. I recall many family gatherings when I was young where “book talk” was when someone would start reciting poetry or tell us to look something up in grandpa’s or gran’s libraries. Now I get to watch my great nephew and his love of books growing just like so many others in our family.
I worked in the store multiple times prior to taking over, as did other family members. Even though I now own the store it still doesn’t necessarily feel like mine even after all these years. It still feels like my grandparents or dad could walk through the door anytime.
Can you describe the store for readers? What can visitors expect to find when they enter your shop?
As you enter the alcove between window displays, you’re greeted by team members offering a hello and offering their help should you need it. People are often surprised and delighted as they come around the corner to realize how big the store really is (3000 square feet).
We frequently receive compliments on our organization within the store and how well we know our stock. We carry both used and new books. Our store has genre sections and large themed areas such as Classics, Fiction, Nonfiction, Canadian, YA, and Children’s Books. All of our books are labeled and catalogued – which is unusual for a brick-and-mortar that deals in both used and new books. Our customers really appreciate this.
We have heard many stories from your customers about how important this store is to them. What do you think the role of an indie bookstore is within the community?
I think indie bookstores are a unique part of a community. They provide a place for people to commune and share what they enjoy reading or learning about with like-minded people. Recently, we started dealing in earnest with local authors. A fellow bookstore owner who used to host all the events in town retired and we felt we needed to step up and provide a space for local authors to connect with their audiences.
Customers often tell us that the store feels different than larger retail chains – they are more comfortable walking around and browsing. That in-person experience is important to them. It isn’t something you can get from buying online.
What is something our readers might be surprised to learn about your shop?
Most people are surprised to learn that we also have our own online store! You can browse our stock and select pick up, mail out, or delivery as options. This isn’t common for indie bookstores like ours. We’ve worked hard to grow with the times so we can compete in the marketplace. My dad and my husband were both instrumental in helping us achieve this.
We often ask booksellers about upcoming books they love but I’d love to know: do you have any backlist titles that are customer favourites and always in stock?
The classics – Jane Austen, the Brontes, Agatha Christie, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, etc. – are reliably in demand. These are the books we purchase new when we don’t have used stock. Nineteen Eighty-Four is our most popular book. Whether we have it new or used, it always sells quickly. Basically anything by Sarah J. Maas and Colleen Hoover does well and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series continues to sell. The same goes for Canadian authors like Louise Penny, Richard Wagamese, Basil Johnston, Margaret Atwood, and Thomas King.
Customers also always ask for the usual favourites – books by Lee Child, James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Nora Roberts. We frequently sell through all of Oprah’s backlist. Being a new and used store, you see things a little differently. For example, our customers are often seeking works by out-of-print authors like Dana Fuller Ross, older sci-fi/fantasy, and books published by The Highway Book Shop.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
Honestly, I most love connecting people with books they have been searching for and seeing young people coming back to reading books over screens.
On a personal note, I’d say that vellichor is part of who I am. While I love new books, there is nothing like the smell of a used bookstore. Dealing in primarily used books, you can’t help but love the excitement of what could come through the door, including collectibles that you might have never touched if you didn’t work in a used bookstore. There is something in how it feels to deal with used books that sticks with you. You never know how many lives were touched by one book, shared amongst family and friends, but it’s nice to think about.