25 Years Marks the Spot

Bookmark Halifax celebrates milestone anniversary
Bookmark Halifax opened its doors in December 1989. Michael Hamm has been manager since 2001.

 Bookmark Halifax celebrates a milestone anniversary

When it comes to bookstores, let alone independent bookstores, twenty-five years is a major milestone. Something to not only celebrate, but to praise. Bookmark started in Charlottetown in 1972, and went on to open the doors of its Halifax location in 1989. Since then many things have changed in the world of publishing and retail, but this Halifax-based bookshop is more than just a place to buy books, it’s an institution.

Michael Hamm has been the manager at Bookmark’s Halifax location since 2001. Before we sit down to have a chat about the store, the selections, the current climate in book publishing and retail, he starts talking about his customers, and what they mean to him and his staff. He mentions how one of his customers, a European ex-pat, told him what the store means to her. “One of the reasons why she wants to remain living in Halifax is that we are here,” he says. “And that really underlined it for me. People have that much goodwill for us. It kind of amazed me.”

Tell me how you got into working at Bookmark.

I started selling books in 1981 after university. I was working for a chain called Readmore. I applied to work at Bookmark as a bookseller in 1998. Later on in 2001, there was a long-term manager who wanted to move on and I was fortunate enough to get his job.

A customer just walked into the door. Describe them for me, and what their experience at Bookmark should be like. 

Our average customer is a resident who lives close by. They are usually very well read which is why our store has become a niche subject store. Sure, we sell the blockbusters too, but it’s all about the hidden gems. We do a lot in sales with history, philosophy, poetry – things that in a general interest bookstore would be neglected. We do really well with them. We draw on university students and faculty, as well as downtown residents, and the people who are our core shoppers. They love the fact that we have that mix. They love the fact that they know us, and we know them.

We have people who tell us they get a different vibe from our store than any other store. They know that we want to treat customers as if we were on the other side of the counter. We want to present them with knowledge, be respectful and polite, and I’m sure that’s the case with other independent stores in the country.  What few rules we have in the store, we bend them at will to help people who shop with us.

Tell me about the selection process of what goes onto the shelves. Bookmark is known for the sheer diversity of titles, without seeming like it’s trying to pander to everyone.

True. There have been some stores that I have known who wouldn’t stock the Twilight series, because it wouldn’t fit their profile. But we have no qualms with that or other blockbusters. However, we don’t feature them in our windows. That’s for local books, because thats what helps us pay the bills, and people want them. When I sit with sales reps, I kind of know overall what people would want, but there are also individual titles for individual customers that I will put on the shelf. I know a certain fellow who loves musicals, dramatists, and classical composers, so anything in that range, I will bring in for him. I will bring in one copy. I don’t need ten, I only need one. Those are the decisions that come in stocking the store. And local books are a huge part of what we do. So companies like Nimbus and Formac and Goose Lane are very important to our store.

How so?

I have been at national conferences, and I would ask people from outside our region about regional publishing in their area.  And I see that Atlantic Canada has an incredibly strong publishing scene. Sometimes a locally published book is our best performing book of the year. It’s brilliant because you see Sue Goyette selling more than Jonathan Franzen. Or last year, the book on Dr. Goldbloom was our best-selling book. All those heavyweights have big celebrity, but our local readership supports the local authors.

You’ve mentioned your staff. You select the books that come into your store with care. Part of a successful store is its staff. Do you select them in the same manner?

It’s intuitive. People come in and apply, and they may think they are at a disadvantage because they don’t know about cash registers or stocking systems. But the fact that they love books and love to talk about books, those are the things I want to see in someone. We were all customers at Bookmark before we became employees.

Retail in 1989 and retail in 2014 are two very different things. On the book front, Halifax used to boast a lot of bookstores in its downtown core, both new and used. That number has dwindled dramatically. Why do you think Bookmark has stayed the course?

It’s the depth and mix of our inventory, and our staff. Even with a lot of the mainstream blockbuster books, our customers know they can get them elsewhere, and yet they choose to get them from us.

Everybody who works here is invested in the store: people who work full-time to part-time students who work a couple nights, they all become invested in it. It’s kind of like the British way of looking at bookselling: it’s a profession. You have to be an expert on so many things. I don’t cook, but I know about cookbooks. I don’t read philosophy, but I have to know about good philosophy books. The people who look at it as just as job, they move on. But the people who become Bookmark people, they stay.

And last but not least, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading a dystopian novel set in Toronto called Station Eleven. It’s by Emily Mandel and it’s about a global pandemic that wipes out almost all of Earth’s population. I have a pile of easily thirty books on my nightstand waiting to be read. My kitchen cupboards are full of books. There is a waffle mix sitting next to my Tolstoy.

Written By

Simon Thibault is a Halifax-based journalist and food writer. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Vice, East Coast Living, Saltscapes, and is a regular contributor to CBC Radio in the Maritimes. Palate and Pantry is his first book.

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