Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Change My Life Again

One of my favourite pics of me at Titles Bookstore
Friday September 30, 2011 was my last day at Titles Bookstore McMaster University.

It was a bitter-sweet ending for me.

Very tough to decide to leave; but sweet to be leaving in order to explore some exciting new horizons.

I started at the bookstore at the end of the summer in 2006 after having spent 14 years with my previous company. I've always thought of myself as a loyal "stick with it" sort of person, but when you look at the actual details, when I left Indigo, I'd really only worked for Indigo for a few years.

Back in 1992 when I started with that company, the company was called Coles The Book People, and I'd started as a part-time bookseller at the Coles on Sparks Street in Ottawa. And, though I'd been with the same company for 14 years, the company itself evolved as did my roles within in.

In 1994 Coles and Smithbooks merged, creating Chapters. I had moved around in various positions within Coles and Chapters, working at various stores in Ottawa and Hamilton, never staying in a single role for more than a couple of years. Just as I settled in and got comfortable, my regional manager would move me to a different store - it worked out nicely because it gave me exposure to different stores, different environments, different customer bases.

In 1997 Francine and I moved to Hamilton and I worked at the Chapters in Ancaster in the role of Product Manager (which involved a lot of buying which I quite enjoyed). Then in 1999 I moved to the online division of Chapters to learn the ins and outs of electronic data.  Chapters eventually got bought out by Indigo in 2001 and within the changes my roles and responsibilities also morphed.

It was getting to the point where I was becoming more of an IT person and less of a "book" person - that is part of what prompted me to want to move to the bookstore at McMaster in 2006. The other reason was that commuting to Toronto was difficult with a 2 year old son whom I wanted to spend more time with. Leaving a great team was difficult but something I had to do (a feeling I'm experiencing all over again right now)

Interestingly, the place where I got my start, Coles, began in 1940 as an independent bookstore which opened up down the street from University of Toronto, buying and selling used textbooks. How little did I know that textbooks would end up playing such a major role in my bookselling career.

When I moved to the bookstore at McMaster in 2006 I knew a lot about various aspects of the book industry. But I knew virtually nothing about the academic or education side of the book world. Wow. Did my eyes ever open. Little did I know that the role of buying textbooks wasn't the same sort of fun buying that a general or trade book buyer does. But the fact that it's a faculty member deciding what books to buy doesn't make the job any easier. If anything, it makes it three or four times more complex and challenging.

I spent the past five years re-learning the entire book world and being presented with an entirely fresh viewpoint of the academic bookstore. Part of what helped was I had the best of both worlds. I got to work with both general books (the McMaster bookstore boasted one of the largest selections of general trade books a person could find at a University bookstore) as well as with textbooks. The buyers in the general books area had as many years of experience as I did and were true "book people" who actually read and cared for books in that traditional bookseller role. And the textbook buyers had been around even longer; two had started at the McMaster bookstore the year I was born and all three combined had well over 100 years of experience. They certainly taught me a great deal; central to which was always keeping in mind the fact we were there to serve the needs of the students and faculty.

Sue, Linda, Ted, me, Rick, Sherri and Helen - my Course Materials Family at Titles

So many folks that I had the privilege of working with at McMaster taught me so much. The team there was very much like a family to me. Most folks working there had been there for a long time, life-long employees of the university; life-long employees of the bookstore. And, though there weren't as many true die-hard booklovers there as I had originally hoped, they each brought something special and unique to the team. And when times got tough, the team came together and supported one another.

Leaving that family, the special environment I had grown to love over the years was an extremely difficult decision to make. In the five years I had spent at McMaster I feel deeply in love with the campus itself, the people there and the richness of the academic environment. I cared deeply for my store as if it were my own business and as if the expenses came out of my own pocket. And I invested as much of myself in the success of the business as if it were my own.

It was just as difficult leaving the continually growing Espresso Book Machine business there, which I had started to build in 2008, often seeing "Mippy" as my baby.  Mippy is the nickname I gave to our EBM - we called the operation "Titles on Demand" for fun and obvious name recognition for the book lovers or "McMaster Innovation Press" for the more serious or academically inclined -- "Mippy" was my pet name for the "MiP" term. Our EBM business forged entirely new business opportunities, established creative partnerships with local authors and with publishers all around the globe. It has been exciting and rich to be a pioneer in the realm of bringing Print on Demand into a retail bricks and mortar operation. Letting go of that was also very tough.

It was also at McMaster that I became involved in Canadian Booksellers Association, joining the board of directors so that I could see what CBA might be able to offer our campus bookstore. I found great riches and opportunities for booksellers in joining an association that focused on collaboration and booksellers working together, and through that have had the great privilege of serving as President. I also became involved in the Campus Stores Canada group as well as the Canadian Campus Retail Associates group -- two other fine collections of campus people working together and sharing.

But beyond all the fun and wonderful things I got to do because of my role as Book Operations Manager at Titles Bookstore was a very single and unique benefit. During what is known as the "Rush" periods (the typically busy season of returning students in September and January - a campus bookseller's busiest times of year - equivalent to the Christmas and Boxing Day rushes felt in other retail environments) I spent most of my time out on the sales floor helping students. I can't begin to describe just how satisfying it has been to be able to assist students with picking out their required course materials; always attempting to help them make the best decision for their particular circumstances, getting the most value for the least amount of money. It is, of course, a challenging task, particularly given the price of textbooks -- but there were various ways to assist students with saving money by making intelligent decisions based on their own needs, their own study habits and their own long term goals. Walking a first year student through the process and trying to help them make solid decisions that were best for them are among my most cherished memories of working at McMaster. And I had been there long enough to see several students through from their first day until graduation. (Yes, the bookstore also takes care of providing gowns and caps to students - so you got the benefit of seeing a nervous first year student looking for books, then, a few years later, congratulating them on the successful completion of their degree while putting a gown on them - talk about incredible job satisfaction!)

So I had spent 5 years at Titles Bookstore at McMaster. In retrospect, it was the longest time I had been in any single position. That, in and of itself, should speak volumes towards how much I loved my job and loved the campus I was supporting. I love the fact that the bookstore's mandate was to aid the academic process and that, despite everyone's perspective of the campus bookstore as being "the place that rips you off" there was always a "we're here for the students" perspective that never wavered.

Some of the Titles team a couple of years ago during our "Don' Be Trashy - Recycle Your Used Textbooks" promo

So, last Friday was my last day at this wonderful job. My last day working with a group of people who were very much like family.

It was tough to leave, but the opportunities ahead of me are part of my natural evolution and things that will allow me to continue to grow and expand my horizons, teaching me, yet again, a whole new aspect of the book industry.

As Neil Peart wrote in the lyrics to the Rush song "Fly by Night" I had to follow this feeling inside me not to mention that a change in the season is enough of a reason.

So, whenever I can end a blog post by referring to a set of lyrics from Rush, I've done all right.

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