Hamilton Business: How local retailers are staying connected in the age of online commerce

News Apr 13, 2016 by Natalie Paddon Hamilton Spectator

Imagine enjoying the comfort of your cosy, local bookstore.

The smell of the pages. The deep, leather chairs in which to curl up and get lost in your latest read.

Now think about browsing online for new reading material. A quick search can yield thousands of results and with the click of a mouse, your books can be delivered to your doorstep. It's quick, convenient and in many cases, cheaper.

These options are nothing new. Amazon and eBay have both been around for more than 20 years in the United States, the Internet became mainstream in homes in the late 1990s and Indigo launched its online store in 2000.

In that time, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50 per cent, according to Forbes.

It's not just bookstores that have been affected either — it's record stores, video rental stores, travel agencies and the newspaper business, too.

But while the World Wide Web has certainly changed the business landscape and contributed to the demise of many mom-and-pop operations, there are shops in Hamilton that don't plan on going anywhere.

So how are they doing it?

"It's all about figuring out how I can add value in the Internet age," said McMaster University business professor Marvin Ryder.

"If the Internet's going to make it easier for them to do X, then I'd better do Y and then I can fight back. If I keep doing X, if the Internet does it better, I'm going to be squeezed out of business."

A focus on local content is one plan of attack.

Mark Furukawa, who opened Dr. Disc in 1991, said right from the start he made it a priority to liaise with artists in the community.

"One of the 10 commandments of Dr. Disc is to really embed within the local community and be a champion of all things local as far as music and arts are concerned," he said recently in an interview above his Wilson Street store.

In the early 2000s, downloading had taken hold and vinyl and CD sales were plunging.

Furukawa remembers strategizing about how to survive this hard time. To stay alive, he decided to bring the store back to its roots: an all-things-local focus. He ramped up his efforts to become even more of a "champion of all things Hamilton."

"We highlight independent bands and music," Furukawa said. "They're racked right beside a Top 40 — Adele or something like that."

"They're just as important — if not more important — than stocking that top seller."

Being a fixture in the community has always been the vision for Bryan Prince Bookseller as well. Co-owner Tracey Higgins, who took over in 2011, said that from the start they've viewed the Westdale shop as a community hub.

Responding to the demands of local customers, working with groups in and around the city, holding events, giving awards to schools and helping with fundraising are essential.

Book stores are among the few places left in the community where a person can, usually, hang out and browse for half an hour without having anyone bug them.

"We have young couples who, it's a safe icebreaker place where they come in on a Friday or a Saturday for date night," Higgins said.

Some have come in and done Kijiji exchanges, she adds.

"This is a safe place where they're comfortable."

The store is more than OK with having patrons do that.

"It's an indication of the fact that the online stuff serves one purpose, but actually having a physical location and an environment where people feel at home provides a very different kind of service," Higgins said.

A recommended read at Bryan Prince Bookseller. Photo by John Rennison

It's this type of interaction with customers that prompted Chris Dupee and his wife Lori to take over Pickwick Books in Waterdown in 2011.

Dupee had launched an online store — www.thebookscouts.ca — more than 15 years ago, partnering with his parents to sell collectible books.

While the web store and the bricks-and-mortar shop cater to different audiences, he says their sales volumes are similar. Pickwick specializes in rare books, while offering an assortment of mass-market fiction. The Book Scouts site focuses strictly on collectors' items.

Dupee says the in-store crowd is typically older than those who buy from his Internet shop. For him, running a storefront is worthwhile since collectibles tend to be pricey and some of his web customers are wary of parting with that kind of coin digitally.

"There are people who just won't buy online, so we offer a service where they can come in and check our inventory. They're dealing with somebody they can see and trust and know that we're going to be there next week."

This type of commitment — a store being a long-standing fixture in a community — is familiar territory for Brian Jasson. In 1978, at the tender age of 20, he opened a shop downtown called Cheapies Records and Tapes.

He said he's never considered closing.

"I don't give up. I'm stubborn."

It's not that there haven't been hard times. Jasson has made some tough decisions, like shelling out $25,000 in 2005 to stock the store with new records — before owning vinyl became cool again. He made a commitment to stick with them even though record sales tapered off in the early '90s. Fortunately, vinyl's resurgence began to take off in 2006.

"It was stores like this and stores like this in other big cities that I'm sure did the same thing and tried to show kids that playing records is fun. It's a social activity," Jasson said.

Despite the increase in vinyl sales, the number of people coming through the front doors of his King Street East location is down about 75 per cent from its peak around 1990.

At its best, Cheapies was generating $70,000 a week in revenue, Jasson said.

He wouldn't say what the store brings in now, but admitted it pales in comparison.

"It was incredible the amount of product that was coming in and going out the door. I can't even fathom it now."

While book stores and record stores might be struggling, McMaster's Ryder said video rental stores are in even worse shape because of the digital revolution.

Going to rent a movie used to be an adventure where kids could get free popcorn as they browsed the shelves, he said. At that time, stores not only profited from rental fees but from charges for late returns and for not rewinding.

Today, movies can be downloaded online or accessed at home through services like Netflix.

"If you're in the video rental business, the only way you can survive I see going forward is to get into another line of business," Ryder said.

He's not being cheeky. By this, he means combining the video rental business with something more profitable, like a variety store. So in addition to renting movies, patrons could also buy pop, chips, snacks and cigarettes.

Or, possibly, playing up the gaming side of the business: selling video game consoles to go with the games available for sale or to rent.

At one point, Furukawa said he tried to increase his profit margins at Dr. Disc by expanding sales to include posters, T-shirts and buttons. But he quickly changed his mind.

"I walked in here one day and it just started looking really junkie," he remembers.

He wanted to scale back on selling anything other than music, and has "remained pretty true to that vision over the years."

Bryan Prince Bookseller has also stuck to its roots, but in a different way. While technology has helped with back of house operations, making it easier for booksellers to search for books wanted by customers, its use in the store doesn't extend much beyond that.

"In this industry, the more technology you put between you and the books, the less contact you have and the less knowledge you have of the books themselves, which is crucial in bookselling because so many people are asking you for recommendations," co-owner Higgins said.

The four people who work at the shop have a combined 89 years of bookselling experience, she added.

Connecting with customers is the best part of their workday.

"I love when someone comes in and says 'I just need something new to read that's good,'" Higgins says.

"You're looking for the right book, for the right reader, for the right moment and you're trying to pair them up, and you're just the matchmaker."

Despite the value of in-person connections, Pickwick's Dupee fears what could happen as the Internet continues to expand.

"If everybody goes online, there's no place for us," he said.

A brick-and-mortar shop carries substantial overhead, building and staffing costs.

And when it comes to collectible books, Dupee said some online booksellers run their enterprise as a hobby and thus can afford to sell it at a lower price than what it would traditionally go for.

The Internet also affects the used book business because it offers buyers access to inventory all over the world. Twenty years ago, someone on the hunt for a rare book would have to send letters and make phone calls to other dealers to try to find what they were looking for.

The premium for those books was higher because of the difficulty to locate them, Dupee said.

But now, "some scarce books are no longer scarce because of the Internet."

Local store owners reflect on the hottest product they remember selling

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, talks about his memories of the Nirvana album, "Nevermind":

"The record I most identify with the store is Nirvana's 'Nevermind' … I remember listening to it — it was myself and two other staff members … It became our sort of soundtrack … Something about it struck a chord with all of us … It was such an exciting time. I was a bit too young to live through the punk era, but this was my punk era. Nirvana, with that release, just revolutionized the music industry and created this excitement, this visceral, palpable excitement about music. People went crazy."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, discusses a few top-selling records from the early days after the store opened in 1978:

"Led Zeppelin — 'In Through the Out Door.' I forget my initial order but my initial order back in '79 for that record on vinyl was probably about 1,200 copies, and that was for one store. That just doesn't happen anymore. I mean you would order 1,200 — Universal (Records) would order 1,200 copies for all the stores in Canada. The Who — 'Who Are You?' That was massively huge. Supertramp — 'Breakfast in America' was huge. Those are the early big things."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, remembers "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James flying off the shelves:

"For us, when we sell new books, we sell six or eight copies of a new bestseller. That's big for us. We sold 500 plus copies … We were selling cases of them a day. I've never seen anything like it. It was really cool … We had everybody from 18-year-olds to 75-year-old grandmothers coming in and buying, and people telling us that they read it on the train, but they would put it in a magazine or with a cover of another book on it to hide it, stuff like that. Or there was a mother and daughter that came in, and they both bought it at the same time. Daughter was 25, mom was 50ish. They both wanted it. They were yakking about it. 'We're going to read it, but we're not going to talk about it.'"


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, chats about the Harry Potter series and the hype around it:

"As each group of children comes to that age and starts reading them again, you see cycles of them. You'll have a little lull for about a year or so and then suddenly you can't keep them in stock again. Oh, it's another group of children who have reached the 8-to-12 (age group) and they haven't experienced them yet. I think that in my bookselling career that has been the one that was just a phenomenon. That was the one that started all the other phenomena — with 'The Vampire Diaries' and 'The Hunger Games' and the midnight parties for things and the 12:01 a.m. releases for books. That was the first one in my career that made bookselling and a book release an event."


Musings about rare records and books in Hamilton area shops

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, on "The Live Brain Wedgie" by American band Ween:

"The most expensive, rare record we have right now is by Ween. It's these two guys … they're prolific songwriters, and they write these kind of nonsense songs, but they're excellent musicians as well. They released this bootleg … it's priced at $500 downstairs, and the reason being is they pressed a whole bunch of them. And then one of the Ween guys — I think it was Dean Ween (yeah, they're that kind of band), he reportedly had all the copies, he pressed it, and I don't know whether it was pseudolegal, they always do these weird things, but he had all the copies and I think only 30 got out to the public, so it's one of 30 in the world. As far as a Ween fan goes, it's like the Holy Grail."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, on rare vinyl:

"We have stuff up at the front that's $100, $200, $300 records. We sold a Death Grips record last week for $250. We don't have a stack of that stuff. If we did, it wouldn't have that value. We try and keep track of the rarity and value of things. We obviously sometimes get got. I just sold a Raconteurs, it's called "Live at Third Man." I sold it for like $16. It's not available anymore, and it's already fetching $50 on eBay. We do get caught by selling stuff that is not in print anymore, but what are you going to do? But the rarity stuff, you're not going to make a living selling it."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, on his rarest finds:

"I've got a first printing of Huckleberry Finn, which is really neat. I've also had some books in the James Bond series — not the Ian Flemings — but the series carried on with John Gardner. And I bugged him and bugged him and bugged him through email for a number of years to sign some books for me. He lived in the U.K. He finally agreed, so I was able to send him six books. I got them all signed, got them back and he passed away about six months after. I guess he'd been sick for awhile. I'm sure they were some of the last books that he ever signed. I was excited to have copies … I've still got the Huck Finn. I've got a couple of the Gardners left as well … The Huck Finn was about $1,500. The Gardners, say $800 to $1,000."


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, on the biggest single purchase she's seen in her 26 years at the store:

"Probably the most expensive thing that we've ever had anyone purchase at the store was someone who bought a complete set of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for his spouse, which was like $3,000 … It was like 25 volumes or something, it was huge. We've only ever sold one of those in my time at the store."

Business profiles

Dr. Disc

20 Wilson St.

OWNER: Mark Furukawa

CONTACT: www.drdisc.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1991

The downtown shop with a strong local focus carries new and used CDs and records as well as specializing in selling and renting DJ equipment.

"The vision's always remained pretty pure. We've never quote unquote sold out or really changed our methodology of what we do."


Bryan Prince Bookseller

1060 King St. W.

OWNER: Tracey Higgins and Kerry Cranston-Reimer

CONTACT: www.princebooks.net

ESTABLISHED: 1989

The independent bookseller in Westdale carries strictly new products. It also hosts events — including author readings and guest speakers, sponsors awards and contributes to fundraisers.

"I think at a certain point you have to decide what type of business you want to run. I didn't become a bookseller to run a website. The best part of bookselling is talking to customers."

Pickwick Books

325 Dundas St. E., Waterdown

OWNER: Chris and Lori Dupee

CONTACT: www.pickwickbooks.com

ESTABLISHED: Mid-1990s

The Waterdown store boasts new mass-market fiction, classic and modern literature as well as "probably the best collectible section between Toronto and London," according to the owner.

"Especially in a small town, it's very much a part of the community where people come downtown and maybe they grab a coffee at a local independent coffee shop and then they walk around and they window shop or go clothes shopping and they wander into the bookstore with a cup of coffee in their hand and spend an hour," says Chris Dupee.


Cheapies Records and Tapes

67 King St. E.

OWNER: Brian Jasson

CONTACT: www.cheapiesrecords.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1978

A fixture on King Street East, the store sells new and used records, CDs and DVDs and video games. It also boasts a large collectible toy collection as well as a fully functional vintage 1965 Pepsi vending machine.

"I've always tried to have a shop that I would want to shop in."

npaddon@thespec.com

905-526-2420 | @natatthespec

Hamilton Business: How local retailers are staying connected in the age of online commerce

News Apr 13, 2016 by Natalie Paddon Hamilton Spectator

Imagine enjoying the comfort of your cosy, local bookstore.

The smell of the pages. The deep, leather chairs in which to curl up and get lost in your latest read.

Now think about browsing online for new reading material. A quick search can yield thousands of results and with the click of a mouse, your books can be delivered to your doorstep. It's quick, convenient and in many cases, cheaper.

These options are nothing new. Amazon and eBay have both been around for more than 20 years in the United States, the Internet became mainstream in homes in the late 1990s and Indigo launched its online store in 2000.

In that time, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50 per cent, according to Forbes.

It's not just bookstores that have been affected either — it's record stores, video rental stores, travel agencies and the newspaper business, too.

But while the World Wide Web has certainly changed the business landscape and contributed to the demise of many mom-and-pop operations, there are shops in Hamilton that don't plan on going anywhere.

So how are they doing it?

"It's all about figuring out how I can add value in the Internet age," said McMaster University business professor Marvin Ryder.

"If the Internet's going to make it easier for them to do X, then I'd better do Y and then I can fight back. If I keep doing X, if the Internet does it better, I'm going to be squeezed out of business."

A focus on local content is one plan of attack.

Mark Furukawa, who opened Dr. Disc in 1991, said right from the start he made it a priority to liaise with artists in the community.

"One of the 10 commandments of Dr. Disc is to really embed within the local community and be a champion of all things local as far as music and arts are concerned," he said recently in an interview above his Wilson Street store.

In the early 2000s, downloading had taken hold and vinyl and CD sales were plunging.

Furukawa remembers strategizing about how to survive this hard time. To stay alive, he decided to bring the store back to its roots: an all-things-local focus. He ramped up his efforts to become even more of a "champion of all things Hamilton."

"We highlight independent bands and music," Furukawa said. "They're racked right beside a Top 40 — Adele or something like that."

"They're just as important — if not more important — than stocking that top seller."

Being a fixture in the community has always been the vision for Bryan Prince Bookseller as well. Co-owner Tracey Higgins, who took over in 2011, said that from the start they've viewed the Westdale shop as a community hub.

Responding to the demands of local customers, working with groups in and around the city, holding events, giving awards to schools and helping with fundraising are essential.

Book stores are among the few places left in the community where a person can, usually, hang out and browse for half an hour without having anyone bug them.

"We have young couples who, it's a safe icebreaker place where they come in on a Friday or a Saturday for date night," Higgins said.

Some have come in and done Kijiji exchanges, she adds.

"This is a safe place where they're comfortable."

The store is more than OK with having patrons do that.

"It's an indication of the fact that the online stuff serves one purpose, but actually having a physical location and an environment where people feel at home provides a very different kind of service," Higgins said.

A recommended read at Bryan Prince Bookseller. Photo by John Rennison

It's this type of interaction with customers that prompted Chris Dupee and his wife Lori to take over Pickwick Books in Waterdown in 2011.

Dupee had launched an online store — www.thebookscouts.ca — more than 15 years ago, partnering with his parents to sell collectible books.

While the web store and the bricks-and-mortar shop cater to different audiences, he says their sales volumes are similar. Pickwick specializes in rare books, while offering an assortment of mass-market fiction. The Book Scouts site focuses strictly on collectors' items.

Dupee says the in-store crowd is typically older than those who buy from his Internet shop. For him, running a storefront is worthwhile since collectibles tend to be pricey and some of his web customers are wary of parting with that kind of coin digitally.

"There are people who just won't buy online, so we offer a service where they can come in and check our inventory. They're dealing with somebody they can see and trust and know that we're going to be there next week."

This type of commitment — a store being a long-standing fixture in a community — is familiar territory for Brian Jasson. In 1978, at the tender age of 20, he opened a shop downtown called Cheapies Records and Tapes.

He said he's never considered closing.

"I don't give up. I'm stubborn."

It's not that there haven't been hard times. Jasson has made some tough decisions, like shelling out $25,000 in 2005 to stock the store with new records — before owning vinyl became cool again. He made a commitment to stick with them even though record sales tapered off in the early '90s. Fortunately, vinyl's resurgence began to take off in 2006.

"It was stores like this and stores like this in other big cities that I'm sure did the same thing and tried to show kids that playing records is fun. It's a social activity," Jasson said.

Despite the increase in vinyl sales, the number of people coming through the front doors of his King Street East location is down about 75 per cent from its peak around 1990.

At its best, Cheapies was generating $70,000 a week in revenue, Jasson said.

He wouldn't say what the store brings in now, but admitted it pales in comparison.

"It was incredible the amount of product that was coming in and going out the door. I can't even fathom it now."

While book stores and record stores might be struggling, McMaster's Ryder said video rental stores are in even worse shape because of the digital revolution.

Going to rent a movie used to be an adventure where kids could get free popcorn as they browsed the shelves, he said. At that time, stores not only profited from rental fees but from charges for late returns and for not rewinding.

Today, movies can be downloaded online or accessed at home through services like Netflix.

"If you're in the video rental business, the only way you can survive I see going forward is to get into another line of business," Ryder said.

He's not being cheeky. By this, he means combining the video rental business with something more profitable, like a variety store. So in addition to renting movies, patrons could also buy pop, chips, snacks and cigarettes.

Or, possibly, playing up the gaming side of the business: selling video game consoles to go with the games available for sale or to rent.

At one point, Furukawa said he tried to increase his profit margins at Dr. Disc by expanding sales to include posters, T-shirts and buttons. But he quickly changed his mind.

"I walked in here one day and it just started looking really junkie," he remembers.

He wanted to scale back on selling anything other than music, and has "remained pretty true to that vision over the years."

Bryan Prince Bookseller has also stuck to its roots, but in a different way. While technology has helped with back of house operations, making it easier for booksellers to search for books wanted by customers, its use in the store doesn't extend much beyond that.

"In this industry, the more technology you put between you and the books, the less contact you have and the less knowledge you have of the books themselves, which is crucial in bookselling because so many people are asking you for recommendations," co-owner Higgins said.

The four people who work at the shop have a combined 89 years of bookselling experience, she added.

Connecting with customers is the best part of their workday.

"I love when someone comes in and says 'I just need something new to read that's good,'" Higgins says.

"You're looking for the right book, for the right reader, for the right moment and you're trying to pair them up, and you're just the matchmaker."

Despite the value of in-person connections, Pickwick's Dupee fears what could happen as the Internet continues to expand.

"If everybody goes online, there's no place for us," he said.

A brick-and-mortar shop carries substantial overhead, building and staffing costs.

And when it comes to collectible books, Dupee said some online booksellers run their enterprise as a hobby and thus can afford to sell it at a lower price than what it would traditionally go for.

The Internet also affects the used book business because it offers buyers access to inventory all over the world. Twenty years ago, someone on the hunt for a rare book would have to send letters and make phone calls to other dealers to try to find what they were looking for.

The premium for those books was higher because of the difficulty to locate them, Dupee said.

But now, "some scarce books are no longer scarce because of the Internet."

Local store owners reflect on the hottest product they remember selling

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, talks about his memories of the Nirvana album, "Nevermind":

"The record I most identify with the store is Nirvana's 'Nevermind' … I remember listening to it — it was myself and two other staff members … It became our sort of soundtrack … Something about it struck a chord with all of us … It was such an exciting time. I was a bit too young to live through the punk era, but this was my punk era. Nirvana, with that release, just revolutionized the music industry and created this excitement, this visceral, palpable excitement about music. People went crazy."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, discusses a few top-selling records from the early days after the store opened in 1978:

"Led Zeppelin — 'In Through the Out Door.' I forget my initial order but my initial order back in '79 for that record on vinyl was probably about 1,200 copies, and that was for one store. That just doesn't happen anymore. I mean you would order 1,200 — Universal (Records) would order 1,200 copies for all the stores in Canada. The Who — 'Who Are You?' That was massively huge. Supertramp — 'Breakfast in America' was huge. Those are the early big things."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, remembers "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James flying off the shelves:

"For us, when we sell new books, we sell six or eight copies of a new bestseller. That's big for us. We sold 500 plus copies … We were selling cases of them a day. I've never seen anything like it. It was really cool … We had everybody from 18-year-olds to 75-year-old grandmothers coming in and buying, and people telling us that they read it on the train, but they would put it in a magazine or with a cover of another book on it to hide it, stuff like that. Or there was a mother and daughter that came in, and they both bought it at the same time. Daughter was 25, mom was 50ish. They both wanted it. They were yakking about it. 'We're going to read it, but we're not going to talk about it.'"


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, chats about the Harry Potter series and the hype around it:

"As each group of children comes to that age and starts reading them again, you see cycles of them. You'll have a little lull for about a year or so and then suddenly you can't keep them in stock again. Oh, it's another group of children who have reached the 8-to-12 (age group) and they haven't experienced them yet. I think that in my bookselling career that has been the one that was just a phenomenon. That was the one that started all the other phenomena — with 'The Vampire Diaries' and 'The Hunger Games' and the midnight parties for things and the 12:01 a.m. releases for books. That was the first one in my career that made bookselling and a book release an event."


Musings about rare records and books in Hamilton area shops

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, on "The Live Brain Wedgie" by American band Ween:

"The most expensive, rare record we have right now is by Ween. It's these two guys … they're prolific songwriters, and they write these kind of nonsense songs, but they're excellent musicians as well. They released this bootleg … it's priced at $500 downstairs, and the reason being is they pressed a whole bunch of them. And then one of the Ween guys — I think it was Dean Ween (yeah, they're that kind of band), he reportedly had all the copies, he pressed it, and I don't know whether it was pseudolegal, they always do these weird things, but he had all the copies and I think only 30 got out to the public, so it's one of 30 in the world. As far as a Ween fan goes, it's like the Holy Grail."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, on rare vinyl:

"We have stuff up at the front that's $100, $200, $300 records. We sold a Death Grips record last week for $250. We don't have a stack of that stuff. If we did, it wouldn't have that value. We try and keep track of the rarity and value of things. We obviously sometimes get got. I just sold a Raconteurs, it's called "Live at Third Man." I sold it for like $16. It's not available anymore, and it's already fetching $50 on eBay. We do get caught by selling stuff that is not in print anymore, but what are you going to do? But the rarity stuff, you're not going to make a living selling it."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, on his rarest finds:

"I've got a first printing of Huckleberry Finn, which is really neat. I've also had some books in the James Bond series — not the Ian Flemings — but the series carried on with John Gardner. And I bugged him and bugged him and bugged him through email for a number of years to sign some books for me. He lived in the U.K. He finally agreed, so I was able to send him six books. I got them all signed, got them back and he passed away about six months after. I guess he'd been sick for awhile. I'm sure they were some of the last books that he ever signed. I was excited to have copies … I've still got the Huck Finn. I've got a couple of the Gardners left as well … The Huck Finn was about $1,500. The Gardners, say $800 to $1,000."


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, on the biggest single purchase she's seen in her 26 years at the store:

"Probably the most expensive thing that we've ever had anyone purchase at the store was someone who bought a complete set of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for his spouse, which was like $3,000 … It was like 25 volumes or something, it was huge. We've only ever sold one of those in my time at the store."

Business profiles

Dr. Disc

20 Wilson St.

OWNER: Mark Furukawa

CONTACT: www.drdisc.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1991

The downtown shop with a strong local focus carries new and used CDs and records as well as specializing in selling and renting DJ equipment.

"The vision's always remained pretty pure. We've never quote unquote sold out or really changed our methodology of what we do."


Bryan Prince Bookseller

1060 King St. W.

OWNER: Tracey Higgins and Kerry Cranston-Reimer

CONTACT: www.princebooks.net

ESTABLISHED: 1989

The independent bookseller in Westdale carries strictly new products. It also hosts events — including author readings and guest speakers, sponsors awards and contributes to fundraisers.

"I think at a certain point you have to decide what type of business you want to run. I didn't become a bookseller to run a website. The best part of bookselling is talking to customers."

Pickwick Books

325 Dundas St. E., Waterdown

OWNER: Chris and Lori Dupee

CONTACT: www.pickwickbooks.com

ESTABLISHED: Mid-1990s

The Waterdown store boasts new mass-market fiction, classic and modern literature as well as "probably the best collectible section between Toronto and London," according to the owner.

"Especially in a small town, it's very much a part of the community where people come downtown and maybe they grab a coffee at a local independent coffee shop and then they walk around and they window shop or go clothes shopping and they wander into the bookstore with a cup of coffee in their hand and spend an hour," says Chris Dupee.


Cheapies Records and Tapes

67 King St. E.

OWNER: Brian Jasson

CONTACT: www.cheapiesrecords.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1978

A fixture on King Street East, the store sells new and used records, CDs and DVDs and video games. It also boasts a large collectible toy collection as well as a fully functional vintage 1965 Pepsi vending machine.

"I've always tried to have a shop that I would want to shop in."

npaddon@thespec.com

905-526-2420 | @natatthespec

Hamilton Business: How local retailers are staying connected in the age of online commerce

News Apr 13, 2016 by Natalie Paddon Hamilton Spectator

Imagine enjoying the comfort of your cosy, local bookstore.

The smell of the pages. The deep, leather chairs in which to curl up and get lost in your latest read.

Now think about browsing online for new reading material. A quick search can yield thousands of results and with the click of a mouse, your books can be delivered to your doorstep. It's quick, convenient and in many cases, cheaper.

These options are nothing new. Amazon and eBay have both been around for more than 20 years in the United States, the Internet became mainstream in homes in the late 1990s and Indigo launched its online store in 2000.

In that time, the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. has dropped by more than 50 per cent, according to Forbes.

It's not just bookstores that have been affected either — it's record stores, video rental stores, travel agencies and the newspaper business, too.

But while the World Wide Web has certainly changed the business landscape and contributed to the demise of many mom-and-pop operations, there are shops in Hamilton that don't plan on going anywhere.

So how are they doing it?

"It's all about figuring out how I can add value in the Internet age," said McMaster University business professor Marvin Ryder.

"If the Internet's going to make it easier for them to do X, then I'd better do Y and then I can fight back. If I keep doing X, if the Internet does it better, I'm going to be squeezed out of business."

A focus on local content is one plan of attack.

Mark Furukawa, who opened Dr. Disc in 1991, said right from the start he made it a priority to liaise with artists in the community.

"One of the 10 commandments of Dr. Disc is to really embed within the local community and be a champion of all things local as far as music and arts are concerned," he said recently in an interview above his Wilson Street store.

In the early 2000s, downloading had taken hold and vinyl and CD sales were plunging.

Furukawa remembers strategizing about how to survive this hard time. To stay alive, he decided to bring the store back to its roots: an all-things-local focus. He ramped up his efforts to become even more of a "champion of all things Hamilton."

"We highlight independent bands and music," Furukawa said. "They're racked right beside a Top 40 — Adele or something like that."

"They're just as important — if not more important — than stocking that top seller."

Being a fixture in the community has always been the vision for Bryan Prince Bookseller as well. Co-owner Tracey Higgins, who took over in 2011, said that from the start they've viewed the Westdale shop as a community hub.

Responding to the demands of local customers, working with groups in and around the city, holding events, giving awards to schools and helping with fundraising are essential.

Book stores are among the few places left in the community where a person can, usually, hang out and browse for half an hour without having anyone bug them.

"We have young couples who, it's a safe icebreaker place where they come in on a Friday or a Saturday for date night," Higgins said.

Some have come in and done Kijiji exchanges, she adds.

"This is a safe place where they're comfortable."

The store is more than OK with having patrons do that.

"It's an indication of the fact that the online stuff serves one purpose, but actually having a physical location and an environment where people feel at home provides a very different kind of service," Higgins said.

A recommended read at Bryan Prince Bookseller. Photo by John Rennison

It's this type of interaction with customers that prompted Chris Dupee and his wife Lori to take over Pickwick Books in Waterdown in 2011.

Dupee had launched an online store — www.thebookscouts.ca — more than 15 years ago, partnering with his parents to sell collectible books.

While the web store and the bricks-and-mortar shop cater to different audiences, he says their sales volumes are similar. Pickwick specializes in rare books, while offering an assortment of mass-market fiction. The Book Scouts site focuses strictly on collectors' items.

Dupee says the in-store crowd is typically older than those who buy from his Internet shop. For him, running a storefront is worthwhile since collectibles tend to be pricey and some of his web customers are wary of parting with that kind of coin digitally.

"There are people who just won't buy online, so we offer a service where they can come in and check our inventory. They're dealing with somebody they can see and trust and know that we're going to be there next week."

This type of commitment — a store being a long-standing fixture in a community — is familiar territory for Brian Jasson. In 1978, at the tender age of 20, he opened a shop downtown called Cheapies Records and Tapes.

He said he's never considered closing.

"I don't give up. I'm stubborn."

It's not that there haven't been hard times. Jasson has made some tough decisions, like shelling out $25,000 in 2005 to stock the store with new records — before owning vinyl became cool again. He made a commitment to stick with them even though record sales tapered off in the early '90s. Fortunately, vinyl's resurgence began to take off in 2006.

"It was stores like this and stores like this in other big cities that I'm sure did the same thing and tried to show kids that playing records is fun. It's a social activity," Jasson said.

Despite the increase in vinyl sales, the number of people coming through the front doors of his King Street East location is down about 75 per cent from its peak around 1990.

At its best, Cheapies was generating $70,000 a week in revenue, Jasson said.

He wouldn't say what the store brings in now, but admitted it pales in comparison.

"It was incredible the amount of product that was coming in and going out the door. I can't even fathom it now."

While book stores and record stores might be struggling, McMaster's Ryder said video rental stores are in even worse shape because of the digital revolution.

Going to rent a movie used to be an adventure where kids could get free popcorn as they browsed the shelves, he said. At that time, stores not only profited from rental fees but from charges for late returns and for not rewinding.

Today, movies can be downloaded online or accessed at home through services like Netflix.

"If you're in the video rental business, the only way you can survive I see going forward is to get into another line of business," Ryder said.

He's not being cheeky. By this, he means combining the video rental business with something more profitable, like a variety store. So in addition to renting movies, patrons could also buy pop, chips, snacks and cigarettes.

Or, possibly, playing up the gaming side of the business: selling video game consoles to go with the games available for sale or to rent.

At one point, Furukawa said he tried to increase his profit margins at Dr. Disc by expanding sales to include posters, T-shirts and buttons. But he quickly changed his mind.

"I walked in here one day and it just started looking really junkie," he remembers.

He wanted to scale back on selling anything other than music, and has "remained pretty true to that vision over the years."

Bryan Prince Bookseller has also stuck to its roots, but in a different way. While technology has helped with back of house operations, making it easier for booksellers to search for books wanted by customers, its use in the store doesn't extend much beyond that.

"In this industry, the more technology you put between you and the books, the less contact you have and the less knowledge you have of the books themselves, which is crucial in bookselling because so many people are asking you for recommendations," co-owner Higgins said.

The four people who work at the shop have a combined 89 years of bookselling experience, she added.

Connecting with customers is the best part of their workday.

"I love when someone comes in and says 'I just need something new to read that's good,'" Higgins says.

"You're looking for the right book, for the right reader, for the right moment and you're trying to pair them up, and you're just the matchmaker."

Despite the value of in-person connections, Pickwick's Dupee fears what could happen as the Internet continues to expand.

"If everybody goes online, there's no place for us," he said.

A brick-and-mortar shop carries substantial overhead, building and staffing costs.

And when it comes to collectible books, Dupee said some online booksellers run their enterprise as a hobby and thus can afford to sell it at a lower price than what it would traditionally go for.

The Internet also affects the used book business because it offers buyers access to inventory all over the world. Twenty years ago, someone on the hunt for a rare book would have to send letters and make phone calls to other dealers to try to find what they were looking for.

The premium for those books was higher because of the difficulty to locate them, Dupee said.

But now, "some scarce books are no longer scarce because of the Internet."

Local store owners reflect on the hottest product they remember selling

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, talks about his memories of the Nirvana album, "Nevermind":

"The record I most identify with the store is Nirvana's 'Nevermind' … I remember listening to it — it was myself and two other staff members … It became our sort of soundtrack … Something about it struck a chord with all of us … It was such an exciting time. I was a bit too young to live through the punk era, but this was my punk era. Nirvana, with that release, just revolutionized the music industry and created this excitement, this visceral, palpable excitement about music. People went crazy."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, discusses a few top-selling records from the early days after the store opened in 1978:

"Led Zeppelin — 'In Through the Out Door.' I forget my initial order but my initial order back in '79 for that record on vinyl was probably about 1,200 copies, and that was for one store. That just doesn't happen anymore. I mean you would order 1,200 — Universal (Records) would order 1,200 copies for all the stores in Canada. The Who — 'Who Are You?' That was massively huge. Supertramp — 'Breakfast in America' was huge. Those are the early big things."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, remembers "Fifty Shades of Grey" by E.L. James flying off the shelves:

"For us, when we sell new books, we sell six or eight copies of a new bestseller. That's big for us. We sold 500 plus copies … We were selling cases of them a day. I've never seen anything like it. It was really cool … We had everybody from 18-year-olds to 75-year-old grandmothers coming in and buying, and people telling us that they read it on the train, but they would put it in a magazine or with a cover of another book on it to hide it, stuff like that. Or there was a mother and daughter that came in, and they both bought it at the same time. Daughter was 25, mom was 50ish. They both wanted it. They were yakking about it. 'We're going to read it, but we're not going to talk about it.'"


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, chats about the Harry Potter series and the hype around it:

"As each group of children comes to that age and starts reading them again, you see cycles of them. You'll have a little lull for about a year or so and then suddenly you can't keep them in stock again. Oh, it's another group of children who have reached the 8-to-12 (age group) and they haven't experienced them yet. I think that in my bookselling career that has been the one that was just a phenomenon. That was the one that started all the other phenomena — with 'The Vampire Diaries' and 'The Hunger Games' and the midnight parties for things and the 12:01 a.m. releases for books. That was the first one in my career that made bookselling and a book release an event."


Musings about rare records and books in Hamilton area shops

Mark Furukawa, owner of Dr. Disc, on "The Live Brain Wedgie" by American band Ween:

"The most expensive, rare record we have right now is by Ween. It's these two guys … they're prolific songwriters, and they write these kind of nonsense songs, but they're excellent musicians as well. They released this bootleg … it's priced at $500 downstairs, and the reason being is they pressed a whole bunch of them. And then one of the Ween guys — I think it was Dean Ween (yeah, they're that kind of band), he reportedly had all the copies, he pressed it, and I don't know whether it was pseudolegal, they always do these weird things, but he had all the copies and I think only 30 got out to the public, so it's one of 30 in the world. As far as a Ween fan goes, it's like the Holy Grail."


Brian Jasson, owner of Cheapies Records and Tapes, on rare vinyl:

"We have stuff up at the front that's $100, $200, $300 records. We sold a Death Grips record last week for $250. We don't have a stack of that stuff. If we did, it wouldn't have that value. We try and keep track of the rarity and value of things. We obviously sometimes get got. I just sold a Raconteurs, it's called "Live at Third Man." I sold it for like $16. It's not available anymore, and it's already fetching $50 on eBay. We do get caught by selling stuff that is not in print anymore, but what are you going to do? But the rarity stuff, you're not going to make a living selling it."


Chris Dupee, owner of Pickwick Books, on his rarest finds:

"I've got a first printing of Huckleberry Finn, which is really neat. I've also had some books in the James Bond series — not the Ian Flemings — but the series carried on with John Gardner. And I bugged him and bugged him and bugged him through email for a number of years to sign some books for me. He lived in the U.K. He finally agreed, so I was able to send him six books. I got them all signed, got them back and he passed away about six months after. I guess he'd been sick for awhile. I'm sure they were some of the last books that he ever signed. I was excited to have copies … I've still got the Huck Finn. I've got a couple of the Gardners left as well … The Huck Finn was about $1,500. The Gardners, say $800 to $1,000."


Tracey Higgins, co-owner of Bryan Prince Bookseller, on the biggest single purchase she's seen in her 26 years at the store:

"Probably the most expensive thing that we've ever had anyone purchase at the store was someone who bought a complete set of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) for his spouse, which was like $3,000 … It was like 25 volumes or something, it was huge. We've only ever sold one of those in my time at the store."

Business profiles

Dr. Disc

20 Wilson St.

OWNER: Mark Furukawa

CONTACT: www.drdisc.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1991

The downtown shop with a strong local focus carries new and used CDs and records as well as specializing in selling and renting DJ equipment.

"The vision's always remained pretty pure. We've never quote unquote sold out or really changed our methodology of what we do."


Bryan Prince Bookseller

1060 King St. W.

OWNER: Tracey Higgins and Kerry Cranston-Reimer

CONTACT: www.princebooks.net

ESTABLISHED: 1989

The independent bookseller in Westdale carries strictly new products. It also hosts events — including author readings and guest speakers, sponsors awards and contributes to fundraisers.

"I think at a certain point you have to decide what type of business you want to run. I didn't become a bookseller to run a website. The best part of bookselling is talking to customers."

Pickwick Books

325 Dundas St. E., Waterdown

OWNER: Chris and Lori Dupee

CONTACT: www.pickwickbooks.com

ESTABLISHED: Mid-1990s

The Waterdown store boasts new mass-market fiction, classic and modern literature as well as "probably the best collectible section between Toronto and London," according to the owner.

"Especially in a small town, it's very much a part of the community where people come downtown and maybe they grab a coffee at a local independent coffee shop and then they walk around and they window shop or go clothes shopping and they wander into the bookstore with a cup of coffee in their hand and spend an hour," says Chris Dupee.


Cheapies Records and Tapes

67 King St. E.

OWNER: Brian Jasson

CONTACT: www.cheapiesrecords.ca

ESTABLISHED: 1978

A fixture on King Street East, the store sells new and used records, CDs and DVDs and video games. It also boasts a large collectible toy collection as well as a fully functional vintage 1965 Pepsi vending machine.

"I've always tried to have a shop that I would want to shop in."

npaddon@thespec.com

905-526-2420 | @natatthespec