One of North Bay’s iconic establishments, Allison the Bookman, continues to thrive after three generations of the Allison family and five decades serving the community with their reading needs.
Gord Allison and his wife Esther opened the used book store in May 1973 to pursue Gord Allison’s love of books and reading. The entire family was often involved, from building shelves to finding books on their travels to holding a yard sale to raise money.
The store has consistently been located downtown at 342 Main Street since 1973 with a few years where they expanded into the storefront next door.
In 1986, they purchased the building, and after 20 years in business, had amassed over 200,000 used books. When the business passed to Gord’s son, Derrick Allison, in 1995, he took on the enormous task of cataloguing their inventory to make it easier to search for books customers were seeking. Without inventory software, this was an onerous task.
Derrick Allison also introduced new books and for a short time had a satellite store in the North Bay mall called One Stop Books between 2006 and 2012.
When Derrick Allison passed away in 2011, his daughter, Annette Allison-Vander Waal, took over the store.
Allison-Vander Waal grew up around the store watching her grandparents and father keep the business going and their love of reading. After she had moved to the United States with her husband, Scott, she would often find rare books for her father to sell in the store.
“Customers remember me as a kid in the store and some recall being brought to the store by their parents,” she said.
Allison the Bookman has been a favourite stop for tourists to the city, summer residents and of course local customers. Taking over a family business is all about building on what previous owners had accomplished.
Allison-Vander Waal’s husband Scott joined her in the business, bringing his IT and finance expertise, a complementary and valuable skill for today’s business.
“He has been able to introduce our POS system, inventory and searchable catalogue,” she explained.
Although the Vander Waals were living in Wisconsin when they took over the business, they made regular visits to the store. However, when COVID-19 restricted their ease of crossing the border, they decided to move permanently in the fall of 2020.
“People know who we are and they know we are going to be here,” said Vander Waal.
With a new online catalogue, customers could search for books through their website during pandemic lockdowns. They also offered curbside pickup and, as restrictions eased, special shopping appointments for those who were immunocompromised.
“Adapting is key to running the store,” Vander Waal said. “We can make changes as we need to and go in different directions if necessary.”
One of the first tasks they took on was updating their online catalogue of over 95,000 titles. Vander Waal was able to build on what had been started by his father-in-law.
They have a small team who all love books just as much as they do. Allison-Vander Wall shared that customer service has been a key element to their success and often requires reading what their customers are reading or introducing new authors.
“I had to shop for everyone,” explained Allison-Vander Waal about adjusting during COVID-19 measures. “We would do the web orders before the store opened and some days it was 10 to 20 orders in a day with a huge list.”
They enjoy finding creative and fun ways to keep customers stocked with good books.
“Since I have taken over, we have added a larger new books section and it’s proving to be an important feature for the store,” said Allison-Vander Waal. “We created Allison’s Wish List and a ‘staff pick’ area and customers love to find books in that section.”
As they approach their 50th anniversary in 2023 they are making plans for celebrating.
“Our plan is to have a week of events and a final celebration before May 1. We will have a cake, of course, a few local authors and other supporters on hand,” Allison-Vander Waal said.
They also hope to get a bookish mural for the side of the building.
A well-deserved celebration for 50 years in business and for a promising future.