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Allison the Bookman creating new chapter in customer service after 47 years

North Bay's iconic used bookshop making adjustments in the time of COVID-19

In 1973, Gord Allison, with the encouragement of his wife, Esther, quit his job at the post office to fulfill his dream of owning an independent used bookstore.

“He was a diehard book lover and he loved organizing things, and I think that it just became his baby,” explained his granddaughter and current store owner Annette Allison-Vander Waal. 

"He was very keen on making it happen. He knew he wasn’t going to make a ton of money off it. He was doing it for the love of it more than anything."

Now, 47 years later, Allison the Bookman remains an integral part of the community, continuing to serve customers in the very location where it all started on North Bay’s Main Street.

Normally on the occasion of the store’s May anniversary, a celebration of sorts is held, but COVID-19 put a stop to that.

“Normally I would have a lot of sales going on right now, and also just a celebration of my customers, having people come in and get some cake, talk to the team, wander the aisles, buy some books and just reminisce,” said the store owner.

“We have so many generations that have been coming through the door. There’s a lot of people who like to talk about my grandparents, how they knew them, and remembering my grandfather and my father behind the counter. It is definitely different not having that feeling of everybody walking through the store right now and not having the anniversary like I have been having the past nine years.”

Following Gord’s passing in 1995 at the age of 72, his son Derrick continued to run the business, introducing new books to the mix of used books.

Allison-Vander Waal is now the third generation of Allison’s to be at the helm following her father Derrick’s passing in 2011.

“I was actually living in Wisconsin at the time and I still have a house down there, but I now have been commuting back and forth the last nine years, making sure that I keep the bookstore going and keeping the life in it.”

COVID-19 restrictions meant changing the way the store does business by offering curbside pickup or delivery.

“I’m super thankful for my husband getting our database online and making it so people can go on our website and search books, looking for authors and book titles,” said Allison-Vander Waal.

“Being able to have people email lists to me and Facebook message me with lists, and the phone messages is great. I’m able to hunt down the books, but I miss my team right now. I had to lay off eight people, and they are a great bunch of employees.”

In keeping with physical distancing, payment is available over the phone or through e-transfer.

“If people aren’t comfortable with that, I have my debit machine set up at our middle door. It is set up with two tables, one that the customer uses inside the door and then the one I use to punch in the amount on a separate table, six and a half feet apart. So, they can come and comfortably stand at the door, then I don’t have a huge area to disinfect.”

Customers are using their downtime as an opportunity to catch up on their reading, choosing from over a mile and a half of books. 

“I’m actually surprised at the number of requests I have had. It is definitely the escapism of it that people are looking for, getting away from all this COVID stuff. They know that they have time on their hands, so they are getting back to reading and getting their kids into reading to get them away from their television and computer. A lot of young adult and children’s books have been going out the door which is great to see.”

Customers are gravitating towards fiction, with a resurgence of the classics.

 “Fiction is always our highest seller no matter what you do. It can be your suspense thrillers, but there are people who are researching and bringing some of the older authors to the forefront,” said Allison-Vander Waal.

“I’ve sold a number of Irving Stone which hasn’t sold in awhile. Classics are huge with people right now, ironically. People figure they should start reading classics because they have the time to do so and they can focus on it.”

While business is conducted Tuesday through Saturday, the store is not set up for book returns at this time.

“Some of that stems, of course, because of COVID. I have to quarantine books before I can even price them. At some point I will ask people to bring them in by appointment only, and I can quarantine the books,” explained the store owner.

“I need to figure out how much is going to be allowed at any given time because it is going to get overwhelming pretty quickly when things start reopening and people think they can just show up and drop off boxes and boxes of books because they have been spring cleaning again.”  

Allison-Vander Waal is working hard to make it through to the other side of COVID-19.

“I want to make it to the 50th. No matter what, I want to make it to the 50th. I’m doing all I can right now to make sure that happens.”