Rooted is all about the people and the places that make us proud to call our community home.
Caring about the quality of their customer service is something that hasn’t changed about Allison the Bookman since they first opened their doors in 1973.
“The original idea when Allison the Bookman was started by Gord Allison was to provide a place where people could buy, sell, trade and share their love for books. Part of the concept was to create a place with a family atmosphere with exemplary customer service.
"As the years have gone by, that has become a foundational element in our vision that has always been there,” says Scott Vander Waal, who is the co-owner and takes care of all the IT work for the store with his wife Annette, the granddaughter of the founders, Gord and Esther Allison, who opened the store 50 years ago.
Gord was a postman and through Esther’s encouragement he left that job to pursue what he really loved, and that was books. Annette says she recently found a picture of her grandfather in 1941 working at a printing shop in town when he was 17 years old, foreshadowing his lengthy career in the book and print industry.
As a young man, Gord joined the military to fight in WWII but when it was discovered that he was blind in one eye he was honourably discharged after serving as a guard at POW camps in southern Ontario.
He lived in southern Ontario for a while after his discharge where he worked in advertising for Eaton’s Canada. That is where he met Esther and the two soon decided to get married, although it wasn’t as easy as it is today. The churches in their area refused to let Gord, a white man, marry Esther, an African Canadian Woman. They found a Black Church in Brantford to marry them and they moved back to Gord’s hometown of North Bay.
Over the course of the store's history, the entire Allison family and extended family, have worked there, with Annette’s mother managing for a short period of time to help out. Annette and Scott returned to North Bay when Annette’s father passed away. They had just moved to Wisconsin for Scott’s work and in order to keep the store going they spent a number of months apart where Annette would stay in North Bay.
This continued to 2020 when they ended up apart due to the pandemic – reuniting three months after the start of the pandemic and then deciding to make North Bay their full-time home.
Otherwise, the store has always been here. Where it is now at 342 Main St. E., the 50-year milestone was recognized with a weekend-long celebration that featured live music being played outside of the store, DRAG story time, and local authors reading excerpts from their books.
“That's a long time for one business,” says Vander Waal. “There have been a lot of changes over 50 years and it’s exciting to see that people still like holding books.”
Vander Waal says there was a time when they felt some of those technological advancements were going to do a lot of damage to the overall business as e-readers and buying books online became more readily available.
“But we find that the customers keep coming back because they like the feel of holding a book versus a tablet, which are convenient but it’s just not the same feeling,” he says. “There’s nothing that compares to having that book in your hand. We’ve heard stories of people who were travelling and left their e-readers on the plane or in the hotel and it’s much less painful to leave a book behind than it is to leave an e-reader behind. If you read books and you’ve always read books, it’s just the way people seem to want to continue doing that.”
The store has adapted and integrated that technology over the last few years by building a website and partnering with an online audiobook platform.
“We have an alliance with libro.fm which is an online audio book store and if someone links to our website through that store, we get a commission on that purchase. So, if anyone is looking to purchase an audiobook, we recommend doing it through libro.fm,” says Vaander Waal.
The store is also well known for finding exactly what their customers are looking for.
“We’ve evolved and expanded our selection of new, used, and rare books,” says Vander Waal. “We carry a lot more new books now than we have in the past because we are one of the few booksellers left in North Bay, and we also have the ability to search and find basically anything in print. That is a big part of what we do because some customers aren’t sure where to even search and they would rather deal with someone who they know can get that job done.”
He says all of this is a natural progression for the store.
“When Annette’s father Derrick took over the store in 1995, he wanted to start integrating more of the newer books and other merchandise just to round out the selection and be a little more diversified in what the store offered,” says Vander Waal.
“Gulliver’s Quality Books and Toys was the place that most of the local authors gravitated towards but after they closed, we really saw there was a need for someone to support the local authors. Everything from a handful of self-published up-and-coming authors to more well-known authors like Rod Carley would use our space. Part of the original vision and objective of the store was to support local readers and local authors and we continue to do that with book signing events.”
Carley was one of the authors who took part in this past weekend's celebrations, reading an excerpt from one of his books. Vander Waal says that part of owning a local business and networking is also something that goes a long way.
“Last year Carley was here promoting one of his books and I got to talking to him and found out how involved he is in the theatre scene in North Bay. Theatre is something that I’ve done throughout my life as well. Through networking, I got in touch with the Gateway Theatre Guild and they very quickly took me on. I was involved in all four of their productions this past year and I’m looking forward to seeing that relationship flourish.”
The business has also partnered with The Gateway Theatre Guild through sponsorship and Annette has created their performance programs for the last few shows including for their Quonta Festival entry.
Not only has the store hosted authors' signings, but it has caught the attention of people in the film industry as well.
“We’ve had some actors come in and shop while they were in town shooting their movie. We’ve also been used as a shooting location a few times. It’s always exciting to see that happen,” says Vander Waal.
Vander Waal says a business doesn’t last 50 years without the support of the community and they were excited to share this milestone with everyone.
“I think it says a lot about the community and the support they have given us which we are grateful for and it really does feel like quite a milestone. If it weren’t for the customers and the community support, it wouldn’t have been possible,” says Vander Waal.
“We’re seeing now 4th generation readers that are coming into that same environment who expect that great customer service and it’s important that we continue to provide that and not lose sight of those original ideals. It really starts with each individual's desire to read and to seek out those adventures that are awaiting them in those books.”
If you have a story idea for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at [email protected]