In keeping with his personable nature, Jim Munro sits in front of his heavy antique desk for an interview rather than behind it.
The owner and operator of Munro’s Books, which officially celebrates its 50th year in business tomorrow (Sept. 21), looks around his corner office in the 1909 former Royal Bank building at 1108 Government St. Surrounded by special-order books for pickup, a washroom, a computer on a separate desk and various other pieces of memorabilia, Munro says he originally designed it to feel like a bank manager’s office.
An old poster sits high on a ledge between a large, colourful tapestry by his wife, the noted fabric artist Carole Sabiston, and the street-side stained glass window. Reading, “The Age of Chivalry Lives in Books,” the slogan seems to parallel Jim Munro’s career in the industry.
Now 83, Munro sports a stylish moustache/goatee combination that takes years off his appearance. He comes across as relaxed, knowing he can come and go as he pleases at this stage of life.
Blessed with a cadre of knowledgeable and long-serving staff – “the heavy lifting is done by other people,” he says – he is content these days to pop in between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and leave by 3 p.m.
Such is life for a man who has helped shape the bookselling industry in Greater Victoria. Not only is the longevity of his business a testament to the strength of the independent bookstore in an era of corporate and online mega-retailers, it is a sign of the health of literary culture in the city.
“People are still interested in reading and we’ve got a well-educated population,” he says.
Not one to try to predict future trends, Munro relies on his staff to monitor the customers’ pulse – in fact, multiple people do the ordering for the store. That attention to detail, which yields a broad cross-section of books, and the hard and fast policy of “the customer is always right” have helped the store thrive in challenging times.
“We’ve aways remained optimistic (about the future),” he says, acknowledging that fighting online merchants and big-box retailers is a “big battle.”
Ellen Squires, Munro’s longest-serving staffer, joined the ranks in 1975. Her boss “has a sixth sense” for hiring people who are a good fit for the iconic store, she says.
“We all enjoy books,” she says, happily listing off the science fiction, anthropology and women’s studies sections as those under her watch. “Being enthusiastic makes a big difference. It’s much more personal.”
Store manager Jessica Walker, who grew up in the backs of bookstores accompanying her mother, a literary agent, agrees. With Munro’s for 13 years, she took over earlier this year from 37-year veteran Dave Hill.
“I was and am an avid reader,” she says. “I can’t think of another job where you get to explore so many facets of the human existence.”
The utilization of the neo-classical building housing Munro’s since 1984, with its Roman columns inside and out and high, vaulted ceiling, adds to the attraction of the store with both tourists and locals alike. It recently landed the store on publisher Harper Collins’ list of “16 Bookstores to See Before You Die.”
It might have been just another ill-used former bank, were it not for Munro’s visions of grandeur. He was a heritage lover before the term Old Town was coined and saw potential. He also had an eye for a bargain. His “ridiculously low” offer, made in an environment of sky-high interest rates, was eventually accepted.
“This was a 1909 building and it had been hideously modernized with cheap linoleum,” Munro recalls.
The first day they took over, the false ceiling was torn out, revealing a beautiful, high ceiling. The restoration took two months and was later accented with the installation of huge, form-fitted tapestries by Sabiston that create the illusion of colourful windows. Munro proudly says the building and renovations were paid off quickly.
Walker, whose desk is in a spread-out upstairs office at the back of the building, echoes her boss’s enthusiasm for the current state of the business.
“The industry is settling down and it’s important to keep a critical mass,” she says. “The Shop Local campaign is encouraging and Victoria’s such a great town for writers. There’s a general climate of support for books and reading.”
On celebrating the store’s 50th year, Walker says, “Jim’s stayed true to his vision that we are a bookstore, first and foremost. Certainly that’s a legacy we want to preserve.”
Half century celebrations
Munro’s Books, 1108 Government St. celebrates 50 years in business Saturday (Sept. 21). Here’s a list of activities planned for the store:
• Children’s story time, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., with birthday cake served at 11.
• Musicians in the minstrel’s gallery, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
• Book signings: Noon to 1 p.m., Patrick Taylor will be autographing An Irish Country Wedding and Pray for us Sinners; 2 to 3 p.m., Red Green, author of Red Green’s Beginner’s Guide to Women (For Men Who Don’t Read Instructions)