Bolen Books celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, mounting a massive carnival-style party to mark the occasion. The now 20,000 square-foot store – one of the largest independent bookstores in the country – had humbler beginnings when it was started by Mel Bolen in 1975.
“My parents divorced, my dad left the province and my mom was left with the book store that she hadn’t really worked in much,” says owner, Samantha Holmes.
The little store at Hillside Shopping Centre was in rough financial shape so the single mom of two got to work paying off bills and turning its fortunes around. Holmes recalls looking after her younger brother and making “dinner” by age 10.
Still, she marvels at her mother’s zest for business and the sacrifices she made. “I don’t even know that she was allowed to sign for a loan by herself, she had to get her dad and then, mall manager, Jack McKernan to help out.”
Bolen, now retired, expanded, moving the store to a larger location and opening three restaurants in the mall. “It was the ‘80s and everybody was doing that kind of stuff. … She was having so much fun. She loved working. She was good at it and people really liked her.”
Holmes, who purchased the store from her mother six years ago, officially began working at Bolen Books at age 25. “I could show you a picture of me working events when I was 11 years old,” she says laughing. “Oh, there’s some cute, cute pictures of me with a Dorothy Hamill haircut, a nice lederhosen outfit on.”
She kept behind the scenes, leaving the public face of the company to her mother.
“She was out on the floor, listening intently to what our staff and customers were saying, so she knew trends were coming before I could see it on a report. She would know because four people asked her that week: ‘Do you have any books on yoga?’ or something new that was coming up.”
“We say we’re a family business – it’s obviously me and Madeline (Holmes) now, but (Bill Krauss) who has been here 41 years, his wife has worked here, his son has worked here and his daughter has worked here – and he met his wife here. … There’s quite a few couples who’ve met and married since they’ve been here – it’s really a family book store in more ways.”
Holmes’ daughter Madeline (Bolen’s namesake) joined the team last year.
“It’s a very steep learning curve,” the 26-year-old says. She started on the floor, worked in special orders and is now in the accounting department. “It’s something my mom thought was important for me to do. Working in all aspects of how to run the business.”
That’s the way Holmes learned the business as well.
“My mom felt that was very important,” says Holmes. “We still talk about it as the culture here.”
The mother-daughter team enjoy working together and learning from one another. “In some businesses when you bring on a child it can be viewed as nepotism, but I earned my position. I think that’s why Bill and I still get along because even though he’s known me since I was 10, he has respect for me. I wanted that same experience for Madeline.”
Holmes says the most important thing she learned from her mother is that the store belongs to the customer. “(It) needs to be their favourite store, not just their favourite book store, they need to feel there is ownership here.”
Bringing on her daughter has also meant changes. “She’s going to do things with the store that I would have been afraid to, just like my mom was afraid to do things and I wasn’t, so it’s healthy. It’s healthy for a company if it’s handled right.”