When Madeleine Neill was negotiating for a loan to open her first White Rock Black Bond Books location on Russell Avenue in the late 1970s, it wasn’t considered a gilt-edged proposition – even though Neill had already demonstrated her entrepreneurial instincts going back over a decade.
“A single woman going to the bank in those days – it was quite something,” recalled Neill’s daughter, Black Bond co-owner and manager Cathy Jesson. “The bank manager finally said to her, ‘Madeleine, I don’t know if I’m doing you a favour or a bad turn, but you’re getting the money.'”
It turned out to be a good bet. While it’s not on Russell anymore, that first Peninsula store became the cornerstone of a business that has since grown into a chain of 11 outlets in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland – including the Semiahmoo Shopping Centre store and the South Surrey Warehouse headquarters – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Among upcoming celebration events for the chain, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will make a personal appearance Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. at Black Bond’s Central City store, promoting his new book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.
Even though Neill retired in 1997, Jesson confirms her mom still takes a close interest in what continues to be, proudly, a family business.
“She’s just so proud – she’s the biggest cheerleader for us all,” she said, adding that among the anniversary congratulations that have poured in is a hand-typewritten note from legendary Canadian author Farley Mowat.
Representing the third generation of the family in the company, Neill’s granddaughter, Caitlin Jesson – already a decade in the business – is now manager of the landmark Book Warehouse location in Vancouver, acquired by Black Bond when founder Sharman King retired last year.
The beginning of the chain goes back to the university town of Brandon, Man. in 1963, where Neill was recruited to run a book store, although she’d had no prior experience in the business.
“She was a housewife,” Jesson said. “This group of business people in Brandon decided the community needed a book store and looked to her to manage it or them. She ended up buying them all out.”
Named Black Bond after Jesson’s two great-grandmothers, Mrs. Black and Mrs. Bond, the store brought out Neill’s potential as a people person, Jesson said.
So successful a businesswoman was she, that in the late ’70s she was hired by a Vancouver chain, Julian Books, to manage their five Lower Mainland stores – leaving Jesson to manage the original Brandon store.
After five years of working for others, the pull of running her own business again proved too strong, and – encouraged by her cousin, who saw an opportunity for a book store on the Semiahmoo Peninsula – Neill moved to White Rock.
Shortly afterwards, in 1977, Jesson closed down the Brandon operation, moved to the West Coast and opened Black Bond’s Langley store. Jesson’s sister, Vicky Plett, came on board to open a Black Bond store in New Westminster, while Jesson’s former husband, and current business partner, Mel was instrumental in growing the business to its current stature.
Jesson said that, at the 50-year milestone, the traditional book store clearly faces challenges from online business.
“Amazon is a huge threat to all things brick and mortar,” she said, noting that even David Labistour, CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, has talked about the impact online business has had on their operations. “I think we’re all in good company.”
Even so, there are plenty of indications that a significant segment of the market continues to enjoy the experience of visiting and browsing among the shelves of a traditional book store, and that a lash-back against virtual stores may be growing.
“We’re finding that booksellers in the U.S. are undergoing huge resurgence, with lots of new openings,” Jesson said.
“And we’ve noted how appreciative people are at the Book Warehouse that we able to keep that in operation.”
Other technological developments are finding their own level in the marketplace, Jesson noted.
“Everybody though the world was going to end with the e-book, but that has plateaued,” she said, adding that while e-books may make sense for some readers and frequent travellers, many are still opting for the tactile experience of reading a ‘real’ book – and other books, particularly those in larger or more luxurious formats, simply don’t translate well to the medium.
“The biggest growth area in publishing is in the teen and 9-12 age groups,” Jesson said. “I think young people appreciate books, collect them and want them – and that bodes well for the future.”