By: Chelsea Perry
“I’m looking for someone that would be willing to answer a few questions about the store,” I said into the receiver, hoping that whoever answered would be receptive to prying questions from a nosy student. “Well,” came a gentle voice through the line, “You’re looking for the Bookman.”
The Bookman, before it was the closeted refuge for twice-loved books tucked away on Queen Street, is a man. His name is Charles Mills.
The Cadre reached out to Mr. Mills on Monday and chatted about the origins of his shop, and what keeps its heart beating nearly 50 years later.
Spoiler: the story begins with a secret closet.
I lived in Toronto and whenever I came to Charlottetown I’d sleep in the store on the floor in front of the classic section. Each night before I went to bed I’d reach up on the shelf and pick up the book I’d been reading the night before.
TC: Why did you decide to open a bookstore? Where did your love of books come from?
CM: The store was actually opened in 1972 by Barry Stanfield, the librarian at the Federal Dept. of Agriculture beside CBC on University Ave. He loved books and opened it in a little house on Euston St. where the Canfield Building stands today. It was a hobby store for him and his love of books. He bought, sold and traded used books. He hired a clerk named John Ward who he eventually sold the business to in the late seventies. John took over the store and lived in the kitchen part of the house. He ran the store until 1990 when he sold it to me.
I was a friend of his and had been around the store for years. I lived in Toronto and whenever I came to Charlottetown I’d sleep in the store on the floor in front of the classic section. Each night before I went to bed I’d reach up on the shelf and pick up the book I’d been reading the night before. If that book had been sold that day I’d just grab a different title. As the books came and went over time, when the title I’d partially read came back in stock I’d pick up where I’d left off when it had last been sold. Over time I went through the entire bookcase.
There was also a bookcase that opened up to reveal a hidden closet where I’d put my mattress and stored my clothing in the day time.
I am a lawyer by profession but always worked for myself doing other things. I went to UPEI and got an excellent liberal arts degree which has served me well in the book business. I decided against law and moved back to PEI and bought a tree farm in central Queens. I needed something to have as a part time job and figured that since John wanted to sell the store I’d buy it and try to make a living doing something I really liked doing.
[Editor’s note: coincidentally, Charles also wrote for The Cadre in the late 70s.]
“Quality, variety and reasonable price. That is the key,” says Charles Mills regarding the operation of a book store. (Chelsea Perry)
TC: How has the business changed in the era of chain bookstores and Amazon?
CM: When Amazon came along everyone though it was the end for brick and mortar stores. Also people thought big box stores would drive small stores out of business. We have always believed that we do not worry about what others do in business. We worry about what we do and we believe that if we do something to the best of our abilities 100% of the time there’s nothing more we can do than that so we will sink or swim as maybe but there will be no regrets as to what have not done. It is our estimation that we have on the whole a better variety and quality of product at an equal or better price than most other booksellers and this is what we trade on.
TC: What, in your opinion, drives people to keep coming to your bookstore? What makes it special?
CM: The demand for quality books has never been greater. The book business is alive and well and the small independent sector in my mind has never done better. Quality, variety and reasonable price. That is the key. Also this could not have been done without the excellent staff we have had over the years. People who love and know books. An extraordinary group of people who have gone above and beyond the call that any employee could have been asked to. People who have dedicated time and energy to the business for few financial rewards but who have on the whole achieved an extraordinary amount of personal satisfaction and each with their own talents, traits and intellects to contribute to the success of The Bookman. Also none of this would have been possible without the selfless contribution of time and energy of John Ward who taught us everything we know about the trade and then some.
TC: What is the demographic of your typical customer?
CM: Our customers come in all age groups and demographics. We have been in business over 45 years and have generation after generation come through the store. We have watched people who started off as kids reading comics in the little original house on Euston St. grow up and then read chapter books and then history and classics. We have watched them get girlfriends or boyfriends, have kids and bring them to The Bookman where they start off reading comics and now some of those second generations kids have gone through that cycle and now have kids of their own. The Bookman is greater than myself or the people who work there. Is is a part of the fabric of the life in the community and will continue to be so for the next the 29 years remaining on our lease, courtesy of Anne Barbour, the landlady.
Being a tourist destination we have customers from all over the world and customers from all over the world who come back again and again. Some come every year, some every second year, and some at sporadic times over their lifetime. Our oldest customers that I know of are a Judge Russell and his wife from Philadelphia who have been coming every year starting with the little house on Euston St (haven’t missed yet) from the beginning and are now in their eighties. I expect to see them again next summer as well and look forward to it.
TC: What is your favourite book at the moment?
CM: My favourite books are Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Jungle Book by Kipling and Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle.
The Bookman (the store, and if you’re lucky, the man) can be found at 177 Queen Street, Charlottetown.