If a customer is ever short on change, Walter Cipin lets them buy their book at a discounted price. It’s a move that not many shop owners make nowadays, but Cipin likes to make an impression on first-time customers.
Wayfarer Books Bought & Sold has been under his ownership since 1987.
Since the 1970s, when the store opened, a near 30,000 books have accumulated on the shelves — and that’s only what’s visible. Cipin, who studied English at the University of Chicago, said there’s tens of thousands of books in the basement, yet to be unpacked.
The store is a long and narrow shop sandwiched between the Sleepless Goat and Tara Foods. Its building was constructed in 1807, making it one of the oldest structures in Kingston — a fact made obvious by the floorboards’ creaks.
If you’re ever lost behind the stacks, Cipin can point you in the right direction. The owner can usually be found at the front of the store, standing behind a tall wooden counter, pricing books. He sports a salt-and-pepper beard and typically wears a pair of suspenders. Ever the organized bookseller, he keeps pens in his front pocket and glasses right on his nose.
Cipin bought the store from his employer after his daughter was born. He said he realized he needed to make a financial commitment to his future. It was a move characteristic for the man who declined a PhD offer out of practicality and moved to Kingston after growing weary of post-Vietnam America.
Over the years, Cipin’s been part of a slowly dissolving industry.
There used to be about a dozen used bookstores in Kingston, Cipin said, and that number will continue to shrink.
“What can one say?” he said. “It’s the impact of the Internet, especially with e-books.”
Still, he remains hopeful. During our interview, he holds up a book called Sex in the Garden — a picture book-sized guide to propagating plants.
“A book like this is never going to be on an e-book reader,” he said. “There will be a market for books but it won’t be the dominant market it once was.”
According to Cipin, Kingston has potential to be a good location for the development of the book trade.
“You have well-educated people with disposable income and a history of 150 years of reading,” he said. “What we don’t have is critical mass.
“The population you have here isn’t big enough to guarantee a balance between supply and demand.”
Beyond Cipin’s regular local customers, the business relies on people from out of town. Some make the trek to Kingston four or five times a year.
“As much as I would like to hope that the local traffic could support this store, there just aren’t enough of them,” he said.
With Kingston’s high student population, it could be assumed that they would be Wayfarer’s main customers.
“You would be surprised at how few students come,” Cipin said. “People assume that because all students can read, they’re readers who spend disposable income and time reading outside of their major or outside of their course texts.”
According to him, graduate students and younger faculty members do frequent his store. Cipin, who keeps a fairly small book collection at home, said these academics are in the midst of building their personal reference collections.
The used book industry, in a sense, depends on young people, he said. As the baby boomer generation retires over the next 10 to 15 years, Cipin said many older books will be available for the younger generations to purchase. It’s the result of many of the boomer generation downsizing as they age.
“The question everyone’s asking is: ‘Is the younger generation going to be purchasing books in large quantities with technology existing?’ ” he said.
Many used book sellers have found success selling rare copies of books online. Toronto bookseller Atticus Books made the move to online retailing in 2009, closing their downtown storefront to save money.
For Cipin, this method isn’t an option.
As the store’s only full-time employee, Cipin can no longer afford to hire anyone besides one part-time employee.
“We don’t make a lot of money,” he said. “My gross annual sales went down by about a third because of the impact of the Internet [in the early 2000s].”
Besides lacking time to manage an online store, Cipin said he wants to keep the storefront thriving for his returning customers.
“They’re the people who keep me alive and I want them to see my stock,” he said.
Cipin calls these customers “enlightened browsers.”
“[For] people who come into a store like this — not only is this a bookstore, but it’s a bookstore that requires people seeking an out, people who are explorers, people who are about self-discovery, regardless of who they are.”
And in this way, Wayfarer has become a bit of a novelty itself.
“Bookstores like this are not as easy to find,” he said.
In larger cities like Montreal and Toronto, used bookstores are disappearing because of increasing rent prices in high-traffic areas, he said. As one of three downtown used bookstores left in Kingston, Cipin said he has his landlady to thank for his business remaining open through the years by not raising his rent over the past two decades.
“Downtown has become very gentrified and it’s very expensive to do business here,” he said. “My landlady allows me to remain here on a very modest rent.”
Cipin’s humble demeanour extends to his own business. During our interview, he makes friendly conversation with each of his customers. He points them to other bookstores if they can’t find what they’re looking for at Wayfarer.
In a world surrounded by old books, Cipin said his favourite part of Wayfarer is meeting new customers from all walks of life.
“I don’t get to travel very much,” he said. “The world has to come to me.”
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