Generational Business: Adventure awaits passionate bookworms at popular North Bay boutique

In business for five decades, Allison the Bookman has over 100,000 in its used book inventory

One of North Bay’s iconic establishments, Allison the delivery mancontinues to thrive after three generations of the Allison family and five decades of serving the community with their reading needs.

Gord Allison and his wife Esther opened the second-hand bookstore in May 1973 to pursue Gord Allison’s love of books and reading. The whole family was often involved, from building bookshelves to finding books on their travels to holding a garage sale to raise funds.

The store has always been located downtown at 342 Main Street since 1973, with a few years when it expanded to the nearby storefront.

In 1986 they purchased the building and after 20 years in business had amassed over 200,000 used books. When the business passed to Gord’s son, Derrick Allison, in 1995, he took on the enormous task of cataloging their inventory to make it easier to find the books customers were looking for. Without inventory software, it was an onerous task.

Derrick Allison also introduced new books and briefly had a satellite store in the North Bay mall called One Stop Books between 2006 and 2012.

When Derrick Allison died in 2011, his daughter, Annette Allison-Vander Waal, took over the store.

Allison-Vander Waal grew up around the store watching her grandparents and father run the business and their love of reading. After moving to the United States with her husband, Scott, she often found rare books for her father to sell in the store.

“Customers remember me as a kid in the store and some remember being brought to the store by their parents,” she said.

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Allison the Bookman has been a favorite stop for city tourists, summer residents and of course local customers. Taking over a family business means building on what the previous owners have accomplished.

Allison-Vander Waal’s husband, Scott, joined her in the business, bringing his expertise in IT and finance, a complementary and valuable skill for today’s business.

“He was able to showcase our POS system, inventory, and searchable catalog,” she explained.

Although the Vander Waals lived in Wisconsin when they took over the business, they visited the store regularly. However, when COVID-19 restricted their ease of crossing the border, they decided to move permanently in the fall of 2020.

“People know who we are and they know we’re going to be here,” Vander Waal said.

With a new online catalog, customers could search for books on their website during pandemic shutdowns. They also offered curbside pickup and, as restrictions eased, special shopping appointments for immunocompromised people.

“Adaptation is the key to running the store,” said Vander Waal. “We can make changes as needed and go in different directions if necessary.”

One of the first tasks they undertook was to update their online catalog of over 95,000 titles. Vander Waal was able to build on what had been started by his stepfather.

They have a small team that loves all books as much as they do. Allison-Vander Wall shared that customer service has been a key part of their success and often involves reading what their customers are reading or introducing new authors.

“I had to shop for everyone,” Allison-Vander Waal said of adjusting during the COVID-19 measures. “We were doing online orders before the store opened and some days there were 10-20 orders a day with a huge list.”

They love finding creative and fun ways to keep customers supplied with great books.

“Since I took over, we’ve added a bigger section of new books and that’s proving to be an important feature for the store,” Allison-Vander Waal said. “We’ve created Allison’s wishlist and a ‘staff pick’ area and customers love finding books in this section.”

As they approach their 50th anniversary in 2023, they plan to celebrate.

“Our plan is to have a week of events and a final celebration before May 1. We’ll have cake, of course, some local authors and other well-wishers on hand,” Allison-Vander Waal said.

They also hope to get a bookish mural for the side of the building.

A well-deserved celebration for 50 years in business and for a promising future.