Tricia Siemens and Chuck Erion opened Words Worth Books in 1984 in uptown Waterloo, when Kitchener-Waterloo was a manufacturing power, and the area was growing quickly. Both Chuck and Tricia brought a wealth of complimentary talents to the job. Tricia had an accounting background, and Chuck was a whiz with computer networks who could fix or build most anything. Both of them were also voracious and eclectic readers.
The store thrived until the Chapters rollout of the mid-90s when we took a serious hit. Staff hours were cut, inventory shrunk, as people flocked to the new discount-kid on the block. There were weeks when we had fewer than a dozen special orders; there were days when we had fewer than a dozen customers. Through that time we wondered if we could make it, but put our nose down and learned to be smart and lean with our inventory. Where we couldn’t offer discounts, we could offer taste and curatorship. Where we couldn’t offer volume we could pivot on a dime. We became vocal and visible members in our community. A few years later our numbers recovered to pre-Chapters levels and we all got raises.
Chuck and Tricia retired a few years back and after working at Words Worth for years, Mandy Brouse and I took on the shop in 2011. We moved the store to its current location last year and are now a couple weeks from the store’s 30th year in business.
Moving the store was both a lot of work and great fun. A bunch of our favourite customers came out to help, and a scary undertaking had the makings of a big party. It brought out the notion that a community-focused bookstore can bring people together toward a common purpose, and through their efforts another bookstore was saved from going under due to exorbitant rent.
Which brings us to the state of play today.
Contrary to the steady drip of gloomy bookstore-related news, digital reading is not shuttering bookstores.
It was high rent that made it hard to operate an independent bookstore in the 80s and it’s very much the same today. Add to that warehouse-style discount stores and the central fact of Amazon has come to mean that independent retail of any kind is simply harder to do now. If there’s been a single change in the industry, it’s in the sleight of hand that Amazon has pulled off, with the notion that books are “widgets” with very little inherent value, and should be priced as such.
When I reflect on my years with Words Worth it’s tough to think of a singular highlight. I’ve met more great writers than most people, have never worked with someone I disliked, and have seen a lot of people at their very best over the years. Our customers remind us that there is an awareness of– and an emotional connection to– locally owned businesses, and I believe that’s especially true with bookstores. Additionally, having smart and passionate publishers to keep us in great new books, having a crack staff (which we’ve been blessed with for years) and a supportive community (blessed twice) will keep the store viable for the foreseeable future, and as we enter our 30th year, that’s plenty to be happy about.