Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Greenley’s – The Quintessential Independent Bookstore



Walking into Greenley’s, you will first be greeted by that quintessential smell of books and the contemplative quiet associated with bookstores. You meet the local authors’ book table, followed by a warm welcome from the staff, which simply makes you feel happy to browse. On this day, I am led into the sanctuary of the bookstore – the back office. This is where it all happens, books are ordered, received and shelved waiting to be displayed. This space feels rather sacred and unchanged. The Greenley’s are there, most at home. I first met them back in 1984 when they hired me, and other eager Nicholson students, to do inventory of the books in the store after hours. And here we sit, almost 30 years later, reflecting.


It all began with William (Bill) and Ruth Greenley. Bill was born in Toronto; Ruth was born and raised just outside of Stirling. The two met while at Queen’s University - Bill was studying to be an accountant, while Ruth was intent on becoming a teacher. “That’s what women studied then; you either took nursing, or you became a teacher,” said Ruth.

Bill went on to work at Hershey’s, which took the couple to Smith Falls, Ontario, where they raised their three children. He worked his way up to vice president of the company. Ruth worked as a high school teacher and taught adult education at Algonquin College in nearby Perth.

When Hershey’s wanted Bill to relocate to Toronto, he started thinking it was time for a change. He loved books and reading and the idea of owning his own bookstore. With his business background in accounting, and Ruth’s in education, the pair were well suited to the business of a bookstore.

Bill retired from Hershey’s in his early 50s and the couple took some time to travel and decide where to open their bookstore and start their second career. They travelled across the country, considering places all along the way from the Maritimes to the West Coast. They both noticed small towns need a bookstore.

They finally settled on the Quinte area, bought a home in a beautiful spot near the bay, and started the work on the store.

Greenley’s started small, renting space out of a building owned by Terry Barrett where Stephen License is now located. They opened their doors on November 10, 1980. By July 1983, they bought their own building and relocated to the present Front Street location.

This structure was built in 1825, making it the oldest building in downtown Belleville. A tour of the underbelly of the store is a historical trip, where the walls, the two-foot deep windowsills, and the holes in the walls tell the stories.

At one time, Henry Corby owned this building, which he used as a bakery, grocery store, and a tavern all at the same time. Mr. Greenley notes most businesses ran a tavern of some sorts in those days after hours. Many lifetimes ago, this part of the building was at grade level (street level). The old coal shoot, the cooking fireplace complete with an iron swing arm for the cook pot, patches of lathe, and horse-hair plaster remain. All of the walls are stone, except for doorways which were bricked in.

There is an outline of brick on one of the south walls where Henry Colby had his bake oven for the bread. Over time, the roads built up entombing the bottom level of this building where Corby used to hand the fresh baked loaves out of the windows to the customers on Front Street. This old building has been two times lucky surviving the devastation of fire. In the 1860s, a fire claimed seven buildings south of where Greenley’s is now, slowly burning out as it approached the stone wall protecting the building. When the Greenley’s owned the building, fire broke out claiming three buildings to the south. Ruth remembers that cold night well, and she recalls smoke coming off of the roof of the building. “I have never been so scared in all my life.”  

The store stands strong and tall today. Bill reflects, Belleville needed a dedicated bookstore. There was James Text, which was mainly a stationary store, which also printed the grade 13 prep exam books at the time. Reading and Greeting operated out of Century Place, and its owners also managed a magazine distribution business so it sold mostly magazines, newspapers, and only a few books.

It wasn’t long before Greenley’s bookstore developed a regular clientele. Ruth always insured there was a varied selection of French books available and the business supplied local (and not so local) schools with specific book orders and always supported local and Canadian authors.

One summer, Mr. Greenley recalls a casually dressed tourist came into the bookstore. The gentleman struck up a conversation with Bill around books and eventually asked for a recommendation. “I had just finished Running in the Family and really enjoyed the book so I showed it to him and asked him if he had read it. He nodded he had, and we chatted some more.” Several months later, Bill saw a photograph of the author Michael Ondaatje and made the connection. While visiting Greenley’s Ondaatje did not give any indication that he was the author, but from then on, when he did visit, as he was known to do from time to time frequenting a cottage he had in the area, Bill knew him, and was happy he had returned.

Mrs. Greenley recalls other notable visitors and excitedly admits the biggest hit was Don Cherry. Scheduled to be at Greenley’s for a book signing, the store was full of people anticipating his arrival – he was late. The Greenley’s got the call that he was just down the road waiting in a car not feeling well. He finally showed. He was dressed to the nines, high collar, tie; the crowd went crazy for Don Cherry. Other memorable authors include Bobby Hull, Jack Johnson with “Here Came Jack”, Ken Dryden, David Suzuki, Pierre Berton, Robert Bateman, Margaret Atwood, Robert Munsch, and of course Michael Ondaatje.

Greenley’s is a popular local stomping ground and always manages to draw people in and keep them coming back. Local authors include Gerry Boyce, Wilma Alexander, Janet Lunn, and the many talented authors whose work graces the local table.

After almost thirty years the Greenley’s realized it was time to retire once again, especially since the store was now managed by someone who loved it just as much as the Greenley’s. Tammy Grieve bought the bookstore in 2007, shortly after the Greenley’s announced they would retire. She had first come to Greenley’s in the mid-90s for a job. None was available, but a determined Tammy returned every few weeks to inquire and soon she was hired. Tammy’s passion for the books, her hard work, and the organization of the store was evident. Bill and Ruth showed her all aspects of running the bookstore and Tammy naturally transitioned into more responsibilities. When the Greenley’s finally announced their retirement, Tammy was the perfect person to step up.

As a community waited, Tammy worked hard with her dedicated staff to ready Greenley’s for the next stage in its life. During a brief shut down period, they updated the local independent store carefully preserving the essence so essential to the Greenley’s name. The night before opening day “was terrifying,” says Tammy. “We were all working until midnight putting books on the shelves; it was a team effort, and I couldn’t do it without them.”

The new Greenley’s opened in 2008 with an updated look including comfortable armchairs and the convenience of today’s electronic connections. Greenley’s now has followers on Twitter, friends on Facebook, a blog and a website. The store retains that welcoming Greenley’s feel synonymous with the name.

Tammy’s new monthly book club is relaxed and simply meant for people who like books.
"You have to love what you are selling, want to serve people, and love your customers.” When people come into Greenley’s, they see it as not just a place to buy books, but a place to talk about their families, what they heard on CBC and what has brought them joy that day. To them, this is home. When asked how she chooses the books she orders, Tammy replies, “that is indefinable, you just know, sometimes you order them just because you like them”. She admits that her specialty is in children’s books.

Although my time in this interview began with W&R Greenley, it ended with all of the family members. I observed the familial interaction, which was very respectful and balanced, interesting and intimate. Tammy still calls them Mr. and Mrs. Greenley. As I was interviewing Tammy, Mrs. Greenly ran off to Barrett’s to get some things she needed, and Bill gracefully made his way around the store fixing odds and sods; although retired, he is still working. This is truly a family run business. 

Read more in the summer issue of The County and Quinte Living magazine available now.


5 comments:

  1. AnonymousJuly 18, 2012

    Thanks Janet. I love this store & now I know its history. A great piece of work...as always!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Janet,

    Thank you for capturing this great bit of local history, I really enjoyed the intimate perspective and background. You obviously must share the loss being felt across Belleville upon the recent announcement of closure this coming January.


    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks so much for the perspective and background. To me it seems they have been there so much longer, I suppose in my modest 40ish years I have assumed they would be there forever. I am sure you share the sadness of many to hear of the upcoming closure in january.

    Chat soon,

    mo

    ReplyDelete
  4. This past Saturday, a few Greenley's regulars organized an Open House. The crowd was treated to coffee and cider, treats and a special visit by The Greenley's, Ruth and Bill. Mayor Neil Ellis was on hand with other city notables, and many local authors too. A special guest appearance by a casual Peter C Newman did not go unnoticed. Tammy and the staff had a full day of mixed emotions. As the Greenley's left the party, one could not get a little choked up to see the tears in Bill's eyes.

    A very special place in downtown Belleville indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A sad update to this post; Bill Greenley passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. A long and prosperous period of history has come to a close.
    An excerpt from his obituary :
    Bill was happiest in his next career which was to own and manage W & R Greenley Booksellers for 32 years, which he built with his beloved wife Ruth and much loved dog Mac. He was very proud of the bookstore and worked to make it one of the most successful independent bookstores in Canada. Bill loved books and his collection of books gave him much joy. It was never work for him to go into the store and it vitalized him until his 82nd year.


    ReplyDelete