Bookstore Disasters: Surviving the Worst
How well prepared are you to recover from a fire or flood?
By Guy Robertson
You don't need this.
You opened your bookstore this morning and found half your stock drenched from a burst pipe. You can already smell the mould. Large-format items fall apart when you open them. Thousands of pages stick together. Covers warp into wild shapes, making your fiction display resemble a nightmare. You don't need this, but you have no choice. You're faced with one of the more common bookstore disasters.
Insurers and risk managers agree that the best way to deal with any disaster is to prepare for it before it strikes. Most bookstore floods and fires can be avoided through preventative maintenance. Look around your store. You'll probably find a number of potential trouble spots.
"Booksellers forget that books are among the most fragile consumer goods," says Mike McGee, a fire control specialist and Security Manager at the Vancouver Public Library. "A few ounces of water can render a book unsaleable in minutes. Fire and smoke work even faster. And sometimes fires and water hit you simultaneously. For example, when firefighters open their hoses on a blaze, often there's more damage from water than fire. Considering those kinds of risks, I'd say that preventative maintenance is necessary in every bookstore."
McGee recommends annual inspections of plumbing and wiring, with special attention to any suspicious stains on ceilings and walls. You don't have to be a plumber or electrician to recognize a dripping pipe or frayed wires, but if you discover these risks in or near your store, you should call for skilled help as soon as possible. A plumber's time is expensive, but the bill is not nearly as painful as the sight of warped fiction.
Windows and skylights need regular inspections to ensure that water doesn't seep through cracks or loose panes.
"Skylights can be a real nuisance, especially in wet weather," says David Duthie of Duthie Books in Vancouver. "Skylights are more exposed than other glass, and they tend to leak unless you keep them in good shape. We've had one large skylight repaired once a month during a rainy winter."
If mild Vancouver winters are hard on skylights, how about severe winters in Regina, Toronto and Halifax? A skylight enhances a bookstore's interior, but it also increases the risk of water ingress. If you can see the clouds through your ceiling, be sure that your window on heaven is well-caulked.
Duthie also recommends regular inspections and maintenance of sprinklers and basement storage areas.
"I hate to think about how much stock I'd lose if the sprinklers went off accidentally," he says. "They should be checked once a year, along with the fire extinguishers and alarms. Remember that one sprinkler head can soak thousands of books. And storing boxes in the basement should be avoided if at all possible, since water naturally flows toward the lowest point in any building."
Another important preventative measure involves backing up vital computer data regarding inventories, sales, special orders and other essential operations. Storing the back-up disks and tapes in a safe location away from your bookstore ensures that you will have access to your data if your computer system is stolen or destroyed. Backing up data is increasingly important for bookstores that might experience Year 2000 problems arising from the inability of older computer technology to process 21st century dates. In January 2000, the computers in many bookstores could cease to function. It will be prudent to keep a full set of current back-up data in case the worst scenario comes true.
Back to your flooded bookstore. You must move quickly. In many cases, the loss of stock is not as inconvenient as damage to walls, floors and ceilings. Water trapped in wall cavities causes building materials to rot. Presently you might notice an unpleasant odour and brownish stains spreading across a wall. These are signs of significant water damage, and if you can smell the decay, so can your customers.
It's best to hire trained moisture control specialists who are accustomed to restoring retail businesses. Janitorial companies often lack the necessary equipment and expertise to deal with a bad flood. You can't rely on them to get you out of trouble with good intentions and a mop.
"Bookstores are special cases," says Alan Reyno, a moisture control project manager in Burnaby, B.C. who has worked on dozens of damp and fire-damaged retail sites. "If I can set up dehumidification units on site a couple of hours after a pipe bursts or the roof leaks, then I can decrease building restoration costs substantially. As for books, my success will depend on the quality of the paper, the amount of time the book has been damp, and the way it has been handled in its damaged condition."
Reyno and his professional colleagues have dehumidified and freeze-dried books and other paper items with excellent results. Unfortunately, the restoration of paperback stock is not cost-effective, and many soggy thrillers must be either discarded or sold at greatly reduced prices. Nevertheless, reduced revenue is better than none, and public interest in your fire sale or post-flood customer bonanza could increase overall sales.
Moreover, there are ways to profit from adversity. Years ago, a clever Toronto bookseller sold a large collection of smoke- and water-damaged stock to an American university that needed soggy books for its paper conservation laboratory. Thus a bookseller's disaster contributed to higher education, while the bookseller recovered his losses in full.
Insurance, however, is the usual source of post-disaster funds for repairs, and most Canadian booksellers have policies that cover different risks. Be honest: have you read your store's insurance policy? Can you describe exactly what risks it covers? If you're not sure how your policy protects--or fails to protect--your store, read it carefully and call your broker if you have any questions. Remember that an insurance policy is a legal contract with certain limitations, and the insurance company will not give you a cheque to repair damage that the policy does not mention.
You may have lost much of your stock, and your store is in need of serious repairs, but the manager of moisture control team tells you that he has seen much worse problems, and the soggiest or most burned-out bookseller can always find some way to stay in business. He might also tell you to develop a preventative maintenance programme for your store, and never to ignore an old pipe that drips.
You've learned your lesson. Let's hope that you won't need another.
[Bio:] Guy Robertson is senior disaster response planner at SafetySmart Emergency Management Inc. in Vancouver, Canada. His clients include libraries, archives, information centres, banks, and retail businesses.