Small, Independent Bookstores are on the Rise

Contrary to common perception of a failing book industry, small bookstores are on the rise as vibrant, feel-good community hubs for lovers of literature—something online booksellers can’t do
Photo by Sarah Baker-Forward

Walls lined with shelves of books. A pair of comfortable armchairs tucked into a reading nook. A cat dozing on a table display of spring-themed books, the sound of a dog’s toenails skittering on the wood floor as it greets a visitor who has just stepped through the door. Reading socks and book bags; scented candles and mugs.

Stop—you had me at books.

No matter how large or small, there is nothing more satisfying to a reader than a bookstore. And despite those who declared, “Books—and bookstores—are dead,” there is nothing more gratifying than the fact the retail book industry is stronger than ever. The national Indigo chain posted growth and profits last year, publishers are increasing their output of books and independent bookstores are opening up in the most unlikely, yet inspired, places.

“We knew we were taking a chance,” says Alice Burdick of Lunenburg’s Lexicon Books, one of several independent bookstores that have opened in Atlantic Canada since 2014. “There were people coming into the store saying ‘Are you crazy?’ but we paid attention to trends in North America and the trend of three years ago, which continues to strengthen, is that independents are on the rise.”

Ellen Pickle might argue that’s always been the trend. She has put her faith in the staying power of books since opening Tidewater Books (now Books and Browsery) in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 1995.

“The sky has been falling since the day I opened the doors,” she says with a chuckle. “A lot of people thought they saw the writing on the wall but books have such value, people keep coming back to them.”

From experience, she believes if a bookstore can ride out the ebbs and flows of industry flux, it will be fine.

Perhaps it was the ebb and flow of the river running past her rural property in River John, Nova Scotia, that inspired author Sheree Fitch to become the newbie to the Atlantic Canadian bookstore scene.

“We didn’t have money to pay rent and we knew there had to be more than books to bring people out of their way,” she says of the decision to turn an old outbuilding into a bookstore. “That’s the reason we decided to be seasonal and why we integrated the sense of nature and books and reading.”

While she admits her motivation for opening Mable Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery was to bring something back to a community that had lost so much—including its elementary school—she also wanted to create an experience for visitors. She brought Maple Murple’s famous literary house to life in a separate building alongside a barn, pasture and chicken coop.

Of the success of her first season in 2017, Fitch says, “People came and usually stayed an hour. Some stayed half a day. The picnic tables were well used. We discovered people like the idea of coming, browsing and lingering. So it was an experience as much as it was a bookstore.”

The inside of Sheree Fitch’s imagination, photo by Sarah Baker-Forward

Fitch sees this as fitting in with an emerging industry. “From Anne of Green Gables to all the festivals we have, I think Atlantic Canada is developing a literary tourism industry. I’m part of that and I’m pushing that.”

While they didn’t deliberately set out to create a destination bookstore, Gael Watson and Andra White took advantage of existing infrastructure when they jumped at the opportunity presented by a space opening up in the historic outfitters building along the LaHave River in southwest Nova Scotia. Watson has owned and operated LaHave Bakery in the building for 30 years; White does the bakery’s bookkeeping. The two simply expanded their business partnership.

“Our expectations weren’t huge,” White says. “We weren’t desperate for the money as much as just having a place where people could come and buy books. As a result, it’s been better than we expected.”

White admits that the presence of a popular bakery, an already established community hub in a beautiful stopping spot, benefits the bookstore. But, she adds, “I think we were surprised by how supportive the community is. And by how much we love being in the bookstore.”

If anyone knows how hard it is to resist the siren call of owning a bookstore, it’s Matt Howse of Newfoundland. On the cusp of turning thirty and wanting to plant potatoes in the fall and pick them in the spring, Howse decided to give up the life of an itinerant teacher (he taught for six years in four different communities) and fulfill a 10-year desire to work in a bookstore. He settled in St. John’s and opened Broken Books on Duckworth Street in 2014.

He now admits owning a bookstore isn’t as idyllic as he thought it would be. “I feel like working in a bookstore is much more fun than actually owning one,” he says with a laugh. “I spend half my time on the phone and the internet, talking to people, dealing with publishers and publicists and the government.”

That didn’t stop him from jumping at the chance to expand into a larger space a few doors down earlier this year. “Since we’ve moved, we’ve seen an increase in foot traffic. We have more space, more chairs, and we still have the chess board.”

Ask any independent bookseller, however, what brings them the greatest joy and they’ll say it’s the chance to curate a unique collection of books. “For me, part the appeal is that visitors are getting Atlantic-focused books curated by somebody who studied children’s literature and is a book maniac,” says Fitch of her book shoppe and dreamery.

Andra White in LaHave says she and her business partner simply pick books they like. “Some of them are classics, a lot are Canadian and local, and we have a big non-fiction section.”

Or if you’re Julien Cormier, a lifelong resident of northern New Brunswick, it’s the joy of offering books at all. Growing up in Shippagan, on the Acadian Peninsula, Cormier loved to read but there was no place to buy books. After living in Montreal as a young man, he returned to his hometown and in 1989, opened Librairie Pelagie, selling French-language books.

“That’s what I’m proud of,” he says after nearly three decades in business. “I offer to the people around here what I didn’t have when I was a child. For almost 30 years, they have that. For me, that’s a big achievement.”

In 2005, Cormier expanded to nearby Caraquet, where the bookstore benefits from being attached to a popular cafe/bistro, and then to Bathurst in 2011, where the cottage-like store is located in a quaint boardwalk-style strip. He says they are fighting every day to keep the three stores open but he credits book sales to schools and the annual book fair, held in Shippagan every October since 2003, for keeping them competitive.

Creating a steady source of income is a priority for every independent bookseller, especially in a region with a considerable seasonal economy. “The biggest challenge is maintaining the store over the course of a year,” admits Alice Burdick of Lexicon Books. “The South Shore, like so many places everywhere, is deeply seasonal. We knew this coming into it so we had a plan but it’s still a challenge maintaining an acceptable level of sales in the winter months.”

Ellen Pickle has kept costs down at Tidewater Books and Browsery for 23 years by doing her own accounting. “You have to know where you stand at any given point,” she says. It’s one of the reasons she doesn’t discount her books outside customer appreciation days. “I think they’re too important to do that, and there’s not enough [profit] margin to keep your business viable if you do.”

The high cost of rent and online retailers are the biggest challenges to “indies,” particularly if sales decline considerably during the winter. Creative strategies for keeping the community engaged and devoted are key for an independent bookstore’s success.

Lexicon Books and suddenlyLISTEN Music (a multidisciplinary presenter of improvised, adventurous music) cohost evenings of words and music, while Tidewater’s Ellen Pickle has turned a third of her bookstore into a “browser” featuring the work of local artisans. Matt Howse offers up a chess table; Sheree Fitch has donkeys and Andra White offers cake. “Everyone can count on having a piece of homemade cake when they show up to an author book signing.” White says she’s thinking of the writer as she decides whether chocolate or blueberry-zucchini or carrot cake is called for.

Matt Howse of Broken Books

This is why Howse in St. John’s, along with others, see the bookstore-as-hangout as the future of independent bookstores, because they can offer something that online retailers cannot. “The future of bookselling is creating community, creating space,” Howse explains. “It’s really important for us as booksellers to fill this void of third space, a place you can go to that’s not home and not work but a place to hang out and be social. I think it’s important for us to stay open a few nights a week and have lectures and poetry readings and live music.”

Anyone daring enough to open a bookstore does it not to be trendy but to be happy, and to share that happiness with others. After all, consider the added benefits of owning a bookstore of one’s own: curating a particular selection of books, providing a hospitable space for hanging out, supporting the local writing community and, of course, meeting diverse and interesting readers.

What every independent seller of books and gifts has in common is the feeling that the bookstore is their “happy place.”

“I love coming to work,” says Alice Burdick. “When someone comes in that door, they visibly brighten up. People relax; you can see their shoulders drop as they get into the zone. It’s such a pleasure to see how much people enjoy being in here.”

Written By

Sara Jewell is the author of Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia, published by Nimbus. She lives near Oxford, NS.

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