In 2014 everyone knew oil prices were going to fall and the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, which had been on fire only a year before, was starting to feel the effects of belt tightening. Doom-and-gloom forecasts became the order of the day.
For Matt Howse, it seemed the perfect time to start a notoriously risky business.
“My brother and a friend from home opened Fixed, a St. John’s coffee shop, in spring 2012 and I was finishing a Master’s in Folklore at Memorial University and working seasonally with tourism. They were looking for investors and I helped out.”
The space Fixed occupies is part of a funky old building in the downtown core and he became pretty involved in the business. Not long after they opened, another space in the same building became vacant – a quirky little place with rough plaster walls on a steep stairway between the two major downtown streets. To Howse, it was a sign.
“I thought, ‘let’s do a bookstore,’” and Broken Books, to complement Fixed Coffee, was born.
In some ways the idea was a brilliant one. There wasn’t a single independent new bookstore in St. John’s, which relied on a national chain for its literary fix. Surely there was a need.
On the other hand, independent bookstores are dropping off the main streets of Canada at an alarming rate and online sales are climbing astronomically. How could Howse succeed where others had failed?
“There’s a whole bunch of factors,” Howse explains. “You can get a book here right now instead of waiting, come in and have a chat without pushing past the candles first; it’s a cheap retail space and though it sustains itself it doesn’t make any money.”
That last factor may be the most important one. Howse holds down another job that helps to prop up the bookstore. He’s philosophical about it. “I’m 31 years old and don’t have to worry about making money,” he says.
What he does worry about is the quality of the books he sells. Bookshelves surround without overpowering the small space. Howse makes sure every volume is allowed to shine. His guiding principle is that the store must house books that look great, are well bound and nice to hold in your hand. He chooses his inventory as much for the tactile experience as for the literary one.
“Feel this cover,” he’ll exclaim, holding out one of his treasures.
Most of the books could be roughly categorized as CanLit, although he’ll make an exception for something that really catches his eye, including a set of the beautifully presented Melville House Last Interview series.
He’s especially proud of the poetry section. “If I’m going to have a bookstore I’m going to have the best poetry shelf in Atlantic Canada,” he proclaims. “I’m not there yet, but I’ve got the best in Newfoundland.”
Howse has a loyal and varied clientele. If people have the patience – and many seem to – he’ll order any book you want. He has a customer in Alberta who regularly rings up and asks him to supply books for her relatives in Newfoundland.
Then there’s the lady in her 90s who first came in and bought a comic book about the West Bank and the teenagers who skip school to spend the afternoon there.
While he gets a lot of tourists in the summer months it’s the locals who keep him going all winter. People feel comfortable there for a reason.
“It’s important that any bookshop provides a third space,” Howse explains. “It’s not home and it’s not work.”
To that end, Broken Books sponsors writing competitions, gives out gift cards to organizations and provides space for readings and musical performances.
Howse and his brother are both keen to expand with a second café and bookstore in Bonavista. It’s another brave venture and, perhaps, working against his own best interests.
“I’d strongly advise against anyone else trying to open a bookstore in this economy. It defies most of the laws of capitalism, but we have to do what we love,” is his simple explanation. “We’re still here and that’s the only metric that matters.”