Celebrating Canadian Independent Bookstores

Canadian Independent Bookstore Day is happening this Saturday April 28, the first year of this national event, which was born out of Authors for Indies grassroots initiative. It's a day for Canadians to get out into the community and celebrate the unique intersection of art, culture, business and opportunity that bookstores provide. Check out the list of participating bookstores and their scheduled events—and for more inspiration, read on for lots of indie bookstore love by Canadian book enthusiasts. 

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McNally Robinson, Saskatoon and McNally Jackson, Manhattan, by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew 

Whenever I’m in Saskatoon I love to stop in at McNally Robinson. It’s one of those bookstores where you can browse a vast, well-curated collection in an unhurried way. Their selection of books by Canadian authors, and those from Western Canada in particular, is extensive and engaging, and I always make new discoveries. Enjoying a coffee in the Prairie Ink restaurant inside the store is, of course, a vital part of the experience. Its sister store, McNally Jackson in Manhattan, always feels like a refuge from the New York City whirlwind. I’ll stay there as long as my itinerary allows, browsing and reading. It pleases me to find works by Canadian authors there on display amongst American and International literary heavyweights.

Suzanne Alyssa Andrew is a fiction and freelance writer. She’s the author of the novel Circle of Stones and the comic book All of This, with illustrator Jonathan Kociuba (launching May, 2018 at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival).  

McNally Jackson in Manhattan, always feels like a refuge from the New York City whirlwind. I’ll stay there as long as my itinerary allows...

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Main Street Book Warehouse, Vancouver, by Janie Chang

My local independent bookstore is Main Street Book Warehouse. I go to buy books of course. But I also go when they host book launches for my author friends and local authors, because community matters. Sometimes I go hoping to see Zeus, the dog least likely to become a professional Bookstore Dog when he grows up. His owner remains optimistic.

We choose books from what we know is available. But between the dearth of book reviews in magazines and newspapers, the decline in book advertising, and online recommendations that keep suggesting the most popular titles, what we know could easily narrow down to the same 20 books a year. A place like Main Street Book Warehouse lets me discover for myself. A cover that intrigues, a paragraph that catches at your throat, a 'Staff Pick' sign that makes you take a risk. 

The store carries all the bestsellers of course, but also a curated selection that reflects the tastes of its staff, from highbrow to quirky, from rip-roaring adventure to works of lapidary prose. And unlike using online reviews to try and figure out whether or not you'd like the book, you get to chat with people who really know books. Staff who take the time to know you and what you enjoy. Is the story dark-dark or humorous-dark? Do you think it's more fantasy or magical realism? You can't have an insightful discussion with an algorithm. A bookseller is better than an algorithm. 

Janie Chang writes historical fiction with a personal connection, drawing upon family history for inspiration. Her first novel, Three Souls, was a finalist for the 2014 BC Book Prizes Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and one of 9 Canadian books nominated for the 2015 International Dublin Literary Award. Her second novel, Dragon Springs Road, was a Globe and Mail national bestseller. She was the founder and main organizer of Authors for Indies, which ran 2015-2017 and has now become Canadian Independent Bookstore Day.

A bookseller is better than an algorithm. 

 

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Queen Books, Toronto, by Julie Forrest

I’m thrilled to have the chance to give a shout out to the best thing to happen to Leslieville, Queen Books!

Owners Alex Snider and Liz Burns have created a beautiful, charming space that’s fast become a hub for the ‘hood. The booksellers are warm and knowledgeable, and always know just the right book to recommend. The store has a fantastic children’s section, where they host author events (it was such a treat to take the kids to meet Dennis Lee!) They host a monthly book club for tweens, Reading Queens, which my daughter loves. The moderator’s terrific and the book selections so thoughtful.

But my favorite thing about Queen Books is their subscription service. Once a month I open my mailbox to a beautiful-wrapped book chosen just for me! I’ll admit, I was initially skeptical, but every month I have been delighted (and surprised!) by my book. It’s like Christmas once a month, and it gives me so much pleasure.

Queen Books, you’re the best!

Julie Forrest is a book club addict and former publishing professional who recently left the book biz for an exciting new role as Director of Philanthropy for Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. 

 The booksellers are warm and knowledgeable, and always know just the right book to recommend.

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Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge, by Carin Makuz

There are two books on my shelves that never fail to remind me how lucky I am to call Blue Heron my local. One, 21,167 Kitchen and Cooking Secrets is what Shelley suggested when I was looking for something a little different for a foodie friend. “This is great,” she said, handing me a chunky softcover that, for various reasons, I would never have picked up. But Shelley doesn’t throw great around lightly so of course I took it and it’s lived in my kitchen ever since, one of my favourite random reads, a grab bag of foodish trivia and wisdom (dip cutter in flour each time you punch out a shape in cookie or biscuit dough) (to test whether legumes are done, blow on the skin, it should split). (Note to self: buy another copy for friend.) The second book is Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings—a big coffee table beauty I splurged on, the first book I bought after Shelley’s horrific car accident a few years ago. A scary and extraordinary time... the community she built coming together, pulling for her recovery and doing whatever little each of us could do to help in some small way. Buying books, as it so often does, seemed the natural thing. 

Carin Makuz eats, writes and reads in Whitby, Ontario, and happily drives a half hour through countryside to her favourite bookstore instead of ordering from them online. She is the creator of upholSTORIES and The Litter I See Project. 

Buying books, as it so often does, seemed the natural thing. 

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McNally Robinson, Winnipeg, by Ariel Gordon

I have loved McNally Robinson Booksellers in all its incarnations. At their small store at the intersection of River & Osborne in Winnipeg, I wiggled joyfully while presenting Carol Shields with a bouquet of supermarket flowers. She was the guest of honour at an event launching the special issue of Prairie Fire devoted to her work and I was a student with my first job in publishing. Vacationing in boomtown Calgary, I sought and found comfort browsing McNally's familiar green-and-white shelves. At the store in in Winnipeg’s Portage Place Mall, just on the other side of the mall fountain, Dionne Brand once complimented me on my suede shoes after a reading featuring herself and Robert Kroetsch. In turn, I complimented her on her suede pants. These days, I’m in the Grant Park store every few weeks for events I’ve organized for other writers and events I’ve organized for myself. Standing at the podium, I find myself staring at the enormous picture of the late Michael Van Roy on the wall above the community classroom and am grateful for the moment of remembrance I am afforded. I find myself listening to audience members listen to me as I try to do justice to the world. I’ve been undone by any number of readers and any number of books in their stores. It should go without saying, but...I appreciate the professionalism and good humour of McNally’s staff, as we all try to build the community of writers and readers we want, reading by reading, poem by poem.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. This spring, she’ll be launching GUSH: menstrual manifestos for our times, an anthology she edited with Tanis MacDonald and Rosanna Deerchild. 

I’ve been undone by any number of readers and any number of books in their stores.

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Owl’s Next Books, Calgary, by Anne Logan

I’m lucky enough to live in a city big enough to boast multiple, successful independent bookstores. Although I try to frequent all of them, my favourite is by far Owl’s Nest Books, located in the heart of Southwest Calgary. Open for over 40 years, Owl’s Nest boasts a large, bright storefront that is dedicated to not only adult books, but kids’ books as well. As a parent, frequenting a store that dedicates half its merchandise to children is always a good thing because it significantly extends my browsing time!

There are many reasons I find myself scanning their bookcases in particular: they frequently host live readings, book club discussions and local book launches. I can always find the latest release that I’m looking for, or they will gladly order it in free of charge.  And most importantly, their staff is consistently helpful, friendly and easy to track down. Their recommendations are thoughtful and consistent, so whenever I’m looking for a new read, I can trust the opinion of any employee there. In my mind, this is the very definition and purpose of an ideal independent bookstore. 

Owl’s Nest also makes an effort to support community events whenever possible so their book table is a common sight at many of the city’s biggest literary events which makes buying local so convenient. Mystery lovers like myself will also love this store as they specialize in stocking the hidden gems of this popular (yet varied!) genre. And if that wasn’t enough they’ve got adorable little owl figurines lining the nooks and crannies of each shelf—a different kind of collection that’s fun to explore once you’ve picked out your next read. 

Anne Logan worked in the Canadian publishing industry for 7 years, and loved every minute of it. She now writes reviews for various publications, and is the books columnist for CBC Calgary's Homestretch. She is the Past President of the Writers' Guild of Alberta Board of Directors and hosts various literary events around Calgary, including the monthly book club “We’ve Read This” at the  Wordfest Lab. Find her at www.ivereadthis.com. 

Their recommendations are thoughtful and consistent, so whenever I’m looking for a new read, I can trust the opinion of any employee there. In my mind, this is the very definition and purpose of an ideal independent bookstore. 

Book Cellar, Yellowknife, by John Mutford

For almost 40 years, the Book Cellar has been the place to go for books in Yellowknife. It's become a unique character in a city of unique characters. Offering current best sellers to a vast selection of northern and Indigenous titles, customers would be hard pressed to not find something that suits their interest here. And if they don't have it, they'll get it in. More importantly, the owner Judith Drinnin has long championed literacy across the north and, along with writer Richard Van Camp, has been instrumental in starting and continuing the now legendary annual Northwords Writers festival which has brought such notable figures as Michael Crummey, Tracey Lindberg, and Douglas Coupland to the town to entertain and mentor locals. 

John Mutford is a librarian, originally from Newfoundland but who has called the north his home since 2001 (Nunavut and then the Northwest Territories). He is a longtime book blogger and loves to travel with his wife and kids.

It's become a unique character in a city of unique characters.

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Munro’s Books, Victoria, by Monique Gray Smith

When I walk in to Munro’s books in downtown Victoria, on the beautiful traditional territory of the Lekuwngen speaking people, I can feel myself relax. The bookstore itself is stunning and my favourite thing to do upon arrival is to find a quiet aisle, not always easy, and stare up at the ceiling. The art work and attention to detail is breathtaking. It is also a mirror to the art work and attention to detail in each and every book on the shelves. I also love Munro’s because of how they honour and promote writers of Indigenous ancestry and that they were doing this long before it was popular to do so. I could go on and on about my adoration for Munro’s but let me highlight the Children and Young Readers section. It is tucked in the back of the store and has a table and chair, just the right size for little readers to sit and explore books. I have a basket full of precious memories of rainy afternoons around that table with my twins, exploring books, possibilities, other worlds, ideas and so much more. A family trip to Munro’s always includes the gift of being able to choose one book to take home, I remember one particular visit getting to the till and the staff person saying, “Oh, there’s a book tucked into this one. Do you want both?” My son had put a smaller book into a bigger one, hoping no one would notice. His response to the staff person and I was, “but it’s so hard to choose just one.”  That sums up Munro’s books, not only is it beautiful for the eye and gentle on the spirit, but it also carries an extraordinary collection of books that makes it difficult to choose just one. 

Monique Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry and a proud mom of twins. Monique is an accomplished consultant, writer and international speaker. Her first novel, Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, won the 2014 Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. She's also author of My Heart Fills With HappinessYou Hold Me Up, and Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation. Monique and her family are blessed to live on Lekwungen territory in Victoria, British Columbia. For more information, visit www.littledrum.com.

The bookstore itself is stunning and my favourite thing to do upon arrival is to find a quiet aisle, not always easy, and stare up at the ceiling.

April 23, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
Tilly

Tilly

A Story of Hope and Resilience
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
My Heart Fills with Happiness

My Heart Fills with Happiness

edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover
More Info
You Hold Me Up

You Hold Me Up

edition:Hardcover
More Info
Speaking Our Truth

Speaking Our Truth

A Journey of Reconciliation
edition:Hardcover
More Info
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