B.C.'s Best Bookshops

British Columbia Magazine

It’s 4 p.m. in wintertime Victoria and the swiftly darkening sky is quickening the footsteps of locals on downtown’s Government Street. Most are rushing home before the damp, bone-chilling evening takes hold. But some are stopping in their tracks, diverted inside by the glow of a familiar and ever-welcoming friend.

 

Housed in a grand former bank building since 1984, Munro’s Books traces its history back 52 years. Often cited in round-ups of Canada’s best bookstores, it’s columned exterior and moulded high ceilings make it a secular cathedral for the kind of bookworms who love nothing more than losing themselves in the stacks.

 

But in 2014, its final chapter seemed almost inevitable.

 

That’s when owner Jim Munro – who launched his first store on Yates Street in 1963 with his then wife, celebrated author Alice Munro – decided to retire. In an age of e-readers, online shopping and phrases like ‘the death of print,’ bricks and mortar bookstores like his seemed destined for the remainder pile.

 

But the shop’s senior staff knew their audience better than that. “Jim really wanted the store to continue as it had for all those years, so selling to an outside party wasn’t an option,” says Munro’s operations manager Ian Cochran. “Instead, he turned the store over to four long-term employees – gratis.”

 

The unusual arrangement proved successful and the store Cochran describes as “something of a Canadian institution” remains a beloved haunt among bookish locals and visitors. Not that Munro’s is resting on its laurels: a new area for in-store author readings has been added and its famously extensive selection of B.C.-written titles has gone from strength to strength.

 

But the underlying values that cemented Munro’s in the hearts and minds of book nuts hasn’t changed. “Personal service, paying attention to what customers want to read and then making sure you have those books on-hand is still key,” says Cochran, adding that “having a beautiful building helps as well!”

 

Munro’s isn’t the only well-loved B.C. bookstore still turning its pages, though. Additional dog-eared Victoria favourites include Russell Books and Dark Horse Books, while the rest of the province is a bulging bookcase of purveyors with loyal followings, from Armchair Books in Whistler to Wendel’s Bookstore in Fort Langley and from Talewind Books in Sechelt to 32 Books in North Vancouver.

 

They’re among a multivolume compendium of leading B.C. bookstores embraced by their communities and ripe for discovery by curious visitors.

 

For bright and friendly Otter Books – on downtown Nelson’s historic Baker Street – knowing customers’ wants before they do is vital, whether it’s tomes on green issues, locally-authored books or less mainstream titles that fit the area’s counterculture locals.

 

“We tend to be a bit intuitive when it comes to our selection but the trick is to offer something for everyone,” says manager Samara Nicoll. Tempting titles aren’t enough, though. “You have to be fun and passionate about books and share that love and enthusiasm. We have people who come in just for our recommendations – it doesn't get much better than that!”

 

Community engagement is important in Nelson – “we wouldn’t be here without such supportive customers,” says Nicoll – but it’s crucial in towns like Rossland and Port Hardy whose bookshops rely on smaller customer pools. Caleb Moss, owner of Bacchus Books in Golden (population under 4,000), tackled the challenge by making his shop-café combo an irresistible neighbourhood hub.

 

“Real bookshops offer an experience that’s like stepping out of the regular flow of time and place. It’s about manifesting a cultural space that reflects the fascinating, coolly complex and base juvenile giggly parts of our social world all in one space,” he muses.

His yellow-painted “trippy heritage building” – with hearty cuisine to lure the hungry upstairs (seafood club sandwich recommended) – is a destination for visitors travelling through the mountain-framed region. But, more importantly, it offers locals a full menu of reasons to drop by.

“In communities like this folks need just one place to attach themselves to that makes life fulsome,” says Moss. “Offering readings, live music and a local version of a sophisticated big town scene enhances small town B.C. life.”

It’s this creation of sociable spaces that underpins The Book Man, a family-run business with a cozy Abbotsford shop and a huge “mothership” Chilliwack store where hundreds of thousands of used titles jostle for attention. Both have expert, solicitous staff – and each has a resident cat with it’s own fan base.

“Nietzsche, in our Chilliwack branch, is a handsome cat with long apricot fur and a penchant for sleeping in the comfy chairs in the window,” says co-owner Amber Price, adding that Abbotsford’s grey-hued Gatsby is “more curious and charismatic” – which means he loves knocking things off shelves.

He’s not the only staffer with a sense of fun. The twinkle-toed team recently filmed a YouTube video where they danced to a version of the Meghan Trainor pop song All About That Bass – cleverly renamed All About Them Books. The video (it’s on the store’s website) went viral, scoring thousands of views and the Tweeted admiration of Margaret Atwood. “I'm sure she heard us screaming with excitement all the way from B.C.,” says Price.

It’s not the only innovative way bookstores like here can surpass the one-dimensional experience of buying online. “Impeccable organization, friendly staff, chairs to sit on: we try to think of everything that makes browsing enjoyable. That includes the music we’re playing and our paperback cabinets where you slide open a drawer and all the titles by a major author are there.”

Not that The Book Man ignores virtual sales, she adds. “We started selling online 17 years ago. We love connecting people with books, not just here but throughout the world: it’s always fun mailing off a book to a faraway place.”

It’s not exactly far away but Penticton in the Okanagan Valley may be off the beaten path for some. It’s well worth the drive, though, for a visit to The Book Shop – a vast, general interest repository of thousands of used volumes that’s kept owner Bruce Stevenson busy for more than 40 years.

“Our shop has a tactile sensibility. It’s a place to meet and socialize,” says Stevenson, who started in 1974 by selling “a closet-full of books” to make ends meet. His piled-high store – now in its fourth location – is one of B.C.’s biggest, with a knowledgeable staff of 12 offering “a kind of friend’s advice” to shoppers.

Stores like his – which need healthy summer traffic to stay afloat through tougher winter trading – have a deep community value, he says. “Bookstores can help preserve the concept of Main Streets essential in many small towns.”

 

Now in his 70s, Stevenson isn’t the only B.C. bookselling veteran to weather the choppy seas of commerce. Odean Long has owned The Haunted Bookshop in Sidney on Vancouver Island since buying the business in 1996. The store, originally in Victoria and lined with must-have vintage volumes, started in 1947, making it one of the province’s oldest antiquarian bookshops.

 

“There’s no question our business has changed but we've always been very careful to choose interesting books in excellent condition. Our problem has never been selling our stock but in obtaining exceptional stock in the first place,” says Long, whose store is named after a popular 1918 Christopher Morley novel.

 

Although Long has seen many stores close over the years – including some in Sidney, which dubs itself ‘Canada’s Only Booktown’ and is still home to Beacon Books and Tanner’s Books among others – she’s positive about the future.

 

“Barnes & Noble stopped making e-readers because sales were so poor. I have hope that bookshops like mine will continue to attract customers – especially those who tell us time and again how they like the feel of books in their hands and love discovering new material by perusing our shelves.”

 

It’s a confidence shared by others. Lee Trentadue’s Galiano Island Books is nestled among a community of just over 1,000. And while he’s ensured his store connects deeply with the locals – all were invited to 1997’s opening day party – he’s also made his shop a tourist destination, even in the off-season.

 

Running every February since 2010, his three-day Galiano Literary Festival lures visitors with a unique approach. “We keep the festival small, slow-paced and intimate, enabling attendees to meet both emerging and well-established writers,” says Trentadue, adding that this winter’s event includes appearances by B.C. authors Charles Demers, Christine Lowther and Robert Wiersema.

 

The festival’s commitment to local authors is echoed in the bookstore. “From the start, we’ve viewed promoting B.C. books, writers and publishers as vital. We’ve had a wide array of regional writers read in the store and we’ve launched books by authors such as Jane Rule, Audrey Thomas and George Bowering.”

For local writer Aaron Chapman – author of the award-winning Live at the Commodore: the Story of Vancouver's Historic Commodore Ballroom – visiting bookstores like Trentadue’s is vital to spreading the word on his work.

“When I have a new book out, I visit as many stores as I can, walking up to the counter to introduce myself and seeing if they have a few copies for me to sign. I’ll basically visit any store in B.C.,” says Chapman, who lists Hager Books in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood as one of his favourite hangouts.

 

“There’s no better connection for B.C. authors – particularly somebody like me who’s writing about local history – than local bookstores,” he says, adding that the best bookshops do a great job of curating their collections and recommending titles like his to readers who might not otherwise find them.

 

It’s an approach underpinning The Paper Hound in downtown Vancouver – a two-year-old new kid on the block launched by former employees of nearby used bookstore legend MacLeod’s Books. Co-owned by Kim Koch and Rodney Clarke, the perfectly curated little shop sells mostly used literature, poetry and philosophy titles – plus antiquarian books and a smattering of quirky volumes.

 

“We've hosted tons of in-store readings and partnered with local small presses to sell books at their off-site events,” says Koch. “But mostly we're just open every day and continually acquiring new and sought-after titles – it keeps people coming back to see what's new.”

 

It helps that the shop is ever-inviting. “We wanted to be accessible, engaging, immersive, hands-on, friendly and photogenic – and incorporate the eccentricity and discoverability that make good bookstores unique. Vancouver suffers from a lack of eccentric spaces and independent bookstores can satisfy that,” Koch says.

 

And since business has been good from day one, there’s no reason not to be optimistic. “There are lots of young people keen on buying books that are not that impressed by gadgetry. While mass-market titles were always going to be affected by a shift in platforms from book to e-book, more literary fare is being pursued in physical book format – especially in attractive, older editions.”

Its this kind of nuanced business savvy that keeps the province’s best bookstores in the game, agrees Alan Twigg, multi-published author and editor of the popular quarterly journal BC BookWorld. The trick, though, is that shoppers need to keep actively supporting these local stores.

“People in B.C. are, by nature, independent thinkers with a maverick, do-it-yourself tradition. We were the last portion of North America to be partially conquered by big box stores – and we are still resisting,” he says, adding that exemplary bookshops like Galiano Island Books and Mermaid Tales in Tofino also operate as “meetings places and community centres.”

 

Stores like these will always share their customers’ love for holding books in their hands, says The Book Man’s Amber Price. “The book trade has had its ups and downs but we are delighted customers continue to love the printed word as much as we do. We’re looking forward to many more years of bookstore bliss!”

 

Moss in Golden agrees. And he can’t imagine a life doing anything other than running a bookshop. “From finding the right book at the right time that has a transformative effect on a person’s life to talking Mr. Messy plot lines with four-year-olds, nothing could be more sweet and fascinating than bookstore world.”

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