The resurgence of the indie bookstore

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In January of this year, I started an internship at Windowseat Books in Nanaimo, in partnership with a creative writing course at VIU. The object of the course is to familiarize students with areas of interest, primarily in the editorial industry. This parallels my interest—my hopes, I suppose—for after graduation, but conceptualized as more of a means to the end than something pursued out of passion.

The internship at the independent bookstore taught me many valuable things, but foremost it was a confirmation that doing something you’re passionate about will always bring pleasure. For me, back in the days before required readings and course material, that passion was reading—but I had fallen out of love with it. To rekindle that spark, I’d decided to surround myself with books and book-lovers.

Going in, I didn’t know—didn’t fully appreciate—how vital the presence of a bookstore is to the community. Be it the Old City Quarter community, the reading community, the writing community, or the wide range of genre-specific readers that find, even for just a moment, their home in an independently owned bookstore.

Andrée Bizier, owner of Windowseat Books, said that her relationship with customers is one of friendship.

“Talking books leads to talking about everything else. My customers share their life stories with me and I share mine with them. I have been extremely surprised with the love I have received for opening this bookstore,” Bizier said. “My customers visit to chat and see about my well-being, to share ideas and moments. The bookstore has become its own little community.”

What makes them special is their independence. Bookstores, and I think it is safe to say this collectively, are brimming with personality. The curated books reflect the tastes of both the readers and the owner of the shop. The novels and stories of authors from the area, the trinkets and bookmarks made by local hands with local materials, the intrepid bookstore owners—they are what make indie bookstores vibrant.

Barbara and Tom Pope had always wanted to own a bookstore in a small community and bought the Qualicum bookstore Mulberry Bush Bookstore thirty years ago from previous owners. Now, it has been supplying reading material to the area for over forty-five years.

“We’re in a special place here in British Columbia. [There are] really good independent book stores operating in the Gulf Islands and in local communities on the island, simply because people can’t imagine a town or their communities without a local bookstore in it,” Barbara Pope said. “We have a really good customer base that is really supportive of us and they can’t imagine their town without a bookstore in it and they’re willing to support us and keep us here and we don’t take that lightly. We work very hard for that place.”

In the summer the front and back entrances are guarded by vibrant floral baskets, the windows layered in displays of books. It’s an inviting destination after the drive up Qualicum Beach. Their second store in Parksville is in an old-fashioned library-like building, and even includes a real castle that homes the children’s books. The purchasing of the second shop, just two blocks from the beach, was a natural continuation of the Popes’ commitment to helping readers find the right book.

“We started the Parksville bookstore three years later, in 1993, because Parksville didn’t have a bookstore so we felt a need and we thought that it would be a good idea for people to have a local bookstore in their own community!” Pope said.

The role of the independent bookstore for the community and the individual are invaluable, and not replicable. The intimacy of the owners with the novels they carry and with the customers who purchase them isn’t something that can be found in a full-time staff and warehouse filled with shelves of books upon books upon books.

“Each independent bookstore reflects what the customers are buying and looking for in their local communities and also reflects the choices and the collections of books that the individual owners like to bring in for their customers.” Pope said. “I think that’s really important. We’ve been here so long in our communities that we’ve gotten to know what our customers like and what they read, so that reflects in our stores.”

Both stores have a welcoming atmosphere and knowledgeable staff. They’re filled with books on every topic and in varying reading levels, but the bookstores do a lot more than just setting up the reader with the perfect volume.

“There are a lot of things [customers] do when they actually come to the counter and buy a book that they probably don’t realize, and aren’t aware of, but, in actual fact, it has a spin-off for the local community,” Pope said. “That has an impact.”

In a time where face-to-face interactions are less common, independently owned stores are becoming a community center. From author visits to book launches, book clubs to themed reading nights, the stores become more than just pages on the shelves: they become a hub for like-minded people.

“Independent bookstores are really a mirror of what the community is, in many regards. We reflect the community itself in lots of ways, so we’re very much a central part of the culture,” Pope said.

Not to mention what buying from local stores does for the local revenue: it keeps consumer dollars in their local communities, it supports local jobs and the tax-base in the area. In the case of many book stores across Canada, local businesses are able to support the community through mutually beneficial relationships.

“In our case, we do a lot of work with schools and other organizations, so they’re supporting schools by keeping us here,” Pope said. “They’re supporting local and BC authors as well because that’s what we do—we connect our readers with authors, with the writers.”

Since being old enough to recognize the difference between giving my money to the man and giving it to my community, I have attempted to shop locally. It’s not as hard as you would think, and not as expensive as some claim. Sure, family-owned businesses are not as likely to offer the same quantity of deals and specials that big corporations do, but they’re less likely to regurgitate a list of must-haves calculated by a sales and strategy team.

My newfound initiative to visit and buy my books from local business means that I am less likely return home with a bag filled with novels I’ll never read, recommended by people I have no connection with. Now, my shelves are filled with books I know I’ll love and memories of funky stores and personal connections. I think that if ever you needed to get the sense of a community, you only have to look at how they treat their bookstore.

“The independent bookstore offers an experience, not just a shopping trip,” Bizier said. “You never know what is going to happen when you come into the store, who you will meet, what you will discuss. Books are art and independent bookstores allow the community to enjoy that art.  It is just like an art gallery. You come in to dream, explore and learn.”