Michelle Berry's next chapter
Mark Medley reports from Peterborough, Ont., on how one writer decided to embrace every author's secret fantasy
One morning this past October, the writer Michelle Berry was sitting at a desk near the entrance of her soon-to-be-opened bookstore in downtown Peterborough, Ont., trying not to panic. It was less than two weeks away from opening day and, mixed with excitement, was a creeping sense of – well, if not dread then certainly uncertainty. Most people in her position would be hung up on the broader philosophical questions posed by the endeavour – like, who even reads books any more? – but there were more pressing practical matters of concern. For instance, there was no heat. And her credit-card machine had lately been unco-operative. A door at the rear of the store had yet to be installed. And Berry was trying – heroically and stubbornly – to learn Bookmanager, the software system that would, in essence, allow her to run her fledgling business, Hunter Street Books.
"Jesus, look at this!" said Berry, holding up the program's hefty instruction manual, which resembled something NASA might distribute to new employees. "This is 412 pages, and every page has about 30 commands on it for doing one small thing." She compared it to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, in that when you make one decision, a dozen more options present themselves. "There's just so much I have to learn," she said. "It's just so overwhelming."
This was not what she thought it would be like to run a bookstore.
Plenty of Canadian writers work as booksellers, but Berry is one of the first, and probably highest-profile, Canadian writer to actually open a bookstore of their own. (The poet Alice Burdick and children's author Jo Treggiari are co-owners of Lexicon Books, in Lunenburg, N.S., while a little more than a year ago, editor and publisher Martha Sharpe launched Flying Books, which now has multiple locations – all housed within other businesses – around Toronto.)
For some, the idea of opening a bookstore is a romantic, if somewhat nostalgic, dream. Especially in towns and cities such as Berry's Peterborough, a community of 80,000 people an hour-and-a-half's drive northeast of Toronto, that lack a local independent, the idea of renting a space, putting up some shelves and filling them with row after row of books, holds a deep and enchanting appeal. (I can't tell you how many times I've daydreamed of opening a small, cluttered shop of my own.) Like running away with the circus, or moving to the south of France, becoming a bookseller epitomizes, for a particular sort of person, an idealistic vision of life. Berry, though, had actually leased a storefront, sunk in tens of thousands of dollars of her own money, and now, on a cold, rainy morning, was faced with the unflinching reality that she was officially a bookseller.
"When I start thinking about things I panic," she said. "From 2 in the morning until 4 in the morning, I'm panicking about this decision, badly. What if the whole thing fails?"
Earlier this summer, while driving her daughter to work, Berry spotted a building under renovation in Peterborough's downtown core. "I did a double take," she said. "I'd never noticed [it] before." The historic three-storey building was divided into three units, two of which sat tantalizingly vacant. There was a "for lease" sign in the window. When she toured the gutted unit, a week later, she saw potential in the airy, 873-square-foot space, which features 12-foot ceilings and huge windows at both ends: "It just shouted bookstore."
She signed a three-year lease on Aug. 29 and got the keys on Oct. 1.
"I'm impulsive," said Berry, who similarly moved from Toronto to Peterborough on a whim in 2003. "And so far, knock on wood, it's worked in my life."
That said, Berry admitted that she "knew nothing about running a bookstore." Her lone retail experience was a stint at McDonald's and a part-time job working in the admissions booth at a pool in Victoria, where she grew up. ("I never, ever balanced the till. I remember having nightmares about it.")
So why do it?
"It's that time of life," she explained, later, over lunch at a Mexican restaurant down the street, when I asked that question. "I just turned 48. My husband just turned 50. I've been teaching online" – at the University of Toronto, in the School of Continuing Studies – "in a quiet little office in my house, by myself, where sometimes I don't talk to anyone but the dog for eight hours a day. I'm lonely doing that." She laughed when I asked if opening a bookstore was her way of dealing with a midlife crisis. "A good midlife crisis."
And now, here she was, on the cusp of launching a new career.
"I was thinking, 'I know everything about this industry – it's going to be no problem,'" said Berry, the author of 10 books. (Her next novel, The Prisoner and the Chaplain, will be published in 2017.) "Little did I know about actually how it all works."
She had to negotiate terms with publishers and distributors, learn how to order books and input stock into the system, figure out return policies, order shelves and tables and chairs, design a logo – the tasks were endless. "I find that for every one step forward, I take six steps back," she said. She had to decided how to categorize books – should memoir be shelved under non-fiction or on its own? Should CanLit remain separate from international fiction? What to do about self-published authors? And just how many books would she actually need? Berry had, so far, ordered about 1,500 individual titles, but would this be enough?
"It's fun, but it's also terrifying, because you're just online shopping." She mimicked clicking a mouse repeatedly. "There goes $10,000. There goes $20,000."
When it comes to opening a new bookstore, there are "substantial upfront costs." In total, she estimated that, between furniture, inventory and other expenses, she'd spent $50,000 so far. But "I did it very cheaply," she added. It would be some time before Berry knew if it had been a wise investment, but there was definitely an appetite for a new bookstore; since she took possession, there had been a stream of people peering in the window, or poking their head in the front door, wondering if the shop was open for business.
Peterborough has been without an independent bookstore since Titles closed in 2012. While there are a number of used bookstores and a Chapters, "after Titles closed, the local lit community was a gang without a clubhouse," says Andrew Forbes, one of many authors who call the city home. "Peterborough is a town with an arts community too vibrant to have been without a good independent bookstore, and she's fixed that."
Still, it's yet another thing that kept Berry up at night.
"I feel like I've been given this mantle of, 'Oh my God, you're saving the community because you're opening this bookstore.' It's a little scary. I didn't realize how much pressure I'd feel. When my husband and I were deciding to do this, I said 'What if I go out of business?' He said, 'That's the worst-case scenario – you go out of business, we lose an investment and life goes on.' But now I feel like I'd disappoint so many people.
"Before, it was just going to be me that I would disappoint," she said. "And now I'm disappointing Peterborough."
During my visit, back in October, Berry joked that no matter what happened – whether the store went bankrupt or became the next Indigo – the experience would be fodder for a book. She was already taking notes for a possible memoir. But when we spoke last week, Berry told me that since Hunter Street Books opened on Oct. 28, she'd been too busy to do Christmas shopping, let alone write. Business, she said, was "booming."
"I far exceeded what I thought I would [make] in the first month," she said. "I'm making way more money than I thought I would be making at this. I know it's new, and I know it's Christmas, but there is a book-buying public." She was thrilled with the way the community had rallied around the store so far, be it professors at nearby Trent University ordering their class reading lists through her store, or the already regular customers buying a book each week. (Not that there weren't a few doubters: "I think I'm a little sensitive to people who come in and say, 'You do know that bookstores are going out of business?' And the funny thing about this is they say that as they're buying $250 worth of books.")
Besides locals, the bookstore had welcomed a number of out-of-town authors who'd made the pilgrimage, photos of whom had graced the store's Instagram feed over the previous few weeks.
"I love the idea of writers owning bookshops," said Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, who visited the shop with fellow novelists Alissa York and Christine Fischer Guy earlier this week. "After all, in the early days of bookshops, publishers were both printers and sellers. And writers were thick in that mix. It makes sense that a reader might trust a writer to recommend a good book."
Which makes it slightly surprising that Berry is one of the first, at least in Canada, to do it. On the other hand, there are several prominent American writers who own bookstores: Louise Erdrich's Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Minn.; Jeff Kinney's An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass.; Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books in Nashville. And just last week, when it was reported that beloved Brooklyn literary institution BookCourt was closing at the end of the year, Emma Straub, a former employee and now a bestselling novelist, announced she would soon open a store in the community: "My husband and I have fantasized about opening a bookstore for many years. And with our local bookstore closing, it seemed like the right moment to make the leap." Although there still aren't that many authors to have made the leap from writing to selling books, it's really not that much of a stretch. Straub added: "Authors make good booksellers because authors are readers – that's the No. 1 requirement for both jobs, I think. And a good reader can always tell you why you should read something, can put the right book in your hand. I always liked being a bookseller because it gave me a chance to be bossy and opinionated and have people thank me for it."
When I spoke to Berry last week, it was just after 9 in the morning, when she usually arrives to clean the store before the business day begins. She sounded exhausted – Berry is the sole employee, so days off were a fiction worthy of her novels; she's currently training one of her daughters in hope she'll eventually be able to take Sundays off – but exuberant. "In the two months that I've been working here, there's only been maybe two or three days that I felt like crap about owning a bookstore," she said.
Before we hung up, I asked Berry, as she stood in the quiet, among all the shelves, how she felt now that Hunter Street Books was a reality. Proud, she said.
"I can't believe I pulled this together," she admitted. "I've felt a lot lately that I'm out of my element. I'm learning again, and I haven't had to learn in a long time – really sit down and learn a completely new skill. It's the same as when I gave birth, at the beginning with my kids. I was like, 'The nurses are letting me go home? I don't know how to do this.' Sometimes I sit here and I'm staring at the numbers on the screen, and I'm staring at my inventory lists, and I have no idea what I'm doing. But then it clicks."