I am writing this curled up on a purple velvet couch by a fire, surrounded by hundreds of books and records. This is not my living room, but my local independent bookstore in Cochrane, Alta., Evexia Books and Travel. As part of their Slow Down Project, I’ve booked a zero-cost hour to do whatever I’d like in this cozy space. It’s a rare treat.
A calming visit to a bookstore is something that most of us took for granted before 2020. The year asked us to reimagine a lot of things, including how we relax and how we shop. “We’re all in it together” is the oft-repeated slogan of the year – and buying books from an independent bookstore offers a way to help small businesses and authors, while reading itself offers an escape from the day-to-day challenges of this trying time. It’s a win-win.
As we move into the second year of lockdowns, The Globe and Mail talks to Canadians about how they’ve been championing authors and booksellers in this unprecedented year. Bookstores, meanwhile, share their stories of survival and struggle, while showing how community prevails.
Early in the pandemic, author Kelly Small, author of The Conscious Creative, began buying both physical copies and audio versions of longed-for books.
Listening to books allows Small to get lost in literature on their pre-dawn walks. “It’s hard as hell to get myself to roll out of bed,” they say, “but that practice has been saving my life.” The events of 2020 have influenced their reading choices, with more queer, trans, and Black authors added to their pile. One of Small’s favourites this year has been Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist. “It opens with this incredibly poignant story of his own racism, which is something that readers like me – white folks – may not be expecting. I found it very disarming and vulnerable, and welcoming into this very challenging topic.”
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is another of Small’s beloved 2020 reads. A radically innovative memoir, Machado recounts the torment of an abusive same-sex relationship.
Small is also intentional about where the books come from. When they released their book in August with Anansi Press, the pandemic did not allow a book launch or tour. Toronto’s Book City was the first place Small saw their book for sale. After finding out Small was the author, the staff excitedly asked them to sign some copies; after putting “autographed by author” stickers on, they posted to Instagram. Small looked around the store and saw many other local authors had had the same treatment. “You just don’t get that in the big box stores. It’s not going to happen.”
Alyssa Palmer is another writer who relies on local sellers to get their work to the public. Many of the Albertan romance author’s books are self-published, and she loves that Calgary’s Owl’s Nest Books sells some of them on consignment. “They’re amazingly supportive of local authors.”
While she enjoys a range of literature, romance has been Palmer’s main refuge over the past 10 months. Though it is often dismissed as formulaic, misogynistic, even lewd, Palmer wants us to give the genre a chance. There’s an army of smart, diverse writers ready to topple the kingdom of treacly Harlequin heroines – and it’s alright to let love prevail right now. “If I could give romance novels to everyone, honestly I would.”
Avoiding Amazon is more difficult when it comes to romance, because so many authors use it to self-publish. Some, such as Talia Hibbert, are publishing Kobo-exclusives. But Palmer also praises authors such as Farah Heron, whose work is available at local sellers across the country.
Books can help us escape, but they also ground us in important realities, says Mercedes Lee, a Toronto-based senior policy advisor for the government; this quality is particularly important in a year that’s pulled the rug out from so many.
Lee is also a community organizer, and after the killing of George Floyd, she saw books by writers such as Angela Davis as antidotes to the catchy but ahistorical #BLM memes circulating on social media. A librarian by training, she knows that books hold lineages that Facebook posts forget.
Accordingly, Lee carefully curates what her 7-year-old twins and 10-year-old read. “It’s really important for me to seek out underrepresented authors, stories told from a multiplicity of perspectives, to help my kids feel grounded and prepared. So that their ‘normal’ is as expansive as possible.”
Lee fell in love with one of her 10-year-old’s favourites from this year, Stargazing by Jen Wang. “This graphic novel tells a story of just a very particular Chinese-American experience, but of someone being Chinese and not being Chinese, because my kids are also half Chinese as well. That was really tender and sweet.”
Although Lee is a consummate library lover, bookstores still hold a special magic. Toronto’s The Beguiling and its sister store, Little Island Comics (for kids!), stock the shelves with unexpected and diverse delights. These stores feel like communities, says Lee, rather than just businesses.
Although she has appreciated ordering online, she doesn’t want to lose the embodied bookstore experience. “The [web] algorithm is just meant to pull you in a very clunky, associative direction that doesn’t really take into account the idiosyncrasies of whim and serendipity when you’re in the store.”
JoAnn McCaig, owner of Calgary’s Shelf Life Books, would love readers to describe her store as whimsical and serendipitous. And indeed, the store should be bursting with Christmas whimsy right now. Customers would normally be enjoying cider and cookies, browsing the shelves for the perfect gifts. But instead, people are waiting outside to be among the few customers allowed in the store at once.
McCaig sounds momentarily nostalgic, but perks back up to mention that the store is “absolutely hopping”; sales, in fact, are up from last year. Although staff are masked and behind plexiglas, they’re busy with piles of deliveries and pick-up orders. McCaig does many of the deliveries herself (“I work cheap”), and connects with customers from the far-reaches of the city.
An ardent supporter of small presses, McCaig originally intended not to carry any bestsellers – ”you can get those at Shoppers Drug Mart.” However, with so many new customers calling to order mainstream books such as Where the Crawdads Sing, she is quite happy to oblige. “People really are making a decision to support us, which we’re really grateful for.”
While Shelf Life was busily filling online orders this summer, in the next town over, Julia Lutchman was trying to figure out how to pivot her travel business. The owner of Evexia Travel posted a question to her local moms’ Facebook group: “What types of businesses and/ or experiences do you think are lacking in Cochrane?” When she found that over half of the 70-plus respondents (me being one of them) wanted a bookstore, she said the idea “felt like home.”
Cochrane’s bibliophiles were thrilled when Lutchman announced in September that she would be offering “virtual adventure through the pages of a book” in the store.
Evexia isn’t lucrative yet, but if business continues as it is, she says, they’ll be doing well in 2021–impressive for a new business selling (mostly) used books in a pandemic.
Lutchman likes seeing books such as Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People hit the shelves (and her bedside table). “It’s just one of those books that really, really reminds you that you have no clue what anybody else’s story is.”
With Alberta’s recent lockdown, Lutchman can only let in four shoppers at a time, and she is running out of room for the piles of delivery and pick-up orders. But that’s not stopping her. She partners with other small businesses, engages customers on social media, and offers services such as the Slow Down Project. This is so much more than just a bookstore.
I enjoy supporting the economy – but it’s more than that. Buying books from independent bookstores engages my sense of curiosity, compassion and community at a time when we need those qualities more than ever.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.