What better way to enjoy a first visit to a city than to check out its independent bookstores? A couple of weekends ago, I visited Calgary for the first time. With barely a couple of days in the area and only the vaguest notion of finding something interesting to do, I did what any self-respecting bookworm would and decided to buy my book for the trip back from a local indie.
Fortunately, my sister, who was on the trip with me, is a huge bookworm as well, and on a quest to visit libraries around Canada. And if anyone would know the indie bookstore scene in a city, it would be a librarian, right? Minor note: the Calgary Public Library Central Branch has an artist in residence, Lea Bucknell, who did a sculptural installation in the main floor. Being both a bookworm and an art nerd, I loved the idea of a library including an artist residency in their programming.
The librarian I met directed me to two shops: Shelf Life and Pages on Kensington. There’s a special feeling that comes from visiting an independent bookstore — a sense of adventure, of not knowing quite what to expect. This feeling is heightened when visiting a bookstore while on vacation — not just do you not know what to expect, but you also do know that you likely won’t be coming back.
Shelf Life Books
Located across the street from a park, Shelf Life Books also had an interesting sun and bird sculpture right by its front door. The store reminded me of Nicholas Hoare for some reason — Shelf Life is much brighter than Nicholas Hoare, and the layout and colour palette is more like Indigo than Nicholas Hoare – light coloured shelves, brightly lit space, light coloured walls. It’s huge, particularly for an independent bookstore, and perhaps its this spaciousness that struck me most.
I also love its quirky displays – a pillar by the window is filled with yellow books – perfect for the customer (every bookseller has met at least once) who says, “I’m looking for a book… I can’t remember the title, but I know the cover is yellow.” They have an excellent stationery section, and I couldn’t resist a couple of their Edward Gorey cards.
Best of all is a shelf full of local authors and bookish highlights. In front of that is a table, with chairs practically inviting customers to take their time poring over books until they decide just what they want to buy.
Recently, I did a post on independent bookshops, in particular a wonderful experience I had at Glad Day Books, where I asked a bookseller about the best book he’s read recently, and that led to a fantastic reading experience and countless more visits to Glad Day. My sister reminded me of that blog post as we browsed Shelf Life selections. My chance came quickly enough; a bookseller named Jo-Ann passed by and casually mentioned being available if we needed anything.
“I’m looking for something new,” I said. “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?”
“I’m reading a wonderful book now,” she replied. “Lush Life by Richard Price, which is beyond my comfort zone because I don’t usually read thrillers. But I’m really enjoying this one so far. The author also writes for the TV show The Wire.”
As a mystery/thriller fan myself, I was all set to pick it up, when she added, “But the best book I read recently… That would have to be Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May. It’s about a boy whose mother died… And it’s really funny, it really is! Just the way he writes… Hold on, let me see if we have a copy…”
I’m pretty familiar with the latest buzz books, whether or not I’ve actually read them, so to have received a recommendation for a book I’d never even heard of is a special thrill. And the juxtaposition between the tone and subject matter definitely intrigued me.
Minutes passed, and I was just beginning to wonder if she’d forgotten about me when she came back with a stack of books. Turns out they didn’t stack the May book, so she pulled together a wide selection of books for me to choose from. “Have a seat at this table and take a look to see if any of these interests you,” she said.
My former co-workers and I used to do that at Nicholas Hoare – whenever we just got so excited about so many books that we simply couldn’t limit ourselves to just one recommendation. It’s only now however that I understood the shocked look on our customers’ faces. It was like Christmas, except I didn’t want to pay a baggage surcharge on the flight back to Toronto.
- Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – “My co-worker read this recently and absolutely loved it!”
- Malarkey by Anakana Schofield – “Canadian author, young and upcoming. This book features an unusual point of view, and has really powerful writing.”
- Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – “Also a Canadian author, and well, it’s Margaret Atwood. She just released the final book of this series recently.”
- Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler – “A classic Canadian book.”
- Lush Life by Richard Price – “This is the one I mentioned earlier, which I’m reading and so far, it’s really, really good.”
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – “Ann Patchett’s an amazing writer, a favourite with so many people. This book in particular is one of her best.”
- Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller – “Non-fiction, and what I love about this is that she goes through so much in her life, but she relates it in a very matter-of-fact way.”
- Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre – “Also non-fiction. It won Canada Reads a couple of years ago. Powerful, very moving story.”
I did take her advice on Lush Life, and highly, highly recommend it myself. His language just blew me away, and his characters are marvellously rendered. I also took her advice on the Alexandra Fuller, which didn’t quite blow me away, and parts of it made me uncomfortable, but I do agree with Jo-Ann’s assessment on Fuller’s language. Her straightforward tone belies the emotion within the experiences.
Pages on Kensington
Pages is a lovely store, much smaller than Shelf Life Books, and crammed full of bookish goodness. When I visited, there were a couple of families, one of which had several really young children gleefully tearing down the aisles. The booksellers seemed to know them, and I like to think that this family comes to the shop often, perhaps gives the kids books for weekend treats.
Even before I could approach a bookseller for recommendations, this absolutely gorgeous book of stories by Chekhov, illustrated by Seth, caught my eye. The power of a well-placed display at a cash register situated right in front of the entrance.
What struck me most however was this:
It’s the first indie bookshop I’ve seen that actually sells ebooks. It’s something I personally think more indie bookshops should be doing, though admittedly I don’t fully understand the financials behind it. I wish I’d thought to ask the booksellers later on how the ebook business was working out for them; I like to think it helps, at least.
Upon check out, I did get to ask the bookseller at the counter about the best book she’d read recently.
- The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion – “I loved this book!”
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – “Also really good. I loved it but for very different reasons.”
- The Dark by Claire Mulligan – “If you like ghost stories, this is really good. There’s a mystery, and it’s about sisters.”
Not that I need any more titles on my TBR pile, but I have to admit, The Dark especially intrigues me.
If you’re in the area, be sure to check them out!