May 6, 2013

Canadian booksellers celebrate 40 years



The Bookshelf in Guelph, Canada is a lefty bookstore, a cinema, and a cafe.

Barb and Doug Minett, owners of The Bookshelf in Guelph, Canada, opened their bookstore forty years ago. Today, The Bookshelf is still going strong after rising above the competition and eventual closing of Canadian national chains Classics, Coles, and W.H. Smith. They’ve adapted to technological changes, creating an efficient computer system and an online bookstore. And they’ve worked with thousands of employees while hosting events featuring authors including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, Leonard Cohen, and Robertson Davies. Barb and Doug’s two adult children, Ben and Hannah Minett, have taken over general management of The Bookshelf, and on the occasion of their 40th year in business, Barb Minett, a long-time reader of MobyLives, answered some questions about running a bookstore for almost half a century.

What inspired you and Doug to open the bookstore?

We travelled to England in the early ’70s and fell in love with bookstore culture. We were just two young people looking for meaning to hitch our star to. When we returned we knew that teaching (Barb) and university (Doug) was not for us. I guess in a sense we became addicted to the experience of communities, books, ideas and the camaraderie that comes with dialogue and chatting.

What’s the best story you have about a customer in your 40 years in business?

We have had so many customers and they have virtually all been delightful but one of the funniest things that happened was a couple of years ago. We had Karen Armstrong for a reading in one of Guelph’s big churches when she was promoting 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life. She was a bit early so the driver had dropped her off at The Bookshelf. Just so happens that Michael Ondaatje is one of our customers and the two of them bumped into each other while browsing the shelves. Karen was thrilled and I am sure that they had a great conversation. I guess another one would be about one of our early café employees. He was a very sweet guy but unfortunately it became obvious to us that he was stealing food from us. We were forced into firing him and did it as gently as we could and rather bizarrely he approached us for a loan and we gave it to him. Twenty years later he sent us a lovely letter with a cheque in the amount of the money he borrowed. He really appreciated how kind we were to him.

From your long list of authors who have visited your store, which ones were most memorable? 

Well of course, Margaret Atwood is always so smart and committed. For her last book we actually put on a play mid-reading. Timothy Findley was always so kind and perceptive. When we were just new at the game John Irving created quite a stir. Al Purdy, one of Canada’s greatest poets, asked me to come back to his hotel room with him when I drove him home…I’ll never forget that one! I could go on. Last year we had two great Americans, or at least writers living in the U.S. Chris Hedges and Adam Gopnik. These guys minds are full of fascinating details and tons of minutiae.

Do you think the book market in Canada is different than in the US? 

We have 3 different English cultures merging in the selling of books. The very active Canadian market, the U.S. market and the U.K. market. Wholesaling plays a major part in the U.S. supply chain and a much smaller part in the Canadian supply chain. Interestingly the Canadian supply chain is more technologically advanced than the American in terms of sales info, automated ordering and fullfilment.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a bookstore or to new shop owners?

Understand what you have to offer which will differentiate you from the highly competitive and mechanistic behomoths out there ready to eat you up! If you don’t have a raison d’etre and are not connected to your community—think twice.

How do you feel about ebooks?

Ebooks are just another format with some useful characteristics under certain circumstances similar to the emergence of mass market or trade paperbacks in the ’60s and ’70s. They clearly have their practical uses (resizable type, portability), but the economics and aesthetics are problematic.

What are some unique characteristics about your bookstore?

We are probably the only bookstore/cinema/resto-bar in the world. Because we have a bar and cinema we have great cross fertilization of ages and types.And the smell of freshly baked croissants is pretty good too! Even in a superstore era people often say that it’s the best bookstore that they have been to but I guess that means we’re on the same wavelength. I guess our curation has tapped into something. Where else do you find a bookstore that sells movies, a cinema that sell dinner and a resto-bar that launches books?

 What are your favorite genres or books to read?

I like poetry, fiction, science, nature writing, and any thriller that has to do with espionage. Doug likes the same without the poetry, and more history and politics.



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.