This is a story of perseverance, and connection. I was exploring Vancouver Island, visiting independent (indie) bookstores as part of a Gone Viking road trip, promoting my travel memoirs Gone Viking: A Travel Saga and Gone Viking II: Beyond Boundaries. The timing was serendipitous as the first book, a BC bestseller, had recently won The Miramichi Reader’s 2021 Very Best Book Award for nonfiction, while the sequel was set to hit retailers’ shelves for the busy Fall season. It was an opportunity to visit, face-to-face, resilient and passionate storeowners and bibliophiles. We were in the earliest days of easing COVID restrictions, case count and vaccination numbers encouraging, optimism in the air, accompanying a record-breaking heatwave.
I began my tour at Qualicum Beach, where Barb and Tom run The Mulberry Bush Book Store, their store accessed not only by street front but through a lush corridor of greenery, a pedestrian throughway that makes you feel you’ve happened upon a shared secret, someplace magical. Having returned to Canada following a number of years in New Zealand, a new career was their plan, one in keeping with a desire to better serve customers. And what better way to connect than through the pages of books? Now, nearly thirty years on, daughter Marianne helps run the store while the two scale back with an eye to retirement. Part of that plan included transitioning their second store, in Parksville, to new owners Kristie and Kevin, under the name of Sea and Summit Bookshop. The shift is one of teamwork, a warm introduction of existing patrons to new owners. There’s no sense of competition, only cooperation.
Which was what I felt when I met Dirk, owner of Blue Heron Books in Comox, who now employs Maria, the store’s previous owner. Again, a sense of partnership and collaboration. Despite taking over mere weeks before the onset of COVID, his store continues to thrive, books remaining a welcome antidote to the limitations of lockdowns.
In Courtenay, I visited with Evelyn, owner of Laughing Oyster Bookshop, her storefront a vibrant splash of flowers in planters. Through the pandemic’s limitations of physical distancing, innovation became the new normal, with online ordering booming, along with curbside pickup and a continuously growing virtual presence amongst newsletter subscribers and book buyers.
Despite COVID challenges, Leah, owner of Campbell River’s Coho Books, enhanced operations, merging a new and a used bookstore into one amalgamated business. With an efficient, colour-coded pricing system, readers can shop with an eye to both book content and budget. Which is similar to the model at Fireside Books in Parksville, where owner Brian maintains an extensive array of used books alongside the new, making shopping a leisurely, indulgent experience.
When I arrived for a visit with Andrée, owner of Nanaimo’s Windowseat Books, I felt as though I was walking onto an inviting, neighbourhood movie set. Two chairs sat in the shade of a leafy maple, the storeowner chatting with book buyers simply enjoying the space and company. One relaxed shopper, Bob, picked up a book for his granddaughter. Another customer, Martha, was checking on her special order. The feel was one of community service as much as retail business. Andrée has had the store for three years, another example of not only persevering but thriving through challenging times.
I don’t believe any other retail business, other than independent bookstores, quite matches this degree of connectivity. When we buy or gift a book there’s a level of intimacy, inherent sharing that accompanies the pages, ink on paper, bound in artful covers. Stories bind us, leave legacies, and instill every emotion, the result of which, ultimately and invariably, is positive.