Authors for Indies

Munro's signing

I’m excited to be taking part in my first “Authors for Indies” day on Saturday 30 April, at 32Books in North Vancouver. But even more exciting has been my growing realization that independent bookstores in North America are alive and thriving, recovering from a difficult time about a decade ago when many indies were toppling due to competition with big box bookstores and e-books.

Authors for Indies describes the event as “a day when authors show their appreciation for Canadian independent bookstores (indies) by volunteering as guest booksellers for the day . . . You’ll have the opportunity to meet local authors, chat with us booklover to booklover, and get book recommendations . . . Authors are doing this to raise awareness of indie bookstores and how important they are to our communities, our reading lives, and our cultural well-being. It’s a day to give some love to your local neighbourhood bookstore.”

I’ve been giving love to local bookstores since, well, forever, but recently I’ve added opportunities to fuel my passion for indies by reading from my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive” at independent stores all across North America. These experiences verified that indies remain treasured resources in local communities all across Canada and the United States.

I began my reading tour with a Pacific Northwest swing, starting at Munro’s in Victoria, British Columbia. Recently rated one of the top ten independent bookstores in the world, Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro and his then-wife, the stellar Canadian author Alice Munro, in 1963. It’s in a beautifully restored former Royal Bank building, decorated with elegant wooden shelves, a coffered ceiling and stunning fabric banners by the artist Carole Sabiston that depict classic works of literature.

But it’s Munro’s friendly and knowledgeable team with superb taste in what to stock that sets it apart from the big box and online retailers, even more than its bookstore-perfect space. It’s that bit of magic that characterizes indies, each with its own quirky blend of books that delights browsers with that delightful find of a new author, and highlights the diverse reading tastes of their staff that extend our range of interests as readers.

My west coast tour continued through the Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and on to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Elliot Bay has a lighter-colored wood look, but like Munro’s exhibits extensive curated sections that open previously untraveled reading vistas. I’m particularly fond of their Pacific Northwest section, where I’ve been introduced to many fine writers, and their sale tables, which unlike many bargain bins have excellent books.

Elliot Bay is also similar to Munro’s in hosting an active series of authors’ readings, in their case over 3000 events of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in the last decade. These readings highlight another outstanding characteristic of independent bookstores, which Elliot Bay expresses well on their website: “As with many of the books we highlight, there are many authors who have read here as relatively unknown, and who have gone on to wider acclaim. Readers and audiences here have long been among the first to help move these writers and their work out into the larger world.

And they were one of the first bookstores to combine a coffee shop with their bookstore, a natural blend of café culture and readers.

Powell’s is another independent rated as one of the top ten in the world. It’s an iconic stop on any booklovers tour, a mix of 2 million used, new and out-of-print titles. Powell’s is a all-day destination, open 365 days a year, with a café to catch your breath and many dusty corners reminiscent of library browsing but with all the volumes for sale.

They, too, connect books in unexpected but delightful patterns. On my last visit Powell’s had a memoir sale, focusing attention on a genre neglected by more commercially driven bookstores.

Powell’s City of Books represents another important aspect of independent bookstores: they are economic drivers. Powell’s has 530 employees, and is one of the top tourist destinations in Portland. Many, like myself, have visited Portland solely to spend a day at Powell’s. Its flagship store is as eclectic as it’s books. The original building was a car dealership, but the current store expanded to a full city block by cobbling together a mix of odd buildings that could never have been planned from scratch.

I’ve toured across Canada over the last year, reading at bookstores, literary festivals, libraries, universities and beekeeping clubs. Beyond their physical stores, the independents have staffed tables selling “Bee Time” at events, providing a rich opportunity to talk books and pick up recommendations for further reading.

My gratitude to these fine bookstores has gone well beyond the pleasure they have brought me as a costumer. “Bee Time” became a Canadian bestseller largely because of the support provided by the independents I worked with, including such fine indies as Bookmark in Halifax, Perfect Books in Ottawa, Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Bookshelf in Guelph, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Salt Spring Books on Salt Spring Island, Talewind Books in Sechelt, Black Bond Books in Surrey, Banyen Books in Vancouver and 32Books in North Vancouver. As well, over 400 other indies throughout Canada and innumerable others in the United States have been generously friendly to “Bee Time.”

Selling books as an independent bookseller is still a tough business, populated by passionate owners and staff who accept low profit margins and long hours in return for the satisfaction of being cornerstone institutions in their communities.

I hope you’ll join me on 30 April at 32Books in Vancouver, or at your own local independent bookstore across the country, to celebrate the outstanding contributions the indies provide to writers, readers, and communities.

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