Your guides to good books

Indie booksellers are well read and carefully choose their inventory

Calgary weather necessitates spending a large part of the year hibernating at home with a pile of books. It’s wonderful. Luckily Calgarians looking for their next favourite read have no shortage of options. Whether it’s new or used something classic or homegrown our city’s independent retailers have it all.

First stop is Pages on Kensington a favourite with book lovers since it opened in 1994. Like the best bookstores Pages feels like every book on its shelves has been handpicked and carefully chosen.

“We curate so that customers don’t have to comb through to find an inspiring book no matter their interests” says co-owner Simone Lee. “All Pages staff have wide reading habits and current favourites to recommend. We love to talk to our customers who more often than not can recommend books to us.”

Lee says there’s also an emphasis on local authors where readers can find a great selection of local fiction poetry and zines. “We love putting Calgarians on the bestseller lists” she says.

Where Kensington used to be a bookish neighbourhood Lee says high rent forced out the other booksellers there — of the six stores in Kensington circa 2007 all but Pages are now closed. Increasingly the store remains a destination for readers and authors alike. (And don’t forget – there’s free parking behind the store.) “We’re outgoing we’re tapped in we’re low key we’re high fliers” says Lee. “We aren’t big; we’re small but mighty.”

Downtown dwellers looking for something new will also want to check out Shelf Life Books. All of those literary classics the 33 and 1/3rd series and local books you can’t find at a big box store? You’ll find them here — Shelf Life is a store made by readers for readers.

“The personality of our store is ‘unusually bookish’” says owner JoAnn McCaig. “We are serious about literature ideas and good writing. We love local authors and vigorously promote the work of Canadian authors.” The staff is knowledgeable and well read and you can be sure you’ll leave with a few books tucked under your arm. “For us the hassles of retail are more than compensated for by the opportunity to connect readers with great books” she says.

Both Lee and McCaig say e-readers have had little effect on reading and purchasing habits and that overall people much prefer reading real books — the smell of the ink glossy colour pictures and hardcover sturdiness that you just can’t re-create on a screen. “As Stephen Fry has pointed out books are no more threatened by e-books than staircases are by escalators” says McCaig. While a small percentage of readers are into e-books Lee says the greater issue is a shift in values where people are increasingly reluctant to pay for content. “Without paying for it there will be no content” she says. “Meanwhile books as books have never been more beautiful better made edited or read.”

If you’re looking for a great selection of art books (made much more difficult after McNally Robinson shut its doors a few years ago) visit Frosst Books located within Pith Gallery and Studios (1018 9 Ave. S.E.) The shop owned and operated by Calgary-based artist John Frosst features a wonderfully varied collection of zines prints and books on all things art. If you can’t find it he’ll find it for you.

If you’re in the mood to go used book hunting start at Wordsworth Books. The store opened in 1989 when it was known as Northmount Books. It changed names and relocated to downtown shortly thereafter where owner Keith Sanderson took over the store in 1996. He’s had to relocate to the store’s current address 1040 8th Ave. S.W. a move that he says has greatly affected business due to LRT construction and road closures. Additionally he operates the store by himself which means that store hours can often be sporadic. “I used to have lots of office staff and university students coming by” he says. “It’s still the same but a lot of them go to Chapters. People come by but sometimes the store is closed.” He says that operating a used bookstore in Calgary has always been difficult but suspects all retailers are feeling the crunch. “Even Chapters is trying to sell anything other than books — pots pans and candy.”

Sure sometimes you’ll make the trip to Wordsworth and it’ll be closed. (Or you can just call and see if Keith’s there.) It’s the perfect place for an afternoon book hunt with teetering piles of books stacked in every available space. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a library discard or has some wear and tear my customers just want the book and they’re happy” says Sanderson. He says the top requests are for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland anything by Jack Kerouac and Carl Jung.

There have been some recent losses in the Calgary used book market. Books-on-4th recently shut its doors and Tom Williams Books suffered a devastating loss after this summer’s catastrophic flooding destroyed tens of thousands of volumes. (It’s enough to make a bibliophile weep.) Those looking for great used book shopping still have lots of choices however. If you’re making a day of it check out 2nd World Books (7-390 Northmount Dr. N.W.) loaded with used mystery and sci-fi paperbacks; Aquila Books (826 16 Ave. N.W.) a hideout for more antique tomes; G Books (9-8330 Macleod Tr. S.E.) a great place for hidden hardcover gems; and Cabin Fever Books (2101-B Centre St. N.W.) where you can find more rare and hard-to-find titles among the stacks of more contemporary fare.

No used book-shopping day is complete without a visit to Fair’s Fair celebrating its 25th anniversary this October. They’ve hit on a winning formula with the chain now including five different stores. “We’re organized” says employee Virginia Bushfield. “We’ve taken the extra step of creating a database to let us know what books we have and where.” Each of the locations carries loads of books though the one that continues to attract most Calgarians (they occasionally get requests from couples to take engagement photos inside) is the enormous Inglewood store (907 9 Ave. S.E.). “It’s community-based” says Bushfield. “We get to know our customers and that’s something you can’t do online.”