Our Favourite Indie Bookstores Across the West
Writers and editors shine a spotlight on the best little indie bookstores in Western Canada and Washington.
2557 West Broadway, Vancouver, kidsbooks.ca
The original Kidsbooks was a must-stop on my way out the door to visit my niece and nephew. I could always flag down any salesperson, give them a brief descriptor of each kid, and they’d pull the perfect book each time. (Shark vs Train remains all-time favourite, three years later, and my nephew and I still crack up reading How to Train a Train.) It was the first store to carry Harry Potter in Canada—a tradition they celebrated by wrapping the store in a Hogwarts-esque facade for every new launch.
Now it’s transformed into a must-stop for just about any gift need, for bigs or littles in my life. The new store, designed by Edison and Sprinkles, is both playful and modern: stringed lights dot the ceilings, blond-wood shelving lines the walls, and throughout is one of the most comprehensive book catalogues in the city.
Plus, wee little Japanese toys—like erasers shaped like food, tiny fluorescent markers—are irresistible stocking stuffers/present toppers, and the grown-ups-too book section means I can always leave with something for me. And reading corners mean that once I’m there, I’m in it for more than a quick pop-by. —Anicka Quin, editorial director
815A 49th Avenue SW, Calgary, owlsnestbooks.com
Granted, Owl’s Nest books is not located in a grand heritage building with coffered ceilings and rolling ladders. Nor will it ever be home to a “sinewy blood-red double staircase that coils like a strand of DNA (as the New York Times recently described Portugal’s Liverallo Lallo bookstore). No, this is a small, no-nonsense one-floor shop in a strip mall in Calgary’s southwest Britannia neighbourhood. Its pragmatic digs, however, conceal a deep well of fiery and eclectic literary passion that makes it nearly impossible to walk away without a stack of books you weren’t previously aware you so desperately wanted.
Owl’s Nest is Calgary’s longest running indie bookstore, established in the late 1970s by Canada’s grand dame of bookstore-retail, Evelyn De Mille. The vibe in the store is at once cerebral and cheerful; the current owners Michael and Susan Hare care deeply about getting the right book in your hands at the right time. The staff—all bona fide genre-geeks, seemingly live to expertly steer customers toward just the thing they crave. It is entirely possible that store manager Judith Duthie knows every voracious reader in Calgary by name, and by interest; she never disappoints.
The adjoining kids’ section, called Owlets, is equally well-curated—particularly for middle-grade—and the toys at the back of the store are largely of the interesting, crafty sort. To boot, the shop shares a parking lot with Village Ice Cream. Nothing goes better with Michael Chabon’s Moonglow (one of Duthie’s current picks) than a scoop of salted caramel. —Jacquie Moore, contributing writer
Powell’s City of Books
1005 W Burnside St., Portland, powells.com
On my last Portland visit my friends and I were so eager for Powell’s that we dragged our suitcases the 12 blocks from the train station rather than waste good shelf-browsing time on a hotel detour. (Pro tip: Take an Uber.) And, judging from the suitcase check at the front desk, we weren’t the first.
From the entryway, it’s a typical bookstore: tables of hot sellers, happy signage and a snaking line to the cash flanked by the kind of artsy giftware that keeps most modern “book” sellers afloat. But hiding beyond that is the 68,000-square-feet of new and used that makes this my paperback mecca—the high, hushed stacks repeated on end through a series of colour-coded rooms (purple for esoterica, yellow for thrillers, etc.), all connected by a maze of halls and stairways so jumbled that they offer maps at the door.
I made my usual mistake on that last trip: maxing out my armload in the very first room (blue, literature). I passed over a 700-page suitcase-buster by Annie Proulx in favour of a pretty, U.K.-edition David Mitchell, a bracing Rebecca Solnit and a train-friendly Maria Semple, and vowed—again—to start back-to-front on my next trip down. —Melissa Edwards, copyeditor
10702 Jasper Ave., Edmonton, audreys.ca
I’ve lived in both Edmonton and Calgary and I’m pretty sure I’m not telling tales out of school when I say Edmonton is the more book-ish of the two Alberta metropolises. But even within that bookish heart I think it’s fair to say that for the last four decades Audreys has been Edmonton’s—and by default Alberta’s—greatest bookstore. The website says that the store “actually traces its roots directly back to the bookstores founded by Mel Hurtig in the mid-fifties.” And while I didn’t know that, it’s not that much of a surprise. Hurtig had that great sense of both revelling in Northern Alberta’s isolation, yet importing and creating the oodles of culture that are still very much evident in Audrey’s two floors.
Jasper Avenue is becoming much more tony than it was when I was young, yet each time I’m back there’s Audreys, its burgundy awning with its fancy handwritten name crested in the middle, looking exactly as it did in 1985. And the books? They’re still there and the selection is still good even in today’s every-title-available-to-you-with-ultra-fast-shipping world. I don’t know if there ever was an “Audrey,” but since 1988 the store has been owned by Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk and like Hurtig before them they seem to know that a good bookstore is about more than selling books—it’s about community—and when you live in a city as far north as Edmonton, community means something. —Neal McLennan, food and travel editor
1108 Government St., Victoria, B.C., munrosbooks.com
Munro’s Books on Government Street in Victoria, B.C. (Photo: Deddeda Stemler.)
The bookstore that always gives me urge to genuflect is Munro’s on Government Street in Victoria, B.C. Housed in a gracious pile built in 1909 for a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, it has soaring ceilings, an arched entrance, columns and perfect proportions. Wall hangings by co-founder Jim Munro’s second wife, textile designer, Carole Sabiston, have the look of classical frescoes. Jim Munro passed away in November 2016, but he and his Nobel-prize winning first wife, Alice Munro, started the store in 1963, and moved it to its current location in 1984. He gave the store to the employees in 2014 and they have made sure that Munro’s remains a fixture on lists of the world’s best bookshops.
In addition to an astonishingly good selection, Munro’s continues to feature Canadian writers and topics. Even if you experience a frisson of intimidation at the magnificent setting, the store’s warm and knowledgeable staff make it a place to linger, happily lost in the land of books. —Susan Juby, author, Republic of Dirt
116 Grand Ave., Bellingham, WA
When my sister lived in Bellingham, Washington, about 15 years ago, we had a few regular stops when I’d go to visit her. Breakfast at the Old Town Café, an afternoon beer at Boundary Bay Brewing Company, and in between, some time wandering the miles of aisles at Henderson used books downtown.
I’ve had a soft spot for used bookstores since I was a kid, when a visit to the Highway Bookshop for a few Nancy Drews was one of the ways my parents got me to chill out on the 14-hour drive to my mom’s hometown in small-town northern Ontario. Henderson’s, my sister pointed out, is smack in the middle of a university town and benefits from profs and students with an affinity for great fiction. Its shelves of 300,000 books are organized but packed—no tripping over stacks on the floor, but I’ve also managed to find just about any book I had on my wish list. The layout is a bit of a maze, but isn’t that how a bookstore should be? Deep and confusing, and a place that requires you to wander, discover, find a book you didn’t know you wanted.
Its proximity to the border means that it’s decently stocked with Canadian authors, too, and Canadiana in general (I recently scored an original Best of Bridge—hurray for Christmas Morning Wifesaver!). The service can be a little grumpy, in a High Fidelity kind of way, but it’s all the more charming for it. And 15 years after my sister moved east, Henderson’s is still one of my first stops when I’m border-crossing for the weekend. —Anicka Quin, editorial director