Brome Lake Books is a picturesque English-language bookstore in Knowlton, QC, and the inspiration for the bookstore in bestselling author Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series. Of the store, Louise says, "It's like the bookstore from the novels. It has the wooden shelves, and it's warm and welcoming. You just want to sit down. This place feels like a magical place."
We spoke to owners Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn about the store, their relationship with Louise, and what they love most about independent bookselling.
Your relationship with Louise Penny is so unique. Can you tell us how you first met and how the relationship has developed over the years?
We first knew Louise as a host on CBC Radio. We were saddened to hear that she was leaving radio until she walked into the bookstore to say she had moved to our area to write a book. Then we were over the moon! We’ve now had events for all of Louise’s sixteen books with the exception of All the Devils Are Here (that darn pandemic). We have been acting as Louise’s fan club for many years now, distributing mugs and tee shirts to fans across the globe. It’s become a big part of who we are as a store.
Fans of her novels travel to your store from all over the world and you keep a record of where they’re from on a map. What is the most memorable visit you’ve had?
We have met so many wonderful people with amazing stories to tell. Several cancer survivors credit Louise’s writing for getting them through their treatments and we see a lot of mothers and daughters on bonding getaways looking for Louise’s village of Three Pines. We had two ladies who had connected over our Facebook fan page and decided to meet for the first time in person in our store. The best part? One lady was from California and the other from Australia! And then we’ve had a few visits from Louise’s friends Hillary and Bill Clinton. It is hard to forget customers who come with their own secret service.
Your collection has an emphasis on Canadian authors. Why is that?
Canadian authors have a unique voice that deserves to be celebrated and showcased. We love recommending books by Michael Crummey, Sheree Fitch, Janie Chang and so many others. Canadian authors are our go-to recommendations because we are so proud of them.
You’re a strong advocate for shopping local, both in terms of promoting local authors as well as selling items created by local artisans. Can you tell us about the impact of these efforts on the community and the store?
We carry local items like Savonnerie de L’Estrie soaps and hand creams, which are all-natural products that are beautifully scented and the packaging includes local scenes painted by the artist. We also have pottery by Robin Badger, coffee from Brûlerie Virgin Hill, and plenty of cards from photographers and painters in the area. We like to carry products that show the character of the area. It’s a joy to support local, it's great for the tourists, and it’s important to reach out into the community as a whole. We do this through our annual Midnight Madness event as well. The event started 16 years ago when we opened at midnight to sell one of the last Harry Potter books. We decided that we’d stay open all evening and make it a party. At the time, we shared the floor of a building with three other shops: a Woolrich shop, a children’s clothing store, and a café. We even had connecting doors between stores! All of the shops decided to join us. We had sales, live music, and local artisans showcasing their wares. Someone thought that staying open until midnight was madness, which is how the name came to be. It was a huge success and other shops wanted to join in until all the merchants in town were taking part. Now it’s an event that brings our whole community together every year.
On Canadian Independent Bookstore Day this year, different authors took turns writing at a table in the store’s window. Can you tell us how this idea came about and how your authors and customers enjoyed the experience?
It was better than we could have imagined! I remember reading that Mabel’s Fables had put Barbara Reid in their window for the launch of Sing a Song of Bedtime. I loved the idea, but I wasn’t sure if any authors would participate. Part performance art, part exhibitionism? Aren’t authors private people and deeply serious about their craft? But the response was an enthusiastic “yes!” from everyone we asked. Several of the authors dressed up and some even brought props. They created quite a stir both in-store and online – the buzz was amazing. Our local paper did a feature on it and other authors have made requests to be in the window too!
Watson, your Portuguese sheepdog, is a regular at the store. What’s he reading these days?
Ha! Watson is currently drooling all over chef Michael Smith's Farm, Fire & Feast. He is very aloof and cerebral for a rescue dog. He learned very quickly that letting people rub his tummy would get him treats, so he lies next to the door and rolls on his back whenever someone comes in. Unless he’s too busy hanging out in the window looking for the delivery guys (who also bring him treats). It’s a tough life.
The store is in a gorgeous river-side building in the heart of the village. Can you tell us what you know about the history of the building?
This area of southern Quebec was populated by English-speaking United Empire Loyalists escaping the American revolution. Our building, with its tall arched windows, scroll sawn brackets, and tin ceiling, fits in well with much of the Victorian architecture of our town – even though it was built in the nineties!
What is your favourite thing about being an independent bookseller?
Nothing beats that feeling of putting a book in someone's hands and knowing the incredible journey you have set them on – especially if it's a young person. We brought up our three boys in the bookshop and, while they’ve had their fill of lugging boxes, the joy of starting a new book and not wanting to let it go when the last page is turned is still there. That is the best gift to give any child.Can you share the upcoming new releases you’re most excited about?