“In my opinion, a bookstore brings different people in the community together.”
A Novel Spot Bookshop in Etobicoke, ON is celebrating a decade in business this year. The shop offers a curated selection of novels (including mysteries and thrillers), biographies, history books, cookbooks, children’s books, and more. We spoke to owner Sarah Pietroski about the store and its role that indies play in their communities.
You just celebrated your store’s 10-year anniversary. Congratulations! Can you tell us about how A Novel Spot came to be and making it to the 10-year mark?
Thank you! When I opened A Novel Spot in 2012, my goal was to make it to five years. Bookstores were closing and being put out of business and times were very uncertain. While we were setting up the shop, a gentleman walking by took it upon himself to open the door and say “Do you know what you’re doing? Opening a bookshop now is crazy.” Boy, would I like to meet that gentleman again today!
That gentleman aside, the neighbourhood embraced us from day one. Book Mark, Etobicoke’s beloved indie, had closed in January of 2012. Initially, I’d hope to buy the store, but it was not meant to be. After a summer away from bookselling I said to my husband and family that I didn’t want to regret not owning a bookshop.
We made it to 10 years through passion, perseverance, family and customer support, and – maybe most importantly – by being practical. There have been many changes in the past few years. Knowing how to pivot, trying new things, and being flexible have become important skills for an independent bookseller. Prior to the pandemic, we did not have an online store. It was never part of the bookshop’s plan because we believe in the importance of engaging with readers directly. We have a webstore now. Social media and Zoom have also become part of the business norm.
I also believe we made it to 10 years because we have stuck to what we know: books and ONLY books. The store is staffed by voracious readers who love to talk honestly about books. Handselling is our specialty. We are always delighted to give recommendations. Our personal touch and our willingness to help customers find their next great read is the essence of the business. And it brings customers back!
Can you paint a picture of your store for readers? What can they expect when they walk in?
A Novel Spot is 634 square feet including the office and overstock/receiving area. So the actual floor space is approximately 500 square feet. The space was going to be temporary as we planned to move to a bigger shop in January 2013. But the customers that came through that holiday season loved the intimate setting. They felt like they were in a private personal library – cozy, inviting, and not overwhelming. With that feedback, we decided to stay put!
How do you curate your store’s collection?
This is the toughest part of the job. I have made many mistakes along the way. But, after 10 years, I know my customer base and what they like to read. Because we are books and only books, customers come in specifically for recommendations. We sell what we read, so I buy what we have loved. Now, the customers know the staff and their taste in books, so they come in to ask what individual staff members are reading. And, of course, we have all the big releases and most anticipated books of the seasons!
I’m constantly analyzing what sells and what doesn’t. Sadly, tough decisions sometimes must be made. I believe making those tough decisions has helped us stay in business. For example: we recently scaled back our children’s section to board books and picture books only. At 500 square feet, we cannot have every title on our shelves so the ones that make it have to be special. Ordering older titles in for our customers is also an integral part of our business.
I was very intrigued to learn about your reading challenge. Can you tell us a bit more about that initiative?
Our reading challenge was born out of the pandemic. The idea came to us as we spoke with customers over the phone. We were encouraging our customers to read something different. There was a lot of reticence, at first, but we did our bookseller thing and made the pitch about why they needed to read certain titles. The feedback from participating customers was so positive that we decided to challenge all our customers and visitors to our website to join the challenge.
Our 21 in 21 Challenge – where we read books from 21 different categories – was such a hit we decided to do it again in 2022. This year’s theme is Read Around the World.
What role do you think indie bookstores play in the community?
In my opinion, a bookstore brings different people in the community together.
Over 10 years, we have hosted many author visits and talks, and we started a Novel Nights book club to bring readers together to discuss a great book. When the pandemic hit, Islington Reads was born. This Zoom book club is open to all ages, genders, and identities. All these events have brought people together whether in person or via technology.
Then, there is the fundraising that almost all small bookstores do in their communities. These fundraisers bring a community together. This Thanksgiving we held our second “Grab Bag Lunch Bag” fundraiser for the Daily Bread Food Bank and were overwhelmed by its success.
Over the years, we have become dear friends with many of our customers. As a result, we hear about their triumphs and tragedies and act as sounding boards and supporters in their lives. We know we are not alone – indie bookstores everywhere connect with and help their communities in these ways.
Can you share the upcoming new releases you’re most excited about?
Where do I start? It’s been a banner fall with more great releases still to come. Those titles have been featured in newspapers or magazines already, so I’ll highlight some January releases instead.
January used to be a quiet time for new releases, but that has changed. Some of the best books I’ve read in a given year have come out in January. To keep with that trend, I’ll share two Canadian-authored novels we’re excited about.
First up: All the Colour in the World by CS Richardson. This novel is brilliant, sparse, and beautifully written. It’s about art, life, colour, and a main character you can root for. We meet Henry in 1916 and follow him through the ups and downs of his life. Henry sees the world in a different way and his take on life makes the reader look at the world differently too. The minute I finished this book, I started it again. There was so much more I wanted to explore, ponder, and research.
The second book I’ll mention is In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas. It is a fantastic and powerful story set in 1880 in a small Canadian town with an underground railroad stop. In the book, we meet two formidable women – one just starting her personal journey and the other at the end. It’s a story about stories and the interwoven history of Black and Indigenous peoples.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
There are so many things that I love about being an independent bookseller. But my greatest joy is when a customer comes back and says they loved the book I recommended. There is no greater compliment than when a customer trusts us with selecting a book for them and returns to tell us how much they enjoyed it.
And then there are the ARCs! As readers, receiving special book mail from publishers and being able to read a book before it hits the shelves is a sheer delight.