“When aspiring booksellers ask for my advice, we always say: ‘You can’t be afraid – you must have the stock, you must have the books. Order daily to keep on top of the bestsellers rather than rigidly sticking to a set time to reorder. If people take a book in their hand, they are more likely to buy it.’”
Café Books is a staple of the Canmore, AB community. Started 20 years ago as a small corner section of a café, the store has grown into a varied and beloved space for both local and visiting book lovers of all ages. We spoke to co-owners Joy and Charlie McLean about this unique store and why they love the bookselling business.
Please tell us a bit about the history of your store. How did Café Books come to be and how has it changed over the years?
Café Books started as a small corner book display at The Bagel Co. (hence the name). In 2002, the owners sold The Bagel Co. and opened the bookstore in the building next door. We bought the store in 2006. At the time, it was a larger space than we realized, and the lower level was more of a gallery with a small kids section. We knew that we needed more stock and a wider range of genres in order to survive. Over the years, we’ve continued to build up our inventory to get where we are today. When aspiring booksellers ask for my advice, we always say: “You can’t be afraid – you must have the stock, you must have the books. Order daily to keep on top of the bestsellers rather than rigidly sticking to a set time to reorder. If people take a book in their hand, they are more likely to buy it.”
My ideal was a book café. In 2014, we expanded to add more used books and a café space to the store. Initially, we planned to provide simple beverages, British cream teas, and nibbles, but the café morphed to include wine, bookish cocktails, and almost a full menu. The café closed during the pandemic and never reopened as books took over the space in its entirety. In the words of Agatha Christie in The Clocks: “It is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying, and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.”
Can you describe your store for us? What can visitors expect when they walk in?
We tried to make the store feel like an old-fashioned book shop. Wooden shelves and tables create a cozy and comfortable space. It is much larger than it appears from the outside. The main level descends into a lower level and, across the walkway, is our used book room (called “Chapter 2”).
Chapter 2 was made using mainly recycled items. Many beautiful pieces were from Uniquities, a salvage company in Calgary that brings containers of old building material and furniture over from Europe. For example, we have a set of solid stone windows from an 18th century Welsh chapel along with the huge wooden door. One bookcase is made out of a large front door from a mansion in the U.K. along with the mullioned glass sidings. When we faced a different wiring situation, we solved it by sending power down the inside of an iron Victorian lamp post. An old set of chapel steps house the books for younger readers, and this leads to a door to Narnia. The shelves in Chapter 2 are made from a set of butler pantry fronts. These fronts also mark entrance to the Kids Kingdom in the main store.
Our books are arranged by genre, and we stock a wide range of titles. We also sell cards (both local and generic), Out of Print t-shirts, and bookish gifts sourced from artisans.
Can you tell us about your customers and community?
We think it’s imperative to be a reliable part of the community. It’s wonderful to know the people who shop at our store and be able to tell them about books we know they’ll enjoy. It always feels odd to be in a town with no bookstore. Canmore is a small town in population, but we have many second homeowners who loyally use our store. The community really stepped up to support us during the pandemic. We didn’t expect the influx of orders arriving by email and phone. We cheerfully delivered to doorsteps all over the Bow Valley, into the wilds of Kananaskis, and even throughout Calgary. It was exhausting but it was the least we could do to thank our customers for their support. Initially it was just the two of us taking orders, packing, and driving – even 600kms one day! We still try to deliver if it’s impossible for the customer to get to us (if they live in Canmore or Banff).
We sell tickets for events and support our local authors. We are a little unique in that we have local customers but also cater to international visitors from Europe and the US. We also ensure there is stock for outdoor sport enthusiasts and visitors from Calgary or elsewhere who are on holiday and visiting for the scenery.
What is one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had in relation to the store?
We had a huge party when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released. We set up decorations, hosted a treasure hunt, and provided food and beverages. We opened the store at 10pm and by midnight had a store full of people – many who were dressed up – waiting to celebrate the release of the book. We even had a countdown!
As everything was locked away until the release, we needed some time to unlock the stock. The rooms were full, and the crowd was amazingly well-behaved. We set up reserved/prepaid books alphabetically with adult covers on one end of the store and kid covers on the other. Customers began lining up around 12:30 to pick up their copies. It was amazing – we were finding people reading on the floor as we cleaned up at 3am!
Nothing has ever reached that amount of special. We donated all the profits to the local junior school. We knew we couldn’t compete against big box stores, so we encouraged customers to come to us knowing the school would get the profits.
What is something our readers might be surprised to learn about your shop?
Here are a few:
Can you share some of your favourite “have-revisited-many-times-over” books?
For Joy: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (my favourite classic), love Winnie The Pooh (he’s a very clever bear!), A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (my favourite series), and The Girl Who Chased the Moon and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (for wonderful descriptive writing).
For Charlie: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Saturday by Ian McEwan, The Spy and The Traitor by Ben Macintyre, all Ryan Holiday books, and Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
We love the feeling of being in the store surrounded by stories. We love the community of local people who stop by to chat, check in on us, and support us, and who want to know what lives and places we’ve found for them to enjoy in the pages of a book. We love when book lovers find us, by accident or in passing, and can see and feel what we’ve tried to produce: this little place full of magic, adventure, and love that we have created. And we love the community of local authors who we can promote and support – it’s exciting to get their words into people’s hands.