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Our staff hears the word ‘discoverability’ a lot from me. We are constantly changing displays, facing out books so there is always something new to see... This is one of the great strengths of independent bookstores. What we do is not as much about selling as it is about inspiring, introducing, and sharing.”

Laughing Oyster Bookshop in Courtenay, BC, will celebrate 50 years in 2024. The store has changed over the years, but one thing has stayed constant: it continues to be the top choice for local readers. We spoke with owner Evelyn Gillespie about this wonderful store, its role in the community, and what she loves about being an indie bookseller.

Can you tell us how the store has changed over 5 decades in business?

By my best recollection, we have had four ownership groups, one of which was a women's collective.  Laughing Oyster Bookshop has moved four times, with the last being our current location (our forever home?) in the middle of the main downtown street in 1994. The inventory has grown, the staff has changed, and our numbers have grown but we have remained the community's top choice for new book purchases throughout.

In my fifteen years with the store, we have lived through a major recession, the introduction of e-books, the continuing growth of Amazon, and three years of pandemic. What I have learned is that people in our community see books as necessities—not luxuries—and that they have adopted a commitment to supporting us and other local businesses.

Can you paint a picture of your store for readers? What can they expect when they walk in?

People would describe our store as warm and rustic. I love our cork floor and rough slab end caps. 

We have mostly cedar shelving throughout, for which I have previous owners to thank. Our layout makes good use of the space we have and provides some quiet corners for browsers. We are fortunate to have a large window that gives us a great display space. People regularly stop in because they see something there that draws them in. And they can expect a warm greeting when they arrive.

Recently, we reinstated our dish of Werther’s Original candies at the counter to the great delight of our customers!

A photo of the window display of Laughing Oyster Bookshop and a photo of the interior bookshelves.

How do you curate your store’s collection?

We are often commended for the breadth and the depth of our selection. To a large degree, we have our customer base to thank for that. When ordering front list titles, I usually have a customer in mind. If I can think of one person who would love this book, I know there must be more. We take customer recommendations seriously and keep them in mind when ordering.

I have a particular interest in all things British Columbia—both fiction and nonfiction—and order accordingly. My politics also influence my buying decisions, which is no secret to our base. And of course, I rely on the knowledge of our publisher reps to steer me to good decisions. 

The store regularly posts eye-catching photos online featuring books you carry alongside descriptions and recommendations. What role do you think indies play when it comes to helping readers discover new stories?

Our staff hears the word “discoverability” a lot from me.  We are constantly changing displays, facing out books so there is always something new to see. Our staff make recommendations based on their own reading, what they share with one another, and customer recommendations. This is one of the great strengths of independent bookstores. What we do is not as much about selling as it is about inspiring, introducing, and sharing. Nothing beats physical browsing where you can experience the book, the smell, the feel, the design, and the content.

We are fortunate to have a former staff member who is a professional photographer and continues to create our Facebook and Instagram content, the response to which always surprises me. Our arresting window displays are also done monthly by a former staff member who is a designer.

Photos of the interior of Laughing Oyster Bookshop including shelves and a person making notes at the cash.

Can you share the upcoming new releases you’re most excited about?

The Postcard by Anne Berest: I read this book as my family was gathering for our annual Passover celebration of moving through the “narrow place” from slavery to freedom. So, it was particularly poignant to read this novel that uncovers a Jewish family history from the late 1800s to the present day. It was particularly disturbing to see the anti-Semitic attitudes that persist today. It is a really fulsome read that introduced me to new thinking around what we now know as the Holocaust. 

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See: This book is set in China during the Ming dynasty, when “an educated woman [was] a worthless woman.” I love a book that makes me seek out more information—history, geography, and philosophy resources. This book did just that. For me, it is not only the enjoyment of a very satisfying book but also all the other thinking and discovery that books can inspire in readers.

What is your vision for the store’s future?

I am nearing retirement, so I am most preoccupied with ensuring that Laughing Oyster Bookshop continues to be the welcoming place it is and continues to be the first choice for book purchases in our community.  We are known and respected for our support for literacy organizations and organizations serving the most vulnerable people in our community, which will continue to be a priority for us.

What do you love most about being an independent bookseller? 

I love that we have the opportunity to know individuals and families, to accompany and support them through all phases of their life. We celebrate births and deaths, birthdays, and graduations. We build deep and lasting friendships with our customers and with each other, bonding over ideas and enthusiasms.

Full disclosure: I also love advanced reader copies. I am never without a book!

Photos of the interior of Laughing Oyster Bookshop including shelves and a bookseller preparing staging a photograph.



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