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“We love having the opportunity to connect people with books, especially books that are by new, upcoming, or local authors. As a small independent, we seldom are obligated to display or promote specific books the way that larger retailers are. This gives us the chance to provide truly personal recommendations based on what we have enjoyed reading recently.”

Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary, AB has a long and storied history. It is known for its community involvement, excellent browsability, and dedicated staff. We spoke with Ryan Smith—who recently became Co-Owner with Judith Duthie—about the store’s legacy, recent titles they have loved, and more.

A photo of Judith Dutie and Ryan Smith, co-owners of Owl's Nest Books.

Can you tell us a bit about the store? I’d love to hear about the history of the store and how you became an indie bookseller.

Owl’s Nest Books was opened in 1975 by Evelyn de Mille and James A. Highborough-Ross. Evelyn began as a silent partner, with James running and naming the store when it opened. Eventually, Evelyn became the sole owner of the store. When she retired, Michael Hare and Brenda Mackie took over the store. During their tenure, Brenda and Michael moved the store to its current location in the Britannia Shopping Plaza in 1996. The store has been a go-to destination for the plaza for over 20 years now. When Brenda retired from the store, Michael’s wife Susan took over her ownership role. Michael and Susan have begun the transition to their well-earned retirements by transferring ownership and closely mentoring Judith and I as the new owners of the store.

From that list of dedicated owners to its different locations, Owl’s Nest Books has undergone its share of changes over the years. In 2002, Brenda and Michael expanded the store to include Owlets, a space dedicated to children’s books and gifts. In 2019, Michael and Susan made the difficult decision to reduce the store to its current size due to the costs of maintaining such a large space and the lack of sales on the children’s side of the store. The choice to downsize proved quite fortuitous, as the world was turned upside down in 2020 and the store only had to support half the space through those tumultuous first months of the pandemic. The store still carries books for kids and teens of all ages, just on a smaller scale than before.

I came to the store in June of 2020, just as the store was in the middle of adjusting to its new size and adapting to technological and procedural changes that were being made in response to the changing needs of our customers. I had studied literature and publishing throughout university and previously worked as an editor before coming to Owl’s Nest. I was excited to experience a new aspect of the publishing industry. About a year later, Michael approached me about taking over his ownership role in the store.

Judith has worked in bookstores for two decades, starting in 2001 at B. Macabee’s in Lethbridge. From 2008 until 2019 ,she was Mike and Susan’s general manager at Owl’s Nest Books. She left the store to pursue a second degree in business administration and accounting at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. When the time came for work experience, she came right back home to the Nest, helping Susan with the bookkeeping. Eventually, discussions began about purchasing Susan’s ownership role in the store.

Most people say they dream about running an independent bookstore, but here we were, each being offered the chance to live that dream. And we have lived that dream every day since. There has been a lot to learn about running a bookstore and we still have lots of learning left to do, but Owl’s Nest and its community are incredibly kind and supportive. We look forward to supporting all of their bookish needs for years to come.

What can readers expect when they walk in?

When readers first walk in, they can expect time to slow down. Books and puzzles are the store’s staples, and readers are surrounded by them the moment they step inside. A staff member will let the reader know that we’re here to help, but after that readers are left to browse the puzzle display and the bookshelves at their leisure. There is never a rush in Owl’s Nest. It’s a place to breathe, browse, and come across the next book that will bring the store’s serenity into your home.

Having been in business for almost 50 years, the store has had plenty of time to experiment with how its collection is curated. A brand new independent will still be feeling out what genres and themes most closely resonate with its community, whereas Owl’s Nest has had years to listen to its customers and adjust what it carries to reflect what their interests. As a result, Owl’s Nest has a dedicated mystery section and plenty of options for those that love historical fiction, literary fiction, and feel-good reads. As new staff with different reading tastes join the team, and as new and old customers explore different books, the collection at Owl’s Nest shifts to reflect changing interests and the new things we’re excited to share with readers.  

A photo of the mystery section at Owl's Nest Books and a photo of the exterior including the side and window display.

Can you tell us about your customers and community?

Owl’s Nest is fortunate to have such a kind, caring, and passionate community of readers. Pre-pandemic, the store found itself in dire straits for a variety of reasons. When the store reached out to its community, so many people came out to help lift the store up and allow it to continue to serve the readers of Calgary. Customers old and new continue to show their support for the store: they attend our events, interact with us on social media, and choose us over larger retailers that may be able to get books to them quicker than indies can.

We are also lucky to have the opportunity to support local book clubs. Book clubs of all sizes will send us their list of upcoming reads and we make sure we have those titles stocked, along with a built-in discount. Our dedicated book club section not only helps local book clubs easily find their books, but also lets the larger community see what book clubs are reading and talking about. Shopping the book club section feels like getting a recommendation from a neighbour. We are also excited that we get to have our long-running mystery book club meet in the store, as well as host a new LGBTQ+ focused book club once a month.

What is something readers would be surprised to learn about your bookstore?

Readers seem to be most pleasantly surprised to learn about how interconnected the independent bookstore community is in Calgary. Thanks to the power of Bookmanager, we are able to connect readers to the book they are after by letting them know which independent bookstore in Calgary has stock. While we are always happy to order in books for readers, our main goal is connecting readers to the book they are looking for, especially if it is readily available at another indie. And this is very much a reciprocated courtesy—it is always exciting to us when a customer walks in and says they were pointed our way by another local independent bookstore.

Photos of the interior of Owl's Nest Books including the puzzle display and the fiction section

What are some recent titles that you and/or your customers have loved?

The most recent book that we are all excited for is The Crow Valley Karaoke Championships by local author Ali Bryan. Ali has a fantastic writing style that is simultaneously light and humorous while also being deeply thought-provoking. We all enjoy her work and can’t wait to connect people with her latest novel.

A big hit in the store has been Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. One of our reps suggested the book to Susan and it spiralled from there. Susan enthusiastically recommended it to customers and other staff, then all of us were enthusiastically recommending it, and now customers are recommending it to each other when they are browsing the shelves. We are so excited to see her book get the love it so justly deserves.

One book that I recently enjoyed was Girlfriend on Mars by local author Deborah Willis. This book’s biting satire, sharp criticism, and introspection of love and personal drive had me hooked. Every chapter dove a little deeper into what it means to be human and what it means to be the best version of ourselves. I would highly recommend this read to book clubs or anyone looking to interrogate the standards we hold ourselves and others to, while coming to terms with forgiveness and living a meaningful life.

A recent favourite of Judith’s was Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See. This is an established author showing all her strengths. It is a meaningful tale inspired by a real woman in 14th century China who educated herself to advance women’s medicine and become one of the world’s earliest female doctors.

What is your vision for the store’s future?

With both Judith and I being new to the ownership roles of Owl’s Nest, our immediate focus is on the legacy of the store. There is close to 50 years of history and community in this store, and we want to make sure that we are doing all we can to keep the store on a path that leads to 50 more. We are looking ahead at ways we can make it easier for readers to connect with their books while maintaining the heart and soul, that feeling of taking a breath and slowing down, that embodies the store.

What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?

We love having the opportunity to connect people with books, especially books that are by new, upcoming, or local authors. As a small independent, we seldom are obligated to display or promote specific books the way that larger retailers are. This gives us the chance to provide truly personal recommendations based on what we have enjoyed reading recently. Recommending a book to someone is always a bit of a gamble, what really spoke to one of us may not resonate with the customer. It is always a good feeling when a customer seems excited about a book we’re recommending, and it’s an even better feeling when a customer returns and tells us how much they enjoyed our recommendation.

A photo of the Owl's Nest Bookstore sign and a photo of the interior.



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