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“Customers often tell us that our calibre of curation and variety of titles is unexpected, impressive, and rare, so we know we’re doing something right.”

Shelf Life Books in Calgary, AB has been serving avid readers and the unusually bookish for more than 10 years. Its bookshelves are full of compelling and unexpected books, the staff is a tight-knit team of readers, and the store provides a space where community members can come together to meet their favourite authors and talk books with one another. We spoke to store manager Karlene Nicolajsen about the store’s history and more.

Shelf Life Books has been in operation for more than a decade. That is incredible! Can you tell us how the store was formed and how it has changed over the years? 

JoAnn McCaig and Will Lawrence opened the store in the fall of 2010 in response to a lack of independent bookstores in Calgary’s downtown. JoAnn, an English professor, writer, and publisher, envisioned a space specializing in fine literature and Canadian content – a haven for avid readers and the unusually bookish. Will, co-founder and an experienced retailer, helped bring this vision to life. He retired in March 2020. I’ve been here since the store first opened its doors and I took over as manager about five years ago. Since then, we’ve filled every shelf to bursting, expanded our children’s section into a brand-new area of the store, updated our branding with the help of local designers (and long-time loyal regulars) Platform Design, and hosted scores of celebrated authors.

How do you curate your in-store selection? What do your customers look for when they visit the shop?

Our focus is on small press, Canadian, interesting, and design-forward books across all genres. We love to stock unusual titles or publishers that might be uncommon elsewhere, but we have something for everyone whether it’s highly literary or on a bestseller list. Some of our ordering is customer-led if there’s a demand in our community for certain types of books, but there are also titles we believe are essential have on our shelves at all times. We encourage all of our staff to contribute their tastes and areas of interest to our ordering, though I operate as our main buyer. Customers often tell us that our calibre of curation and variety of titles is unexpected, impressive, and rare, so we know we’re doing something right.

Can you share one of your favourite memories of a book event that took place in the store?

My favourite event of all time was with avant-garde composer and sound poet Jaap Blonk in 2018. It was magical. We were also excited when Matty Matheson did a book-signing with us that I am pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to do (thank you Matty, sorry Indigo). An overwhelming number of fans came out to meet him.

We’d love to hear a bit about your team. What is your “store family” like? 

I am our store manager, and aside from our store owner, JoAnn, we have two part-time assistant managers, two events coordinators, a social media coordinator, a handful of booksellers, a delivery driver, and a bookkeeper (as well as a few student volunteers who are the sweetest teens you could imagine). We are a very small staff with very low turnover, so we end up functioning as a tight-knit group. Most people end up here for 2+ years, if not 5+, so everyone gets to know each other well. If one bookseller is putting on an art or music show somewhere, it’s likely that most staff will show up in support. The store is fast paced but everyone works smoothly together. Everyone who works here is interesting and exceptional and I’m lucky to have them with us.

What forthcoming titles is you are looking forward to? 

The store is looking forward to so many books from so many stellar publishers, especially Joshua Whitehead’s Making Love with the Land (Knopf), Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A Minor Chorus (Penguin Canada), Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter (Coach House Books), Barbara Scott’s The Taste of Hunger (Freehand Books), and Larissa Lai’s The Lost Century (Arsenal Pulp Press).

Aside from these, here’s my personal can’t-miss list:

What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?  

Though we’re a retail store, at heart our goals are based in community and literature, not in sales. Our customers and partners are excellent people to talk with and work for, across the board, and it’s important to us to make physical space for the authors, publishers, and diverse voices we most believe should be accessible, represented, and heard.   


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