“The bookshop is very colourful inside and I’ve added strange little things on the shelves that you can only find if you’re looking carefully – like a crocheted Cthulhu and a large turkey made from book pages. Just because.”
The Penny University bookstore and café in Regina, SK was founded in September 2020. Since then, it has been operating as a place to discover new favourites, meet local authors, discuss ideas, and more. We spoke with owner Annabel Townsend about her adventure so far.
Can you tell us how The Penny University came to be?
My timing is astounding. I signed the lease on the building one week before Saskatchewan declared a state of emergency because of the pandemic. I was originally looking to open in April of that year, but obviously that couldn’t happen. At this point, we’ve never been open not in a pandemic, so I don’t know what “normal” is, really.
That said, the lockdown that summer did give me plenty of time to get the word out. I had already bought a lot of the stock (which I stored in my garage for months!), so I started doing book subscriptions and delivering books around Regina on my bike. It worked out well because I think a lot of people used the lockdown to tackle their “To Be Read” piles. And it gave me a great opportunity to let people know about the bookstore before we opened in full.
The name of your store is unique. What inspired it?
I am a coffee geek and I used to run coffee shops before I got into bookselling. I wrote my PhD thesis about the coffee industry and part of my research included the first coffee houses in 17th century London. They were important social spaces where the poets, pamphleteers, merchants, and amateur scientists used to gather and they were given the nickname “penny universities” because you could get a university education just by listening to other customers, and all for the price of a penny cup of coffee. I really liked that idea and wanted to create something similar with books as conversation starters! There is a full coffee bar in the bookstore.
Can you describe the space for us – the look, the vibe, and what visitors can expect when they walk in?
As with most of my projects, it is somewhat eccentric. We are in the very artsy Cathedral neighbourhood in Regina and in good company with a lot of other independent and boutique businesses. The bookshop is very colourful inside and I’ve added strange little things on the shelves that you can only find if you’re looking carefully – like a crocheted Cthulhu and a large turkey made from book pages. Just because. There are lovely bright green velvet couches in front of the window to relax with a coffee and talk about books. Recently, our landlords commissioned a huge mural on the outside of the building, so now the exterior is as colourful as the interior!
What kinds of books do you carry? Has your approach to curation changed since you opened?
We are a general interest store, so we have a little bit of everything with a focus on local authors. All the staff have different interests: I usually read nonfiction and memoirs, Nicole is a poet, Jan loves graphic novels, and Sam is really into sci-fi and fantasy. So, between us, we can cover a lot of stock! We take a lot of local books on consignment as well, including self-published books. People certainly seem to appreciate having a local stockist. We also order books for customers if we don’t already have them on our shelves. When that happens, we usually order a few extra copies for the shop, so our stock gradually evolves with our customers. It’s fascinating to see what they request, and I’ve come across so many books that I would never have thought to get in otherwise.
I gather that you are very involved in hosting or collaborating on author events. Why is that important to you?
We love celebrating writers! Writing a book is a very big deal and anyone who has achieved that deserves to show it off. It’s been hard to do this during the pandemic, but our shop makes a great space for small gatherings like book launches and author readings. We are determined to host as many events as we can safely manage, just to give people a boost. Authors can also sell their own books to the public far better than we ever could on their behalf, so it benefits everyone.
Can you share some recent or upcoming releases you’re excited about?
We have been selling a lot of Zarqa Nawaz’s new novel, Jameela Green Ruins Everything. Zarqa is a local hero and very well known in the city, and we’ve had a lot of fun promoting this book at various events recently. We also hosted a book launch for a Viking from Saskatoon! Mark Allard-Will came down with his brand-new graphic novel, Siegfried: Dragon Slayer, and turned up in full costume. The book is beautifully illustrated, and all the images are painted using coffee which made it a perfect fit for our shop.
Nicole and I are also somewhere between excited and nervous because we have both finished writing books recently and are currently hunting for publishers. Nicole’s is a YA novel called All the Time in the World, and mine is the story of how this bookstore came to be, titled A Thousand Lives.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
Everything except for the spreadsheets. No one warned me how many spreadsheets are involved!
But seriously, The Penny University has been and continues to be a great adventure. I can’t wait to see what is in store for the future. I love how books bring people together and I’m very proud of the little community we’ve created here.