Tidewater Books & Browsery in Sackville, NB has been a pillar of the community for more than 25 years. It is known and celebrated by locals and visitors alike. We spoke with owner Ellen Pickle about the history of her store, the role that indies play in our society, and what she loves about being an indie bookseller.
You’ve been in operation for more than 25 years. That is incredible! Can you tell us a bit about the history of your store?
I have always loved reading. Books matter: they educate and entertain. Books feed your imagination, taking you to other worlds or around your own world. They are adventure, excitement, knowledge, an opportunity to escape or an avenue to learn. The power of the written word is limitless.
As a child growing up in rural New Brunswick, my favourite day was the bi-weekly Bookmobile day. As an adult, wherever I travelled, I would buy bags and bags of books. I knew there were many people like me who deeply valued bookstores. My parents were entrepreneurs, so I understood the challenges of retail and the time involved in developing and growing a business. This is a labour of love for me.
I’m located in Sackville, NB, a small town of 5,500 and the home of Mount Allison University. As a graduate of MTA, I fell in love with the community. Sackville’s unique combination of arts, culture, history, and natural beauty make it a wonderful place to live. This community, with its educated population and growing families, seemed an ideal place for an indie trade bookstore. In 1995, I took the plunge and opened Tidewater Books.
I serve a wide geographical area, being the only independent trade bookseller between Fredericton and Halifax. From 2004-2008 I operated a 2nd location in the Moncton airport, but passenger traffic was insufficient to support that location. The one enduring benefit was that we developed many new customers in the Moncton area and became involved with the Frye Festival, Moncton’s bilingual annual literary festival. Since 2007, I’ve been their official bookseller, a partnership that has been fabulously successful.
You carry all kinds of books and an interesting collection of non-book items like art supplies, locally made jewellery, and even puppets! How do you choose what to carry in your store? Has your approach to curation changed over the years?
I personally handle all the book buying for the store. I choose books that will appeal to my unique customer base, and I place great emphasis on Canadian, Atlantic, and local authors and publishers. My store is full of titles that you won’t find in the big chains – I want to offer my customers special gems that delight book lovers. I love when a customer discovers a new favourite author and I’m especially gratified if we can place the right book in their hands.
In 2010 I changed locations, and in 2017 I purchased the building and expanded my space, re-branding as Tidewater Books & Browsery. In addition to the non-book items I already carried, like unique greeting cards, calendars, journals, puzzles, and children’s toys, I added Maritime-made fine crafts, pottery, linens, and jewellery. I’m also making a conscious effort to bring in gift items that are hand-made, recycled or up-cycled, and environmentally climate positive in their design.
As a retailer, you want customers to experience new items whenever they’re in. I keep re-evaluating my stock and trying new products. In this lovely old building with its creaky floors, my retail space and product mix create the feeling of an old-fashioned mercantile store. My staff and I endeavour to make the store warm and inviting.
Your store is a fixture in Sackville. What do you think the role of an indie bookstore is within the community?
An indie bookstore is the creative hub of a community. That may sound grandiose, but my 26 years in business have shown this to be true. From supporting local authors to hosting events and partnering with libraries and schools, we stay engaged with our community. I believe that giving back to my community reflects my values.
On a personal level, I have dedicated my time and experience to multiple boards, including the Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and the previous Canadian Booksellers Association. Locally, I’ve also sat on municipal and provincial business boards. Being an engaged citizen gives profile to the store but also allows me the opportunity to interact with and learn from others. The key to success for me is always being open to new ideas and understanding that not all ideas will work.
They say it takes a village to raise a bookstore (or something like that). Can you talk about some of your biggest champions and supporters over the years? How does your team and/or community impact how you run your business?
The longevity of my business speaks to the importance my community places on us. The pandemic has brought this home in full force, for never have I felt so valued as when my community worried that I might close. I’ve been busier and received more positive comments than perhaps any time in my history. It’s incredibly gratifying.
My staff are also exceptional individuals: intelligent, community-focused, with unique creative talents. I know that my customer base has expanded through each of their connections as well. That they feel a sense of ownership in the store speaks to my strong belief that everyone’s opinions and suggestions are important and valued.
What is one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had in relation to the store? We won’t ask you to pick your absolute favourite – that’s too hard!
The layout of my store makes large author events difficult, so I prefer to partner with local groups and festivals to host in larger venues. I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite event from so many, but one stands out. About 10 years ago Robert Munsch came to the Capital Theatre in Moncton for a matinee performance, and local schools bussed in the children. The signing afterward took over 3 hours as he took the time to speak with every child. His generosity was so amazing!
Can you share some of your favourite “have-revisited-many-times-over” books?
Oh, this is an impossible question! This is like being asked to choose your favourite child, or, in my case, your favourite dog! I really don’t revisit books, as there are always new authors and new series to discover. I will say that mysteries are my guilty pleasure, and when I discover someone new, I order everything they’ve published.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
This business is unlike any other and that’s the most wonderful aspect of bookselling – being surrounded by books, discovering new authors, and interacting with intelligent, creative people. Discoverability of new authors means that customers are always experiencing new books in the store. While I may be in a small town, my evolving product mix ensures that the store always looks fresh and interesting. My store is in a century old building with high ceilings and creaky wooden floors, giving it a quaint charm. I’m very proud of what I’ve built, and I simply love being a bookseller.