“We are in the process of reinventing the shop into a more comprehensive bookshop to better serve both locals and tourists. We came to the realization that we are the best local source for books on history, culture, and general information about the area.”
The Whyte Museum Book Shop in Banff, AB recently went through a transformation. Housed in the beloved and beautiful Whyte Museum, the store has worked hard to adapt to the emerging needs of its customers – and the changing circumstances of the pandemic. We spoke to manager Janet Boger about this experience and what visitors can expect when they stop by this wonderful shop.
I’ve visited many museum gift shops over the years but never a museum book shop! Can you tell us a bit about how the shop came to be?
The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which opened in 1967, is situated along the Bow River in downtown Banff. The Whyte Museum Shop opened in the 1990s thanks to founders Catharine Robb Whyte and Peter Whyte. The original shop format was a traditional museum shop that offered a small selection of books on the area, art prints, local artisan crafts, and souvenirs. Now we are in the process of reinventing the shop into a more comprehensive bookshop to better serve both locals and tourists. We came to the realization that we are the best local source for books on history, culture, and general information about the area. So, we decided to refocus our efforts on improving our book selection. We changed our name to the Whyte Museum Book Shop and joined CIBA.
Visiting us is a unique experience because the museum offers visitors another experience while they are here. Whether you’re looking for information on this area, a novel to escape for the day, or a unique Banff experience, you can get it all in the same building. Our museum offers fantastic rotating exhibitions throughout the year and our onsite archives reference area is the best for those looking for Canadian Rocky Mountains content.
What kinds of books do you carry? What do your customers look for when they visit your store?
Our selection centers around local culture, nature, and environment written mainly by local and Canadian authors, but we also make a point of offering relevant international content on mountain culture issues because these issues transcend boundaries worldwide. Our amazing selection of western Canadian biographical reads, travel and adventure memoirs, and local art and history books has expanded to include a wider selection of books on Indigenous Peoples of Canada, authored by First Nations and Métis writers.
Last year, we expanded our book categories to better serve emerging customer needs. We now have a selection of Canadian award-winning fiction and poetry, and we introduced a broader range of content on social issues, grew our selection of early learning books for children, and began stocking more books on cooking and food. Plus, we expanded our travel guidebooks and map section to meet the needs of both beginners and experienced outdoor people.
I understand you are very involved in the local community. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you support?
The Whyte Museum has always been a meeting place, where everyone is welcome. The museum originally housed the Banff Public Library. Catharine and Peter, artists themselves, also resided on the property over the years. They welcomed many talented artists, writers, performers, philanthropists, and influential people into their home. They were ahead of their time. They forged close working relationships with Indigenous Nations in this area and their legacy set a high bar for those who work here.
Catharine also helped fund the building of the Margaret Greenham Theatre as part of her relationship with the Banff Centre. We collaborate with the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival every season as well. We support online and in-person talks with writers and hosting the kickoff reception for the annual festival at the Museum. People come from all over the world for that event.Is it true that you also host your own events throughout the year?
We were working to build a Rocky Mountain Books launch series at the museum. When the pandemic hit, we were forced to move from in-person book talks to online events – which presented new challenges. Executing a great online event takes practice and we are still learning how to be effective at this.
Likewise, our home being in the museum presented another challenge for us during the pandemic, as the shop must operate under COVID-19 parameters set out for the museum. As a result, we had to transition quickly to an online shop. This year we plan to do more of either online or in-person talks with a renewed focus on local Alberta authors.
There is a lot of great content in Alberta being published, and we want to work more closely with Alberta-based publishers.
In addition to books, your store carries interesting non-book items including artisan gifts, puzzles, and stationery products. Can you tell us how you source and select these items?
We used to sell a wide variety of artisan crafts mainly purchased by tourists. In the pandemic, however, consumer demand shifted. We decided to reduce offerings in this area to make room for more books, stationery, and unique Whyte Museum products. We love artisan crafts and will continue to carry a small, curated selection of pack-and-go items that complement the bookshop concept and meet customer needs.
Other popular items include our art-inspired mugs, small giclée Peter and Catharine Whyte prints, and archival note cards. With the closure of some other retail operators in town, we’ve begun offering art supplies – which makes sense for us since we are an art-oriented museum. Now, we are seeking out artisan-crafted bookshop accessories like handmade bookmarks, bookends, etc.
We often ask booksellers about books they are most excited to sell. Can you tell us about some staff and customer favourites?
We have some unique publications on our shelves along with some all-time favourites. We are currently selling Chic Scott’s new book, Mount Assiniboine – The Story, on behalf of Assiniboine Lodge, who funded this project. The book is both beautiful, insightful, and full of interesting historical information.
A Hunter of Peace by Mary T. S. Schäffer, a museum publication, continues to be in demand. It is the go-to book for her fans as it includes both of her popular works, Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies and 1911 Expedition to Maligne Lake. Archival images from our collections augment the publication, which makes it unique.
Speaking about our Archives and Special Collections Department, we recently released a variety of vintage books for purchase. Customers are so pleased to get their hands on the books that are on display and sold through the bookshop. They come from a variety of sources – mostly donated – and the revenue generated by the sale of these books goes back into funding our archives library collections.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
The most gratifying thing about selling books is the enrichment it gives to others. Everyone is different and comes out with a unique experience they are keen to share, good or bad, either way. How great is that!
I like the challenges presented to me daily to solve – this is what keeps me in retail. It’s a dynamic business that forces me to remain curious. I was once told by John Lennox, a very successful retail operator I trained under, “once a retailer, always a retailer.” He was right.