“I feel like indie bookstores are the heart of every community they exist in – we just happen to be the furthest North. One of our unique responsibilities and honours is to showcase the works of our local authors and support the growth of writing in the North. It’s also my hope that we contribute to the wider work of storytelling and engagement.”
The Yellowknife Book Cellar has been serving readers in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and throughout the North for more than 40 years. We spoke to Jennifer Baerg Steyn, who took over ownership this year, about the store’s history and impact, as well as the bright future ahead.
The Yellowknife Book Cellar has been in operation for more than 40 years. A long time! Can you tell us about the history of the store (as you know it)?
The story goes that the store started as a few shelves in the back of a stationery store. Judith Drinnan had moved to Yellowknife to teach and was working part-time at the store. Overtime, Judith purchased the bookstore side of that business and created the Yellowknife Book Cellar. She worked for 40+ years to build a business foundation, foster an engaged community of readers, and develop relationships with libraries and schools. The store grew over time and moved to various locations around Yellowknife before settling to where it is now. Now, I am focused on continued growth in specific subject areas.
Can you describe the store for readers? What can visitors expect to find when they enter your shop?
They can expect to find Odin, our bookshop cat (assuming he has consented to being brought in). If he’s not in the store, our next main attraction is our Northern and Indigenous section which takes up about a third of the available wall and display space in the store.
Generally, we carry a little bit of everything in the store. We do have a noted focus on kids as our overall population in Yellowknife is young. To complement our books for young readers, we also have added costumes from Great Pretenders and have a selection of toys from Melissa and Doug and Fire the Imagination’s brands such as Moulin Roty.
What do you think the role of an indie bookstore is within the community?
I feel like Indie bookstores are the heart of every community they exist in – we just happen to be the furthest North. One of our unique responsibilities and honours is to showcase the works of our local authors and support the growth of writing in the North. It’s also my hope that we contribute to the wider work of storytelling and engagement. To me, reading is just one aspect of the work we all do to connect with other people via stories. In turn, this will help us grow, gain insight, learn, and hopefully become better people and neighbours.
Can you share some of your favourite “have-revisited-many-times-over” books?
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series come to mind.
I was introduced to Jane Eyre and Fahrenheit 451 by my high school English teacher, Mrs. Davis, and I return to them every few years. The Rivers of London series was a recommendation during the year I set out to read 100 books and ended up crossing that line somewhere in May. I have relistened to the entire series three times since reading all the books. They are the right amount of everything for me – a little revisitation of London, a little magic, a little history, a little cheek balanced with the right amount of heart and soul.
What is your vision for the store’s future?
When we started, the main goal was to update the aesthetic of the store but while keeping the soul intact, as it is so cherished in the community. Beyond that core goal, our hope going forward is for the following:
As Judith did, I hope to continue to grow the profile of our Northern and Indigenous section. I find it really disappointing to see the number of important and relevant titles that go out of print quickly. While we are small, I hope that we can continue to support this community of writers by helping their stories find audiences.
The store was previously closed on Sundays, but we have reinstated Sunday hours in the hopes of creating a weekly story time throughout the year. More on that soon!
In that vein, we’re hoping to find ways to bring the community into the store with book events and literary adjacent activities (like open mic nights). We will probably hold off a little while longer, as COVID-19 is sadly still a factor and the safety of the staff and general public is important to us, but we look forward to growing this aspect of our work.
What do you love most about being an independent bookseller?
I love having an opportunity to get to know the community in a completely different way – to hear where their passions are and learn about what they are reading and ordering. For example, I had a customer just order Joinery, Joists and Gender: A History of Woodworking for the 21st Century by Deirdre Visser. This book wasn’t even on my radar until they mentioned it. It sounds so fascinating!