1. Knowledgeable staff
People who work at independent book stores tend to be actively involved in book culture. They attend launches and readings, keep up-to-date on book news and reviews, and many also work in publishing. Some of them may even be friends with local authors. They are your fellow readers, and may remember your face, your name, and your purchase history. Best of all, they can tell you why you should buy a particular book, as opposed to simply directing you to the large display of mass market bestsellers that threatens to topple onto your head every time you walk into one of the large chain stores.
Independent stores offer a homey and comfortable setting in which to browse for your favourite reads. They tend to feel and smell like book stores. They’ll have dim or library-esque lighting, classical music or jazz playing softly overhead, floors that are creaky in spots, and an acceptable level of dustiness on the shelves. The layout will have an infusion of personality, be it a table of staff picks with detailed blurbs attached, cleverly titled sections, or an outside-the-box display that somehow pairs cookbooks with graphic novels and still manages to make sense. Indies offer charm you just won’t find at a big name colossus. There’s nothing cozy about shopping for books at a department store.
No matter where you go in the city, you’ll find people yammering away about everything from the weather to celebrity train wrecks to the mayor’s latest gaffe, but one place you’re likely to find informed and intelligent discussion is at your local independent bookseller. Whether the conversation is between staff members, customers, or the quirky local genius and his imaginary friend, you’re almost guaranteed to hear a number of interesting opinions being tossed around freely and in good humour. On any given day, you can discreetly snoop for the latest book industry gossip, or engage yourself in a debate over the merits and pitfalls of Kant’s moral philosophy. Either way, your local book shop is where worthwhile conversation is at.
4. Hidden gems
You know that obscure text on the mating habits of the common crayfish you’ve been trying to get your hands on for ages? That detailed guide to spelunking? Medieval Mystics for Dummies? No matter your how weird or arcane your interest, you have a better chance of finding what you want at an independent store than at a large chain. Although a megastore may appear to carry more titles, often what you’ll find has been dictated by big-name publishers that pay stores to stock their books. Indies, on the other hand, can order whatever they please, which is whatever you – the customer – want to read. It is for this same reason that you’re more likely to find something that piques your unique interest at an indie store, whether you knew you were looking for it or not.
In my ten years on the job, I have spotted countless well-known writers browsing the shelves, such as Barbara Gowdy, Andrew Pyper, Susan Swan, and Russell Smith. A number of Canadian writers were once booksellers themselves, and there are some who still are. Novelists Catherine Bush and André Alexis used to stock shelves at Book City, as did poet Paul Vermeersch. Science fiction writers Robert J. Sawyer and Cory Doctorow were once employed by Bakka Phoenix, and Derek McCormack, author of The Haunted Hillbilly (ECW), and Kyle Buckley, author of The Laundromat Essay (Coach House), both currently work at Type Books. The best thing about independent book stores is that they draw all manner of book lovers together.