It may be a dying breed, but a new second-hand business looks to inject some life into Calgary’s bookstore scene
If you are the lone dinosaur in your book club who prefers to flip pages rather than swipe them, then you are probably also a fan of bookstores.
Many avid readers prefer a book with a spine to e-reader or audible options. And if they find it at a used book store, well, that is almost like a stamp of approval from the book’s prior owner on the content between the covers.
A new second-hand shop recently joined a small collection of businesses in Calgary catering to those looking for books with a little more history behind them.
“Our philosophy is we don’t want things to ever be wasted,” says Nick Scurfield, co-owner of Bowness Arts which, in addition to an art gallery, has an entire floor filled with a selection of books, vinyl records and board games.
“People throw out books and records all the time but people still want them and I think it’s important not to put them in a landfill. They deserve respect and we’re in a position to take care of them.”
A love for collections of books, comics, and records
The 28-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in commerce was looking for his first entrepreneurial venture when he stumbled on the idea while helping his father, Sergei, organize his collections of records, books, and comics.
“My dad has been a lifelong collector and it started with comics,” he says. “As I was helping him clean up and catalogue, we decided to open a business. We had a lot of books and we figured the best way to share them with the community was to open the store.”
The senior Scurfield’s impressive comic book collection includes original issues, first appearances, and everything from old horror comics to the complete run of Little Lulu.
But those aren’t for sale.
A spot for everything, and a little bit of this and that
Bowness Arts offers two rooms filled with vinyl records and an exceptionally well-catalogued selection of used books, non-fiction and fiction, organized into categories.
“We use the Dewey Decimal System, if you can believe that,” Scurfield says, adding customers won’t have any trouble tracking down a book at Bowness Arts.
Basically, books are organized into groups and then more specific subject groups within those.
The store’s record collection includes all genres from the early 1900s to classics like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, and David Bowie right up to modern-day artists ranging from Harry Styles to Black Pumas and Coldplay.
“It’s not just a bookstore, we kind of sell a little bit of everything,” Scurfield says. “It’s fun. You never know what you will find when you are working with older items… an interesting book, a rare album and customers are having the same experience.”
The son-and-pop shop, which also has one additional employee, made it on the map mostly by word-of-mouth, initially attracting people from the community and eventually those from further away.
Rookies to the biz, Scurfield feels confident they’ll do just fine.
A rekindled love for second-hand
With a resurgence in record sales and an apparent rekindled (no, we’re not referring to Kindle, the e-reader) public interest in second-hand bookstores where people can find treasures, Scurfield figures they will have fans looking for what they offer.
“I think in the last 20 years, people in general have been very connected to the internet and a fast-paced world,” he says “People are sort of over it. Although they still use the internet, I think they are looking for that personal connection again, a way to feel more connected to the world around you.”
The family’s personal art collection is on display on the main floor where painting classes are regularly held. And the work-in-progress venture that has books penned by Calgarians in the store might look at hosting exhibits with local artists.
Scurfield’s not intimidated by the competition, which he sees as good company.
“It’s really great all these places still exist,” he says. “Pretty much all of the stores have a very unique feeling to them. They are all passion projects.”
A dying breed
Fair’s Fair Books—a family-run business established 34 years ago—is widely considered to be the granddaddy of all the second-hand bookstores in the city.
Back then, there were more than 30 used bookstores in Calgary. Today, there are maybe a dozen, including a Fair’s Fair in Inglewood with a second location near Chinook Centre.
Back when Fair’s Fair was just an idea, George Henderson was an out-of-work electrician with an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of books. His daughter, Tami Neilson, was a stay-at-home mom looking for something to do.
“My dad phoned me and said he wanted to open a used book store,” Neilson says. “We went to church sales and community sales and chose books we liked or thought might be saleable and collected them up in dad’s garage and back rooms.”
Hundreds of thousands of titles
Fair’s Fair Books opened its first store with about 7,000 books.
Although it was a tough go at first, Henderson never gave up and legions of loyal followers are glad he didn’t.
Now, with more than a million titles in the database, Fair’s Fair is a go-to for many book lovers, offering around 360,000 books at its Inglewood location alone.
“My dad wanted to open stores all over the world. He always wanted to be a millionaire,” Neilson says. “We always felt rich in books and people.”
A massive loss
In recent years, even as his health failed, Henderson remained a fixture at the store he started, doing what he could.
“This was his favourite child,” Neilson says.
Truth be told, he loved the customers as much as the books.
“He loved to talk to people,” Neilson says. “One of his rules was, ‘If I catch you reading a book, I’ll fire you.’ There is so much work to do here.”
Henderson died earlier this year.
“He loved the business, and me and my brothers and cousins and assorted people who work in the store keep it alive,” she says. “We honour him with this bookstore.”
The secret to Fair’s Fair’s longevity?
Neilson says they “hand pick every book they sell,” and rotate stock often so it doesn’t feel boring and stale.
Serving a niche need
While many businesses wilted and even shut down amid the pandemic, Fair’s Fair was a last resort for those wanting reading material to get them through lonely lockdowns when conventional new bookstores and libraries were closed.
“They had nowhere else to go, so our customer base grew,” Nielsen says. “We had curbside sales the day after everything shut down.”
Neilson proudly points out that the out-of-print book dealers who buy books from customers mostly cater to people who like books for more than the stories they keep.
“People just like to collect things,” she says. “Many like to hold a book in their hand and feel more connected to the words.”
She gets it.
“I have probably 3,000 or 4,000 books in my basement,” she says. “I can’t help it. I have three books in my bag right now going home with me.”
Some other second-hand bookstores in Calgary include Pages on Kensington, Owl’s Nest Bookstore, Books Between Friends, The Next Page, Shelf Life Books, and Better Books & Bibles. Let us know if we missed any at [email protected].