5 questions with Michelle Berry

We love to see new bookstores open. There are many stories about the struggle of retail. But there are also lots of good news stories about the health of indie bookselling. We prefer the latter stories, obvi. But it can all be a little confusing. So it can help to take it one store at a time, like we do with our 5 questions with bookseller series.

Photo of Michelle Berry by Fred Thornhill

Photo of Michelle Berry by Fred Thornhill

Open for three years, Hunter Street Books is a relatively new bookstore in Peterborough, Ontario. They sell new books, offer discounts for book club bulk purchases, and, if you're looking for some book recommendations, you can look to the great staff picks from each of the staff members: MichelleErinSarahJess.

Michelle Berry, author and owner-operator of Hunter Street Books, agreed to answer our bookseller questionnaire in this instalment of our series, 5 questions with:

1. Which author would you most like to have for an event in your store (living or dead)?

That's a really hard question considering that my store is small and so we don't do readings. But if I had a large store, and it made sense to have readings, any author would do — my customers' tastes tend to literary fiction (Canadian, international) or non-fiction (world issues, history, and scientific). I love Irish writers — John Boyne, Emilie Pine, Sally Rooney — but I also love Anthony Doerr, Alicia Elliott, Ottessa Moshfegh, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Catherine Burns, Elizabeth Strout, Bill Hayes, etc., etc. My list is huge and that's just modern writers! I can't imagine how big it would be with writers who are already dead.

Michelle Berry from @Hunterstbooks answers @BookNet_Canada's 5 question bookseller questionnaire

2. What attracted you to bookselling?

I'm a writer myself (I've published about 11 books) and have worked in the writing industry (teaching, on boards of directors, mentoring, etc.) for my whole life. So I thought I knew what bookselling was about. That wasn't true — I'm learning every day. It's a complicated industry, that's for sure, but it's a fun one. I love the people I deal with every day — customers, booksellers, distributors, etc. — I love hearing about what others are reading and what they love and don't love. I've been able to take my writing into the store and edit and write here. It's been a fantastic three years.


3. What's your favourite bookselling war story?

Indies' war with Amazon is always an issue. [Margaret Atwood's] The Testaments disaster was an example of that. I also find that indies don't have sway with distributors and I think that's wrong — we get a smaller percentage discount than the huge stores and we can't order books in bulk so all their "deals" we can't use. We don't get free freight sometimes (I'm sure Chapters does) and sometimes books arrive late because the big stores get them first. I try not to compete with the big bookstores, but it's hard not to feel jealous at times. I also find that a lot of my customers have been dissatisfied with the large box stores or online shopping — at least if I take a long time to get them a book they can come yell at me — there is no one to personally speak to at the big stores. That frustrates them.

4. What is the most pressing issue facing bookselling today?

See above for the answer to this. Really, just educating people so that they understand how an indie bookstore runs — that we can't have EVERY book in the world, that we can't compete with Amazon (although we don't really want to) — that we don't buy back books and sell secondhand (at least, we don't at Hunter Street Books) and that even exchanging is difficult (some people treat indie bookstores like libraries: buy a book, read it carefully, exchange for new one — not nice). We are a business, a retail business, and I find some people don't understand that. Shoppers these days have to see the differences between businesses. Indie bookstores are not the same as Costco, Amazon, Chapters, etc. But that's good — more choice for how you want to shop. We aren't like libraries, we aren't a community hangout. We're a small retail business whose aim is to educate, please, and hopefully see you walk away with something you might never have picked but that we know you will love.

5. What forthcoming book are you most excited about?

I'm excited about everything! I'm trying now to read ahead — so I ask for advance reading copies of books that are coming out in about a month — just so I can keep ahead with hand selling. I'm loving Ottessa Moshfegh's upcoming book, Death in Her Hands, on sale April 21, 2020. Had it Coming by Robyn Doolittle is also fantastic. I'd love to see something new from Iain Reid even though he just had Foe come out. I love his writing.

BONUS: An aunt comes in looking for a gift for her niece, who likes embroidery and Proust, just got a new job on a cruise line, and whose beloved schnauzer just passed away. What do you recommend?

That's an easy question! I think the niece should buy Pauline Holdstock's new book, Here I Am!, out Sept. 24, 2019. After his mother dies, a six-year-old boy tries to find his father by stowing away on a cruise ship he thinks is headed to France. Most of the book is written from Frankie's point of view — he likes cheese, numbers, and the sea. A beautifully written book about loss, love, and friendship.

What a perfect pick!

Find all of our bookseller responses to this questionnaire here.