Podcast: Innovative bookselling, part 2: Writers are friends, not food

For the second episode in our summer series on innovative bookselling (see the first episode here), we talk with Canadian booksellers who are dedicating space and time to supporting the writers in their communities, whether they're in grade school or working on their latest book.

Listen to the podcast episode where we talk to Canadian booksellers who are dedicating space and time to supporting the writers in their communities, whether they're in grade school or working on their latest book.

Further reading:


Zalina Alvi: Welcome to the BookNet Canada Podcast. This episode is the second part in our summer series on innovative bookselling. Last month we shared some examples of people finding new ways to sell books through outside the box partnerships. In this instalment, we've spoken with bookstores who are engaging in creating spaces for the writers and their communities, whether they're still in grade school or already established novelists.

In our first segment, Nadine King from Woozles in Halifax, which happens to be Canada's oldest children's bookstore told us about their Woozles Writes contest. For the last 10 years, they've been inviting children to submit stories for a chance to win bookstore gift cards. And last year to celebrate the store's 40th anniversary, the winners also had the chance to get their stories published and sold in the store, complete with a book launch to celebrate.

Nadine King: We did start it a number of years ago now and it is for children. We do often get some grownups who wonder if they can enter as well, but it is for children ages 6 to 15 and we have two age categories that apply 6 to 10 and 11 to 15. And we do ask three Atlantic authors to be the judges for the contest. You asked about the rules, there really are almost no rules. It is fiction. It is in English and the prize is, of course, a wonderful gift certificate. So the entries we start the contest in June and it closes July 31st. I think we get maybe 90% of our entries on July 31st and it has a fair bit of interest and we have quite a lot of kids who repeat it every year and seem kind of excited once they move into a different age bracket for the contest. And we do get a fair number of entries.

Zalina: So what would you say is the main goal behind the contest? I mean, you've been doing it for quite a long time, about 10 years now, so it must be doing well. Doing something for the benefit of the store, of the community, of the kids.

Nadine: I think it's really just about literacy and books and story and giving kids an opportunity to write. And to encourage them to write as well I would say is what our goal is in having at Woozles, we describe ourselves as a place for and about children, and books is our backbone. Although we do sell games and things like that, we started with books. So I think we're just by extension of everything else that we do, we wanted to have that as well. Encourage writers.

Zalina: And I understand you published the winning stories from last year's contest that was to celebrate the store's 40th anniversary. Is that right?

Nadine: That's right. Yes. We turned 40 in October of 2018 and we had been talking for a little while. For quite a number of years we've been trying to find a way to publish the winning entries, whether or not it was an excerpt in the local paper or The Word on the Street festival, having maybe a reading by the kids who won. So we've been toying with various ideas and hadn't found the right opportunity yet. And our owner, Liz Crocker, thought where it was our 40th anniversary and also the quality of the entries were particularly good this year and the quality of the winning ones that she thought, let's go for it and publish them.

Zalina: And what was that like deciding to publish stories for the first time?

Nadine: Well, Liz, our owner took care of just about that whole project in terms of finding somewhere that we would get them printed, going through an editorial process. Liz handled all of that and it did take quite a bit of effort and back and forth with the writers, getting it typed up as well to be printed, having cover artwork done. I think it was a quite an involved process and Liz did handle all of that but she was hugely pleased as were the two winning authors with the results.

Zalina: And are there plans to continue publishing the winning stories?

Nadine: Well, that is a great question. As I said, the ones for 2018 were of a particularly high quality of writing that we wanted to do it. So we haven't yet decided how we'll go forward but we set ourselves up as a publ...The books that we published have ISBNs. We pay royalties to the authors. It's the real deal. So we certainly could do it again in the future. I'm not quite sure what our plans are for sure the coming year, but we would love to if we could.

Zalina: Toronto's Queen Books, which you might remember from the first episode in this series is also making an effort to support young writers. Here's co-owner, Alex Snider talking about the workshops that they run for kids

Alex Snider: We've done it a few times. The most recent time, we did it with Ripple Foundation. And so it's a volunteer-operated group of people that put on workshops for writing workshops for kids. So they approached us to see if we would be willing to host one. And we have tons of kids in the neighbourhood and a lot of kids who are really excited about writing. So we have all kinds of activity books providing guides for children. So we knew that we've got lots of interests for that. And we have done writing workshops before with specific authors.

So the author Angela Misri, who has a series of detective novels for middle-grade readers, so she's come in a few times and run these really fantastic writing workshops and it's always a lot of fun. We've also done a story contest for kids. So last fall it was our first time doing it and it was just the best because kids submitted all kinds of different stories and they were really enthusiastic about it and we had a big award ceremony and we just, you know, were really committed to kind of being engaged community members and providing opportunities for kids to kind of get really excited about reading and writing.

Zalina: And what's the benefit would you say to the store as a whole for running these workshops and getting kids into the store? Are you like turning them into long-time customers, getting a lot of goodwill from families, just like fostering literacy? What are all the benefits?

Alex: Yeah, I mean I think our primary goal with it is just like fostering a love of reading and a love of writing too. I mean if people come back and shop with us, great, but we really just want to be a place where kids get excited about reading and that it encourages them to kind of stretch their creativity and practice writing and get really excited about literacy.

Zalina: Of course, young aspiring writers aren't the only ones who need a place to write and to share their work. While it's pretty standard for bookstores to host book launches and author readings, some booksellers are going the extra mile to provide a meeting space and to establish relationships with the writers in their communities. One such bookstore is The Bookshelf in Guelph, which puts their extra space to good use by making it available once a week to any writers who need a quiet place to work. Bookshelf staffer Stephanie Minett told us all about their popular Writers' Room.

Stephanie Minett: The Writers' Room is actually just a free use of our space. During a Monday morning, we were approached by a group of people who are already actively writing in the community and decided that they were wondering if they could use our space to kind of bring people together. A little less so to converse, more so just to write, but it gave to them an opportunity to have like a dedicated area that they can do that in. And so we basically just, you know, charge them, you know, for their coffee, but they don't even pay for it. They just kinda come in and use the space. Like it's not a very formal arrangement with them. It's more just a drop in and that's how it operates.

Zalina: What are The Bookshelf's goals for having this space for writers? What do you get out of it?

Stephanie: Well, it's always nice to be able to help people who are looking for a place to be creative and be part of a cultural community. We've hosted not just the writers, but obviously, lots of poets and artists who benefit from the use of our space as well. And those sorts of groups tend to have sometimes a difficult time finding a place that they can just come and be either be seen or heard or get an opportunity to just to hone their craft. And it was something we were behind because we certainly support Canadian writers, literally by what we do. So it was a reasonable extension of that.

Zalina: And has it been successful so far? Do you have a lot of writers coming in to use the space?

Stephanie: Yes, we usually have a core group of about between 7 and 10 and then we occasionally do get people inquiring saying that they've heard that we do have that available. So they are wondering what's involved and then just what time is that offered? And they just will, you know, poke their head in and see if they're able to come in and use that space. And we're always, you know, open to having more people join in.

Zalina: So can you actually remind me how long it's been having the Writers' Room?

Stephanie: Oh gosh. I kind of feel as though it's been at least as long as I've been here. So I always think it's probably in the vein of probably 9 to 10 years.

Zalina: Oh wow. Okay. So definitely something that you guys still feel good about doing since you're doing it for so long.

Stephanie: Yeah, it's been very casual, but it's been growing. But it is something that we've been doing for some time.

Zalina: Today I actually see something online about Lawrence Hill popping in.

Stephanie: Yeah, we've got awesome...that's the other thing is like Guelph already has so many established writers that have used our space on top. Lawrence Hill is one, Thomas King is another. And then, you know, we have lots of authors who kinda come through our doors and browse in our store as well in addition to supporting events. Lawrence Hill is currently a writer resident at UG so he's also helped us to co-host an event up here with Wayne Grady and yeah, there's just like some really great local contributors to our scene that have been happy to help support us.

Zalina: Great. And is there any hard return on investment really for the bookstore or is it a lot of what you said already about like the community and supporting writers?

Stephanie: Yes. Our space in the upper level is not, I'm not gonna say it's not functioning, it's more to say that it's just kind of vacant during the daytime hours for the most part. I'd like to going forward see more people using it, like to rent the space for events or conferences or for other cultural events. Most of the time that space isn't being used and it's nice to have people who are able to find a purpose for it during the day.

Zalina: Back in Toronto, A Different Booklist is a bookstore and cultural centre dedicated to the intellectual and cultural experience of people of African and Caribbean ancestry. As part of their mandate, they host a lot of events, some of which serve writers such as the series of writing consultations led by literary agent Léonicka Valcius. But the connection isn't limited to hosting events. Itah Sadu who runs A Different Booklist with her husband, Miguel San Vicente told us how running an independent bookstore goes hand in hand with establishing meaningful relationships with the writers and their community.

Itah Sadu: In addition to the workshops or the dinners that we have with authors or with editors or with literary agents like Léonicka, we have also had a tradition of inviting people to come in to present their works in progress. Over the years we have invited people to come and do master classes with Dr. Althea Prince, with the late Austin Clarke with Olive Senior.

So at any turn of the day, we have always invited our senior writers, Ramabai Espinet, Rabindranath Maharaj. We've always invited our senior writers to connect with a new generation of writers. We've invited people or institutions like the Canadian Children's Book Centre. And then by extension, people who are involved in publishing for children, the late Sheila Barry of Groundwood. And therein as they intersect with this emergent...these new emerging writers like Nadia Hohn. Nadia Hohn cut her teeth or started on her book journey when she met Sheila Barry of Groundwood at A Different Booklist and the rest is history.

So in addition to the dinners, and the point of the dinners are, and we have the dinners across many sectors, but in terms of the publishing, it brings together writers, authors, people who have the idea in their head to ask questions. Some of those questions are unique. Some of them are similar, but it gives Léonicka the opportunity to cover a broad number of topics in the publishing sector. It gives the attendees an opportunity to see someone who is of African descent or of colour in a pivotal place within the publishing sector. So it is the opportunity to...we just had remembering, as Austin Clarke would call it, or membering, that's what he would say, of Toni Morrison. And 70% of the people who presented all started by saying, I didn't come here today to say anything, but now that I'm here in the moment, I am compelled to say. This is my first poem. This is, I am an emerging poet. Here is something that I wrote specifically for today or here is my signature piece as an emerging poet and I now have the opportunity in the celebration of a great writer to inform the audience about my work. That is part of that process of the bookstore.

And then following that is, when people come in again, the idea is no longer in their head or it's in its first rendering and now they're thinking, how do I move this to another level of documentation? And again, the role of the bookstore is here are all of the examples that precedes you. Take a look at them and what is the best practice that you can engage in? And here's some feedback on how you can perhaps make your work better.

So in addition to the mentorship or that relationship like where someone like Léonicka would have, it is also to those informal spaces where people just come in and they are passionate about that thing that they have done or it's in their heart or their head and they need an audience or they just need an affirmation to keep on keeping on. It is precisely in bookstores and in that environment that those seeds can germinate or that idea can find roots.

Zalina: Yeah, I really love the support of the new and emerging writers. It seems just really beneficial for everyone to really just start supporting that community and encouraging growth and establishing those relationships really early on.

Itah: The other thing too that you made me think about is senior writers and established writers. You are probably having a brain drain. You've written something incredibly cool and brilliant and you think, oh my God, I can't top that or you know, I want to write on this, but 6,000 people in the world are writing the same thing. What's fresh, what's new, what's happening, whatever. Again for those senior writers to come into the space, to be engaged in other conversations outside off the beaten path, to look to see what exists in the literary world and where there are empty spaces or where there's a vacuum or are people interested in this. So again, for senior writers, it also gives that opportunity to observe the world with the third eye, if you will.

Zalina: That's it for this month's episode. Next month will be the final instalment in our summer series on innovative bookselling. And yes, September is still summer. We'll be talking with Canadian booksellers who are making it a priority to be a part of their neighbourhoods and the creative ways in which they're going about it. So stay tuned for that.

We'll also have some highlights from our new state of independent bookselling study, which is being released in September. Thanks to Nadine, Alex, Stephanie and Itah for talking with me for this month's episode. You can find links to all their bookstores in the show notes. I'd also like to take a moment to acknowledge that BookNet Canada staff, board, partners and our makeshift podcast studio operate upon the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Wendat and here on indigenous peoples, the original nations of this land. We endorse the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and support an ongoing shift from gatekeeping to space-making in the book industry. And we hope that our work, including this podcast, helps to create an environment that supports that shift. We'd also like to acknowledge the Government of Canada for their financial support to the Canada Book Fund. And of course, thanks to you for listening.