Walking into this bookstore is a different experience than walking into pretty much any other bookstore for one very good reason: it isn’t any other bookstore. It isn’t just another of a large chain of stores striving to make every shopping experience absolutely identical. This bookstore has an identity.
I’m talking specifically about Shelf Life Books in Calgary, but I’m sure a lot of this applies to whatever independent bookstores exist in your community.
To understand what Shelf Life Books is, let’s first see what it’s not. When I walk into a big chain bookstore like, oh say, Chapters, I usually need to know what I’m looking for specifically. It’s not really set up for browsing, confronting me instead with shelves packed with dozens of copies of the current best sellers. It feels more like going to a grocery store than a bookstore, and I tend to treat it the same way. I go to a specific aisle for a specific item. I can be assured to find the latest from any of the major publishers, but the chances of discovering something new and relatively unheard of is unlikely.
Here, I have to browse. Even if the store is laid out into genres—I can’t imagine a book store that isn’t—the displays and the books themselves compel me to slow down, walk around, and really look at what’s there. For the first time in my life I’m deliberately looking beyond the fantasy section for something different. I’m looking—shock and horror—at non-fiction, finding books about things that interest me and things I didn’t even know interested me. Picking up The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Bable by Nicholas Ostler was hardly a surprise seeing as how I love language, but Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber was something I never expected to get into but did. Today it was the ninetieth issue of The Believer and Light Em Up, a book of microfictions that fits in a matchbook. Some of these things I wouldn’t be able to find at a Chapters, and the rest I wouldn’t even think to look for.
Shelf Life Books encourages me to linger a while. I can sit at a table and write, just as I am now, which is something I haven’t been able to do easily at a Chapters (I’ve tried. The tables at the mandatory Starbucks are tiny and noisy.) The atmosphere here is an escape and not just another mad-dash stop at the mall on the way to the movie theatre.
Another thing that bears mentioning is that a local, independent bookstore is, well, local. There’s a section for local authors—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—and works from local artists on display. The red chair on the wall behind me is by a local painter by the name of Veronica Funk, who also has paintings on display at Café Koi on 1st Street.
I never know exactly what I’m going to get when I walk into Shelf Life Books, and that’s the beauty of it. What I do know is that I’ll find something new and interesting to discover, and is there any better reason to love a bookstore than that?