Indie Bookstore Spotlight: Collected Works

The independent bookstore is a cultural and community hub – authors are introduced, works read aloud to an audience and ideas are shared.

Each month, we will be featuring an independent bookstore from across Canada, proving what a special role these shops play in fostering authors,  community and a love of reading.

This is a photo of Collected Works before the renovation. Take a look at some of the photos of our demolition/renovation from last year.

Collected Works serves up two addictions that go together like a horse and carriage – books and coffee – and both are served with warmth by their knowledgeable and personable staff. Nestled among the shops and pubs on Wellington Street at Holland, in a vibrant community to the West of downtown Ottawa, Collected Works is one of the hubs of the neighborhood. And while it specializes in literary fiction, poetry and children’s books, Collected Works welcomes all book lovers with open arms. The store is also a venue for exhibitions by local artists, readings by writers, book club discussions, and workshops for aspiring writers. Check out their schedule of events here.

1. Tell us a little bit about the history of Collected Works.

Christopher Smith and Craig Poile opened Collected Works Bookstore May 5, 1997, just as Chapters was rolling out its first wave of superstores in the Ottawa area. Everyone thought it insane to be opening a new indie at the same time as some of the city’s best-known booksellers were closing shop in the face of the fierce competition. It didn’t seem rational to be opening a 1,200-square-foot store that didn’t discount. But we put our faith in the basics of quality bookselling: knowledgeable staff who are passionate about reading, carefully selected stock, and above all great (read: warm, personal) customer service. We figured a store where the customer is treated as an individual is more of a draw than any giant barn of discounted books. Our belief appears to have been well-founded. Fifteen years later, not only are we still here, we’ve also expanded, doubling our floor size. And we’ve become Ottawa’s leading independent bookstore, twice nominated for Bookseller of the Year by the Canadian Booksellers Association, and this year voted Best Bookstore—of any kind—by the readers of Ottawa Xpress, the city’s alternative weekly newspaper.

2. What made you want to open a bookstore? 

Christopher had been working as a bookseller for over 10 years for two different family-owned stores, where he rose through the ranks. When one of the stores went out of business, he and Craig had the opportunity to buy it. They didn’t have the funds to make it work, but it got them thinking that owning their own store was the best route to take. Christopher took business courses and a job managing a coffee shop after he figured out that he wanted a coffee bar to be part of the store. Together Craig and Christopher saved their money and scouted locations. It took two years, but on the advice of a friend they found both the perfect neighbourhood and location.

3. What do you like best about your job?

The people – the customers, the staff, the sales reps, fellow booksellers, the authors. Second-best is receiving. Every time you get to open those boxes, it’s like Christmas.

4. What does the book-buying public understand least about independent bookstores?

They think we sit around reading all day. It’s one of the ironies of bookselling that there is so much to do in a day that the last thing you have time for is to read, and when you do find the time, you are so tired you fall asleep. This actually makes you really picky about what you read. We try not to read not what everyone else is reading. Those books will sell themselves. We look for things that a bit off the beaten track – the ones you that need a good bookseller to hand-sell.

5. What’s the hardest part about being a bookstore owner in 2012?

Trying to stay focused on the basics: service and selection. With all the hype around ebooks, online retailers, discounters, superstores, and the like, it’s hard not to think like Chicken Little. Because consumers can now get whatever they want, wherever they want, it is more important than ever to focus on what makes us unique: really great personal service and superior selection.

6. What types of books does your store specialize in?

We are a general trade store that stocks what we consider the best in Canadian, American, and British books. We have strong fiction, children’s, and poetry sections, and try to emphasize things Canadian and small presses.

7. What are some of your favorite titles? Kids titles? Titles coming out this spring?

Our bestsellers are big on local heroes—authors that range from international bestsellers like Francis Itani and Elizabeth Hay to those that have made a name for themselves through small presses and self-published titles. The staff have a diverse set of literary idols and preoccupations: Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth George, J. M. Coetzee, anything with zombies!…too many to name, but all darn fine reads.

8. What are you reading right now?

Readme by Neal Stephenson.

9. What’s your most current best seller?

Requiem by Frances Itani

10. What have been some of your favorite (or most memorable) author events?

David Sedaris tops that list. We crammed over 120 people into our store and had another 200-plus in a marque tent in our back parking lot. He arrived at 5 in the afternoon and stayed until after midnight. He’s not only a great writer but a lovely man. He sent a thank you card a couple of weeks after the event addressed to each of the individual staff who worked the event.

11. Any strange, wild or crazy-but-true stories?

There are lots, but the best is the day someone came in and asked if they could by a rock off the street they found on the sidewalk in front of the store. We told the rock was free of charge but they insisted they needed to pay for it so we obliged.

12. What book are you, or will you, hand-sell with a vengeance?

Again, it’s our local authors that we tend to talk up, whether it’s a self-published title like The Baker’s Daughter (the memoirs of Ottawa icon Grete Hale), a play about the inhabitants of a neighbourhood just down the street from the store (Don Laflamme’s The Mechanicsville Monologues), or the new international bestseller by Francis Itani (Requiem).

And from our  booksellers, other titles include:

For Kids: Busytown Mysteries: The Missing Apple Mystery
Richard Scarry’s characters solve mysteries in Busytown! So much to love.

For Middle School: The Always War by Margaret Peterson Haddix
In the future, war is still an ugly, messy, costly business. As always, Haddix delivers a fast-paced page-turner that is as thought provoking as it is satisfying.

For Teens: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry
As one reviewer said, this is George Romero crossed with Catcher in the Rye. How could I resist? Well written and moving.

During the Holidays: Hanukkah Hop!
A refreshingly different Hanukkah book sure to please.

13. Is there anything else you would like to tell our blog readers?

I think I’ve said enough.