2018-05-30

Far from Amazon, LaHave River Books floats on traditional charm

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTOS</p><p>LaHave River Books co-owners Andra White (left) and Gael Watson. Watson also owns the LaHave Bakery, which operates in the same building on Highway 331.</p>
  • <p>LaHave River Books offers readers a selection of free, gently used and new books.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Previously a boat builder&#8217;s shop, LaHave River Books was renovated with the help of local carpenter Rob Muise. The building it is housed in dates back to 1896.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>The inventory at LaHave River Books has grown organically with favourites from the owners as well as recommendations from customers and the publishing industry.</p>
  • <p>A long way from the digital highway, LaHave River Books promises a homey, community atmosphere for book lovers.</p>

In an era of E-readers and online book sales, it's hard to imagine that LaHave River Books could be any further downstream in the reading experience.

Amid the worn timbers of a renovated 1896 river-side building that once housed a ship outfitter and a fish plant, the 70 -square-metre bookstore is an antiquated harbour of homeyness that embraces book lovers from near and far.

Readers are offered a choice between new, gently used and even free books.

And they can enjoy them while lounging in comfy chairs or having tea at a long table that dates back to the 1700s and was part of the original library at Trinity College. Or while sitting on the nearby dock on the river.

But don't even think about flipping open a laptop or clicking on your iPad.

"I really discourage computers and phones," says Gael Watson, who, along with Andra White, co-owns the bookstore, which is tucked in behind the quaint LaHave Bakery on Highway 331 that Watson also co-owns.

"Occasionally I have said, please take your device outside. It's one of the things you can do if you own the building," she told LighthouseNOW, insisting modern technology isn't what the bookstore is all about.

"It's about personal communication, speaking, writing, just hands on.

"And [a computer is] okay almost everywhere now, but it's not okay here."

That Watson should take such a stand likely comes as little surprise to those who know her.

When she and her husband and another couple bought the building in 1984, she had been living as a "back-to-lander.

"I lived, we still do, in the woods, without electricity," she explains.

Their property in Crousetown was home to farm animals and a big garden.

She credits the building itself as the inspiration for the bakery, and insists it's what first attracted customers to the place.

"It was pretty much a ruin," when they bought the place.

"The roof was gone, the windows were broken, the end of it was collapsed into the river. It was in really, really rough shape.

"But it was this wonderful, huge looming ... but still breathing building. We were all intrigued by it," says Watson.

However, she and White wouldn't establish the bookstore until 32 years later, after the resident who rented the back space, a boat builder, had closed his business.

"He moved on so we had this beautiful space overlooking the water. And, you know, a bookstore. It's a dream. It really is," says Watson.

White, who had been the bakery's bookkeeper for about 18 years by then, was excited at the thought of a bookstore there.

"It was such a loss when Sagor's was gone," she said referring to the quaint bookstore formerly on Bridgewater's King Street.

Watson agrees. "There were many, many people that missed Sagor's."

They admit they weren't even thinking about a business plan at the time.

"I don't think we're looking to make money," suggests Watson laughing. "We love to read. We love the feel of it. Just the whole idea of communicating through writing."

They hired a local carpenter, Rob Muise, to revamp the space and build shelving.

Watson says she isn't sure how much he renovation cost.

"I don't really count when I want something. It was affordable ...You know how it is. It's either possible or it's not."

The fact the two business partners had no experience in ordering an inventory of books didn't dissuade them either.

However, White recalled going to an Atlantic Independent Book Sellers Association meeting and being told that setting up a bookstore from scratch "'was quite an endeavor.'

"Because most people there had purchased existing bookstores that had stock."

"It was big, but it didn't feel it at the time. We were just having fun. We were just having a lot of fun," says the bookkeeper.

Gradually, using a book manager computer program, and going by their own tastes and on recommendations from others, they began to fill their shelves, and LaHave River Books opened in July, 2016.

Nearly two years on, they happily report the bookstore is sustaining itself.

However, the bookstore is arguably less a retail business than, as White put it, "a retirement project."

"Whatever income comes in buys more books," says Watson.

With 60-day terms from suppliers, they've managed to pay for the books based entirely on sales.

"That was sort of unexpected," admits Watson.

And never mind that some of the customers walk away with free books.

Watson is no stranger to offering free books, having a small selection of them available in the bakery during winter time, and she was inclined to offer the same service in the book store.

"Initially it sort of didn't make sense to do that, to have a book store and give books away. But it has turned out to be a good thing," she reports.

"Often, when people come in, they'll just get a free book or a gently used book. But often they'll do that, but they'll also get a new book. So in that way it's been good for business."

They disagree their approach is similar to a loss-leader in a grocery store.

"Our thinking wasn't really that. It was just to provide books, you know, if people can't afford a book. Just come in and get a book. And it's been wonderful," says White.

Moreover, unlike most bookstores, there are no employees drawing a salary.

Those working in the store do so voluntarily. However, the owners have managed to attract an array of literary workers that give credence to their operation.

When LighthouseNOW was at the store, Sylvia Gunnery was helping sort books and serve customers.

Gunnery studied under W.O. Mitchell and Alice Munro at the Banff School of Fine Arts, is a past president of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, and has published more than 20 books for teens and young readers, including her newest novel Road Signs That Say West, by Pajama Press.

According to Gunnery, LaHave River Books has three types of customers.

"There are the book lovers, the book people. They come regularly. They are faithful. And they'll order books and they'll browse and buy," she says.

The book lovers are not to be confused with another type of regular customer whom Gunnery calls "the readers."

They'll go to the free books first, "and might get a couple, and then go here and there."

For the third type, many of who are just passing through LaHave, it's as much about the space as anything.

"They will often sit and just enjoy the place, and then begin to browse.

"It's like they're surprised it's a bookstore," says Gunnery.

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