25th Trillium Award

The Bookshelf

 
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More than a Bookshelf
One of Ontario’s oldest indie bookstores has it all — and a little bit more

By Stacey Madden

Imagine a place where you can sip a delicious latte, buy your favourite author’s latest novel, take in a two o’clock matinee in a cozy theatre, enjoy a meal of seasonal cuisine while perusing a collection of local art, attend a poetry reading, chat with staff about where in town to get the best frozen yogurt, and top it all off with a cold drink on an outdoor patio where you can finally crack the spine of the novel that’s been burning a hole in your bag. Sound good? Brace yourself. Such a place exists and it’s called The Bookshelf, an independently-owned bookstore and hub of literary and cultural activity in Guelph, Ontario.

The Bookshelf, at 41 Quebec Street in downtown Guelph, was founded in the 1970s by then husband-and-wife team Barb and Doug Minett. (The couple has since amicably split, but continue to run the ‘Shelf as friends and business partners — how cool is that?!?). It has been an arts and culture staple in Guelph for over three decades and continues to thrive — a home-away-from-home for Guelph residents, local artists, and students alike. There’s literally something for everyone.

“It’s not just a bookstore, it’s a community centre,” said long-time staffer Dan. “People come in and spend hours browsing, having coffee, and then go see a movie. If they’re from out of town they ask us where to go in Guelph, what to see, and we’re happy to help them out.”

The bookstore portion of the business is quite large with lots of display room and walls full of posters and promotional cut-outs, even some hand-made crafts sitting atop the shelves like relics. There’s a big blackboard that lists the store’s bestsellers, and besides the usual sections like Fiction or History, there are a number of sections that cater to more specialized tastes like Sustainable Living, Women’s Studies, Queer Fiction and Horror, as well as a shelf for the works of writers who have appeared at the Eden Mills Writers Festival. Customers can even write their own recommendation slips for anyone to read. The handwritten tickets can be found stuck to shelves throughout the store — a cookie crumb trail of good books.

If you’re feeling peckish from all that browsing, you can walk straight into Artisanale, the attached café and bistro, for a coffee and some locally grown, seasonal and sustainable food. I recommend the battered yellow perch, with green beans, tomatoes and basil aioli. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of Off the Shelf, the Bookshelf’s very own bimonthly free newspaper, to check all the book news and reviews, various goings-on about town, and the movie listings for the cinema upstairs.

The theatre has a quaint, old-fashioned feel to it. The lobby holds a small concession stand and smells of buttery popcorn. The theatre itself is very dark — the way a theatre should be — and the old seats have been made ultra-comfortable after years and years of use. Just like a fine wine, theatre seats only get better with age.

After the show, patrons can wander to The Greenroom, an intimate lounge tucked away behind the theatre, for a drink and a snack freshly whipped up by an on-display chef. Alternatively, you can head over to E Bar above the downstairs bistro, for an author reading or to check out a rock show, depending on what’s scheduled that night. Some of the writers who’ve given readings in E Bar include such big names as Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Stuart McLean, Roddy Doyle, Salman Rushdie, John Winchester and Gwynn Dyer, among many others.

Locals love The Bookshelf and want it to succeed because it offers an eclectic and community-based alternative to the large corporate bookstore mentality. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable — and pleasantly unpretentious. In the Staff Picks section you’ll find everything from prize winners to small press collections of short stories to Dan Brown potboilers. The vibe is bookish and homey, the food is tasty and the movies are, for the most part, either based on books or quite highly acclaimed film festival-type flicks. What better way to laze away a weekend afternoon?

If you find yourself in Guelph, a visit to The Bookshelf — one of Ontario’s oldest and most unique bookstores — is an absolute must. Oh, and by the way: writer Alexander MacLeod will be reading from his Giller-nominated collection of stories Light Lifting (Biblioasis) in the E Bar on Monday November 8th, on the eve of what could be his lucky night — the Giller winner will be announced 24 hours later.

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Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. He works at Book City, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is currently at work on a novel.

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