Thursday, May 08, 2014

Interviews with Indie Booksellers: Matthew Howse from Broken Books

A Basement in Newfoundland Dreamt Up in Heaven
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you end up stumbling into the sacred vocation that is bookselling?

I started hanging around in bookshops about ten years ago when I was doing my undergrad. I always felt like they were great places to spend time in, and figured they'd be even better places to spend time in while being paid to do so. A space became available and we were able to jump on it. Six weeks later we were open.

Broken Books has been open for a couple weeks now, which if I'm not mistaken makes it the only remaining independent/community bookstore in St. John's. How is it going so far? What has the public reaction been like? 

We're the only independent bookstore that sells new books only.  There's a fine second-hand shop called Afterwords just a few blocks up from us, and they shelve some new local titles, as well.  Things have been great so far.  Lots of people have come in through the doors and thanked us simply for being open.  A place like this was sadly missed in the downtown

Broken Books is also part of the Fixed Coffee and Baking complex, which accords you and your customers the heavenly marriage of books and coffee. Is there any overlap between the owners and staff of the two businesses?

It's something of a partnership, for sure.  My brother Jon and our buddy Greg are the co-owners of Fixed.  Broken Books is literally in their basement.  The guys are handling the coffee and baked goods, and I curate the books.  Everyone who works at the bookshop also does a few shifts a week at Fixed. 

A taste of the budding selection
Increasingly, indie booksellers have been incorporating vinyl, stationary, and food as ways to diversify and attract different kinds of customers. Do you think such hybrid stores are the future of indie bookselling?

I'd stop short of saying you need a hybrid-type set-up to make a go of selling books, but it certainly helps to keep things fresh.  I'm sure bookselling is quite viable on its own in St. John's, but having the coffee and baked goods helps us create the atmosphere and vibe we want to work in.

Do you guys have a specialty? What's your guiding philosophy when it comes to curating your selection?

The one thing we always consider is how a book looks and feels.  We want to shelve volumes that are not only pieces of literary art, but pieces of visual art, as well.  Apart from that, we're very well-stocked in CanLit, and we want to have the best poetry and cook-book sections in the province.

There are so many redundant doomsday-heavy articles on the  state of bookselling in major media these days. Can you tell us a story about something inspiring or redemptive that has happened in your store?

The first few days were a constant parade of students, avid readers, writers, and other well-wishers who were just so happy to see an independent bookstore in town again.  There was (and still is) a lot of positive energy flowing through the place. 

What is the weirdest thing a person has said/done in your bookstore?

Our second day open a little girl came in with her mom, and they picked one copy of every children's book we had off the shelf and sat down and read them aloud.  It took about 2 hours.  When they were done the mom asked "Which one do you like best?"  The girl said "All of them, Mommy!"  So they came up to the till and bought that whole stack of children's books.  It was awesome. 

Do you guys have any go-to books that you like to hand-sell to customers? Are there any new/forthcoming titles that you're particularly excited about? Any under the radar titles we should know about?

Looking back on the last few weeks, there are a few things that have sold amazingly well.  We're currently stocking less than 300 titles, and we've sold at least a couple copies of most of them, but we've already moved through a dozen of some titles.  We've sold a lot of Joseph Boyden's work, and a ton of stuff by Joel Thomas Hynes (his Manifesto is a profanity-laced must-read introduction to St. John's).  Our poetry moves well, too.  Sue Goyette's Ocean sold out quickly, as did Randall Maggs's Night Work:  The Sawchuk Poems.  Breakwater Books, based here in St. John's, is set to release a new anthology of the work of the late Al Pittman this summer.  That's going to be great.

Cookbooks Galore
What's your favourite Biblioasis book and why? 

Tough question.  There a lot of great titles to choose from.  Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting is a captivating read from cover to cover.  The stories really stick with you once you're done.  I'm also a big fan of David Helwig's translation of some Chekhov stories, About Love.  The stories themselves are beautiful, and the thing is designed and illustrated by Seth, one of my favourite cartoonists.  The thing is a treat to read, hold, and look at, and it's a steal at $14.95.  It's been a great seller at Broken Books. 

What are your plans for the future? Hopes? Fears? Ambitions? 

I never like to think too far ahead, but we're on a three-year-ish plan for the bookshop.  I'll take time to re-evaluate things then.  For now, I just want to focus on running a dynamic spot that hosts readings, book launches, and acoustic shows.  The kind of place where you might not be familiar with everything on the shelf, but you can trust that it's all worthwhile. 

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