Shelf Life Books focuses on literature, not kitsch

By Riley Hill

Calgary’s newest downtown bookstore has managed to thrive without selling bath salts, Harlequin romance, or Kobos. They stuck with the novel idea of selling great books.

Sitting beside Central Memorial Park, Shelf Life Books is an independent bookstore that puts literature first. The store is quiet, the staff is knowledgeable and the books are chosen for their quality.

Former University of Calgary English professor JoAnn McCaig hand-picked the first 4,000 titles when she opened the store in 2009.

McCaig, whose specialty lies in Canadian literature, taught at the U of C from 1989–2009. She was never tenured, and after 20 years of teaching, she decided to try something new. That something new was Shelf Life Books.

McCaig and avid reader Will Lawrence took on the daunting task of opening an independent bookstore in the age of Amazon — a time when a Kurt Vonnegut title can be delivered to your door for the price of a sandwich — one year after bookstore giant McNally Robinson closed its Calgary location on Stephen Ave.

“I thought the idea was feasible, but I don’t have an MBA or anything,” Lawrence says. “It turned out you really have to sell a lot of books.”

Three-hundred-and-fifty books a week, Lawrence estimates. And that’s just to break even.

But business has been strong thanks to the loyalty of local readers, says McCaig.

“One of the delights of this business is that people have kind of made a conscious decision to support this bookstore and to tell other people about it,” says McCaig. “We have a lot of repeat offenders.”

The store carries a wide selection of local and Canadian authors. Shelf Life also hosts a number of events every month, including book and magazine launches, a comedy night, poetry readings and, during the last provincial election, a political panel.

“Somebody asked me to describe in one word what we are trying to achieve here,” McCaig says. “The word I came up with was community. This is a place for people to gather and exchange ideas.”

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