Profile on Collected Works, Bookstore and Coffeebar, with a few questions
Given that most independent booksellers in Canada are struggling, or even closing, it would seem as though Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, nestled in the Parkdale neighbourhood, slightly west of Ottawa’s downtown core, has done the impossible, not only thriving, but doubling the size of their store over the past two years. One of a handful of the city’s independent booksellers, along with Old Ottawa South’s mother tongue books, Centretown’s After Stonewall Books and The Glebe’s Octopus Books, Collected Works opened to the public on May 5, 1997 on Wellington Street West, stimulated by the lack of other bookstores in the immediate area, as well as growth in Hintonberg and Westboro neighbourhoods. Heavily involved in their local community, the store features author readings and a large selection of children’s books, and it hosts book clubs and a series of writing workshops facilitated by a number of Ottawa writers over the years, including Michelle Desberats, Richard Taylor, Stephanie Bolster, rob mclennan and the late Diana Brebner.
In May 2011, the website Apartment613 featured Collected Works in their list of “Best independent, non-used bookstores in town” and described them as
Brilliantly combining two staples in every reader, writer, and student’s life — words and caffeine — West Wellington Village’s Collected Works is both bookstore and coffee shop. It serves tasty lattes and delicious reading material in the same cheery, comfortable location. Its stock emphasizes fiction and creative writing (novels, poetry, children’s books) which you can browse and purchase both in-store and online. And it also recently doubled in space. But perhaps its most appealing aspect is the impressive variety of community events it offers: from art shows to author appearances to open mics to book club meetings, Collected Works hosts around a dozen different events a month.
On January 4, 2012, the Simon & Schuster Canada website published a feature on the bookstore and wrote that
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.
In November, 2011, the store launched a two-month “Turn a Page” gift-card program to help fund their in-store renovations, allowing their local community to assist them in construction, and in return, customers who purchased gift-cards in denominations of $100, $250, $500, $750 or $1,000 received an additional 10 to 50 percent of the card’s value to use on bookstore purchases. One of the store’s owners, Christopher Smith, described their renovations to the Quill & Quire for a November 28, 2011 article. The renovations include “new shelving, lighting, flooring, a kids’ area, an updated facade, and an expanded coffee bar.”
Collected Works is owned and operated by Smith and his partner, award-winning poet Craig Poile, Smith was good enough to take time out of their ongoing renovations to answer a couple of questions.
Q: How did the bookstore first get started, and what were the challenges? Arguably, given the state of bookstores over the past 20 years, why did you decide to open a store at all?
A: The idea for the store started in the mid-90s. I had been working for two different family owned bookstores and in both cases had risen as high as I could go without actually owning the store. The opportunity did arise to buy one of the stores, but it became clear that neither Craig nor I had the financial resources to make that happen. It was then that we decided to start saving and planning in order make our own store a reality. Craig and I spent two years saving, planning and looking for the right location. Everything came together in early 1997, and in May of that year we opened our doors. We did this just as Chapters was rolling out its new stores in the Ottawa area and several long-standing indies were closing their doors. This turned out to be a good thing for us. We garnered a lot of media attention at the time for bucking the trend and those indies closing down graciously helped us by referring their best customers to us to ensure they were looked after properly. Why? Because an independent, locally owned book store can do several things a corporate behemoth cannot:
- We keep dollars in our local economy.
- $68 every $100 you spend at our business stays in the community. Only $43 stays when you shop at the chain.
- We embrace the unique.
- We create local jobs.
- We help the environment.
- Wherever we can, we buy from local business, conserving energy and resources in the form of less fuel for transportation and standing behind products that we know are safe and well made.
- We nurture community.
- We know you, and you know us. We donate to community causes at more than twice the rate of chains.
- We conserved tax dollars.
- Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance and more money available to beautify our community. Also, spending locally instead of online ensures that your sales taxes are reinvested where they belong — right here in your community!
- We create more choice.
- We pick the items we sell based on what we know you like and want. We carry a wider array of unique products because we buy for our own individual market.
- We have the expertise and the knowledge.
- Our customers are our friends and neighbors, and we have a vested interest in knowing you and best how to serve you. We’re passionate about what we do.
- We are entrepreneurs
- Creativity and entrepreneurship are what our economy is founded upon. Nurturing local business ensures a strong community.
- We are a destination
- We make our community more interesting and unique, attracting new neighbors, visitors and guests. This benefits everyone!
Q: What do you think you’ve learned over the years that you might not have been expecting?
A: We’ve learned just how important we are to the people in our community. This truly came home to us when our first daughter Lily was born. Every day our regulars dropped by with a gift for us or the baby. We suddenly realized that we weren’t just a store, we were a part of the neighbourhood and our community; that our customers were our friends and our neighbours. This more than anything makes a difference. When you can get book (or anything for that matter) just about anywhere what truly makes the difference the experience you have in the process. Our store is not just about retail. It’s about creating a space where our community – neighbours, friends, writers, readers — can come together.
Q: Last year you increased the size of your store. How do you think you’ve managed to thrive, when so many other bookstores have struggled? Only recently, there have been the struggles with Nicholas Hoare closing stores in Ottawa and Montreal, as well as one less Book City in Toronto.
A: By doing all things we do for our community and by being creative, we are constantly seeking to recreate our business in ways that make us relevant . That said, every day brings new challenges. The fun comes from seeking to align our core goal of matching writer to reader is such a way that we meet those challenges.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell
Photo of Collected Works Bookstore by Ashliegh Gehl