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The printed word endures: Yellowknife's Book Cellar turns 40


Many things have changed since Judith Drinnan opened the Yellowknife Book Cellar 40 years ago, but the allure of a book in your hand remains.

"Things have changed. But overall, the printed word still seems to be important to people," Drinnan said, looking back at 40 years of running a bricks-and-mortar bookshop in downtown Yellowknife.

She has weathered many technological changes and trends and has seen northern literature come into its own over the past four decades.

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As the bookshop celebrates its 40th birthday this week, Cabin Radio asked Drinnan to take us back to the very beginning.

Books have always been an integral part of Drinnan's life – she remembers being read to by her grandfather and her mother up to age 11. "And trips to the library were always, you know, major trips, because it was always 20 books, or whatever, between the four of us."

When she arrived in Yellowknife, she was dismayed to find the town without a proper bookshop and with few offerings at the library. Before entering the book business she was a substitute teacher and, lacking the right kind of teaching credentials – from the UK and Quebec – she was finding it hard to transition to a full-time teaching role.

When she began taking the step from dream to reality for the store, she got pushback from banks who said they wouldn't lend her money as the town already had a bookstore – "more of a stationery store" – so she offered to buy that store. The owner first refused, but later gave her the green light to buy.

Armed with $8,000, loaned against a "rather dubious suburban truck," she was off to the races.

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"I had no business experience and no money, basically," Drinnan said. "So we started with $8,000, which was insanity. I should have known from that moment that it was just... this is never gonna work."

The first bookshop was in a long, thin room in the Scotia building, which was only three stories high at the time. "The only thing I could tell you is that I felt it should be comfortable," she said of her vision for the store. "Today I would describe this feeling like an old, well-worn shoe. You know you should really feel comfortable there."

More than anything, it was about the books. "It's the books that make the store, not the fittings and fixtures. It's the books and the people who are in there that make it make it work," said Drinnan.

She remembered the ensuing years being a "big struggle," but her ambition allowed her to "blindly steam on into the future" even with the difficulties that came along. Plans were revised many times and Drinnan didn't take any pay from the shop for the first 10 years.

The store quickly became what Drinnan calls a "listening post," a space where people – sometimes lonely people or those with few connections in town – would come share their stories. "I thought sometimes we were a counselling service more than a bookstore," she said.

The bookstore also became a space which would foster and sell more and more northern writing by northern authors. When she started out a lot of this work was written by southerners, some of whom had spent six months or less in the community before authoring supposedly authoritative texts on northern subjects.

The Book Cellar managed to get many visiting southern authors, eager to check out the North, into the shop in the first few years. Drinnan says these authors were important in developing local writers.

"I'm sort of a bit against navel-gazing. You need to look out into the outside world, you need to see what's going on in the outside world so that you in your community can relate to that," she said.

Then Richard Van Camp started showing up at the bookstore – just starting out on his creative writing career. Drinnan remembers his positivity and excitement.

"He always believed that you could do anything and he still does that," she said. He published Lesser Blessed, a "really big milestone" for Drinnan, and two years ago celebrated finishing 20 books in 20 years.

"He's fostering other people, and encouraging other people to go out and write – if he can do it, then so can you. And he provides lots of opportunities for other writers. It's very exciting," Drinnan said.

The Northwords writers' festival, which Drinnan and Van Camp were instrumental in getting off the ground, has now been running for 13 years.

With northern authors producing a promising amount, the Book Cellar's shelves are continually stocked with new local works. What Drinnan would like to see in the future is a publisher in the territory – something that she admits will be "incredibly complex and difficult" but possible.

NWT and Canadian Indigenous authors displayed in the front window of the Book Cellar. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

The Book Cellar would for 10 years become part of a "flying bookstore," which brought books to eight NWT communities as part of the De Beers Books in Homes program. Drinnan said 35,000 books were given away during the 10 years they worked together.

A moment during the last year of the project stands out in Drinnan's memory. "I'm standing in the lobby of the school and this little girl came up and she said, 'I brought my money. Can I buy books too?' Which I thought was, you know, just amazing, because that really proved that books have made a difference," Drinnan said.

"This little girl knew she was going to get three free ones. But she was also anxious to buy something herself." Drinnan also saw families come into her shop when they were on visits to the capital from their communities.

Creating partnerships in the community has been the only way to make things happen, Drinnan said. The NWT Literacy Council, without whom the bookstore likely wouldn't still exist she says, is prime among them. Books are also sold to school boards and colleges. And the friends of the bookstore – from her own family support, to her staff and the wider community – have kept the Book Cellar in business for this long.

Weathering the technological changes over the past 40 years, from e-readers to Amazon to big-box book stores, was about doing what she knew how to do and seeing where customers decided to put their money.

Trends came and went. Drinnan says the tablet was a good example of how people jumped at using the technology, then slowly migrated back to physical books.

One of the most interesting groups of book buyers Drinnan has been watching is NWT youth. Plugged in online, Drinnan said young people know exactly when their favourite author's new books come out then they come into the store to buy them.

For young and old alike, the allure of a book doesn't seem to have gone out of style. The Book Cellar was recently listed as one of publisher Penguin Random House's top 20 bookstores, across Canada, based on its sales. "I have this store with this really quirky population so I can pretty-well buy something of everything and it can sell," she said.

Not one to shout her success from the rooftops, Drinnan admits it might be time to celebrate the successes of the little northern bookshop that has made it this far. "Independence can work and we don't all want to be Wal Mart or Shoppers Drug Mart. We want some kind of individuality."

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