Canadian book sales may be on the rise again, as BookNet Canada reported earlier this year, but independent booksellers are still feeling the pinch. The recent death of the Banff Book & Art Den —the only indie bookseller in the mountain resort town — proves that not even in oil-rich Alberta are retailers immune from the lethal impact of the economic downturn.
Besides being a local bookselling institution, the family-owned Book & Art Den was an important community gathering place and —for more than 40 years — an important independent publisher. Founded in 1965 by Peter and Barbara Steiner, the store made its mark as a literary mecca during the early 1970s when the poet Jon Whyte took over as manager. He claimed —with some justification —that the Book & Art Den was one of the three best bookstores west of Toronto.
Whyte was gently adept at offering unsolicited advice; steering customers away from escapist literature toward more serious work. He didn’t think it at all unusual that the Book & Art Den sold more Dostoevsky and Jorge Luis Borges than Raymond Chandler or Erle Stanley Gardner. “There’s no condescension here because this is a resort area,” Whyte said. “Our main customers are not the tourists who go shopping for shirts on Banff Avenue. They’re the students who attend the Banff School of Fine Arts or work at the Banff Springs Hotel.”
Whyte and Peter Steiner established the publishing arm of the bookstore, Summerthought Press, in 1970 when two of the Book & Art Den employees, writers Brian Patton and Bart Robinson, went looking for someone to publish their hiking guide to the mountain parks. The resulting book, The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, became a runaway bestseller. Whyte edited and designed the book. Thirty-five years later, it was into its seventh edition, with more than 230,000 copies sold. As well as putting out a series of popular mountain guides and histories, Summerthought also published collections of poetry by Whyte. “Poetry is concerned with the quality of life,” he said. “If we’re ever going to get the tribal history of this country done, it’s going to be by the poets.”
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Aside from the poetry, his own contribution to the “tribal history” included non-fiction books about the Natives of the Rockies, the wildlife painter Carl Rungius, Lake Louise, and Lake O’Hara. In 2006, Summerthought parted company, amicably, with the Book & Art Den. It was sold to a Banff-based travel writer, Andrew Hempstead, and his wife, Dianne. Two years later, in June 2008, the store itself was put up for sale. But after six months of trying, the owners couldn’t find any takers. “It’s very difficult to be an independent bookstore,” said Neil Wedin, who had taken over the running of the store with his wife, Gabi, the daughter of founders Peter and Barbara Steiner.
The Book & Art Den shut its doors at the end of February. “We’re certainly sad. We wish we could have found a buyer,” said Neil Wedin. “An independent bookstore is such an integral part of a city or town.” The last straw for Wedin was a decision by town council—in the face of a 500-signature protest petition he launched—to let a well-known chain store, IndigoSpirit, move in down the street. “That really hurt us,” said Wedin. “It will be very difficult, but now we have to move on.” The closure of the Book & Art Den follows the shuttering in the past year of such other independent Canadian bookselling institutions as The Book Room in Halifax and Laurie Greenwood’s Volume II in Edmonton.
Copyright 2009 Brian Brennan - Writer