A Literary Tour of Independent Bookstores

By Jennifer McCartney January 12, 2016

The history of Northeastern Ontario is rich with industry, environmental activism, First Nations culture, as well as tales of outdoor adventure and survival. To fully understand and engage with all that the region has to offer, a visit to a local independent bookstore is a must. In addition to the many university and college bookstores, as well as chain stores like Coles, book lovers can look forward to shopping at some unique, locally-owned spots that you won’t find anywhere else in Canada. “In the north, these idiosyncratic outposts of culture play a specially important role,” explains Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus. “They are the place to go to learn about local histories, authors and poets.” We’ve created a round up of some local bookstores and chatted with the owners and employees to help you plan your visit.

Allison The Bookman

342 Main St E., North Bay

Allison The Bookman is a family-run bookstore that’s been in business in North Bay for an impressive 42 years. Their distinctive yellow sign is something of a local landmark, and once inside the 3000-square foot shop, visitors can easily browse for hours. Founded by Gord and Esther Allison in 1973, the store is now run by their granddaughter, Annette. Gord’s vision for the store was a family friendly one that offered “old fashioned” customer service.

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Photo: Allison the Bookman

While the store has undergone some modernization with a new labelling and point of sale system, it maintains the old-fashioned charm of a true used bookstore—crammed to the rafters with unusual, rare, and collectible finds. For local titles, there are numerous books about Ontario’s famous Dionne Quintuplets born in 1934—the world’s first to have survived infancy. The quints surpassed Niagara Falls as Canada’s largest tourist attraction, though at great cost to their own wellbeing, and there are a number of books about them including one by Pierre Berton. For fiction lovers Annette recommends checking out Giles Blunt’s Algonquin Bay series.

“My team is great with recommending new reads to customers and often we see people come in for one and leave with many!” she notes.

Visitors will also find a lot of local history showcased throughout the space. Work by local photographer Duane Holmes adorns the walls, alongside the history of the bookstore, as well as old postcards of North Bay. The shop’s guestbook reveals visitors from all over the world, as well as those closer to home. “We have our awesome regulars who help keep the legacy going…many that come in and talk about both my grandpa and grandma and also my dad,” Annette says.

White Mountain Publications

50 Silver Street, Cobalt

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White Mountain Publications may be the only bookstore in the world that’s part of an old silver mine. From 1904 to 1924, more than 32.5 million ounces of silver were extracted through this building, located in the Cobalt Mining District, a National Historic Site. Since then the structure has been repurposed as a grocery store (the shaft served as the refrigerator), a wig store, the Firefighter’s Museum, and a mining developer’s office. It was even the birthplace of local literary magazine Highgraders. So it’s fitting that the space is now occupied by a bookstore that’s largely dedicated to preserving the history and stories of Northern Ontario.

What makes WMP unique, apart from the unusual location, is that it began as a publishing house. Since 1992 the company has published more than 270 titles and sold them through its home office by direct mail and then later over the internet. Since July 2014, it’s been open to the public at its new location with thousands of pre-owned titles available as well as new books from its own imprint. They also carry select titles from the now defunct local landmark, the Highway Book Shop.

For visitors looking to get a flavor of the North, owner Deborah Ranchuk recommends starting with Slices of Temiskaming by Laura Landers; Cobalt: The Cradle of Hard Rock Mining in Canada by Doug Baldwin; or The Temiskaming Treasure Trail series by Peter Fancy. The recently published They Stepped Into Immortality: The Stories Behind the World War I Veterans Listed On The New Liskeard Cenotaph by André R. Maheu is also a popular title. For aspiring writers, WMP also publishes the annual Canadian Writer’s Contest Calendar. Once you’ve bought a book or two, there’s a park across the street where you can relax and enjoy your purchase. Or you can wander over to The Bunker Military Museum, Laura’s Art Shoppe, The Classic Theatre, or the Cobalt Mining Museum.

For visitors hoping to get a peek at the bookstore’s 350 foot mine shaft however, be advised it was recently filled in. “It is definitely warmer now that all the cold air is not blowing up from underground,” Ranchuk says. “And no one can fall down the shaft by accident.”

Chat Noir Books

57 Whitewood Ave, New Liskeard

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Chat Noir Books is an eclectic bookstore, gameshop, and coffee bar in New Liskeard owned by Jennifer Fournier and her husband Paul McLaren. After leaving Southern Ontario in 2003, the duo realized that finding work in their respective fields (graphic designer and theatre tech, respectively) might be tough. After doing some research they decided that their new city could use a good, independent bookstore. “We wanted to create a funky, community minded meeting place,” says McLaren of their goal. Twelve years later, Chat Noir Books enjoys an established clientele that’s a mix of loyal local supporters as well as summer cottagers and campers.

And indeed, in this multipurpose shop you can do more than just buy books. Visitors can grab a latte at their coffee bar, try out board games with their in-house demo library, or even take the game home via their rental program. They also host book signings, live music, and game nights. “We do a little of everything,” the couple admits. Bookworms will find a large selection of current bestsellers and classics in every genre, including many Ontario authors. For a literary tour of the region, McLaren and Fournier recommend a wide range of titles including We Lived a Life and Then Some by Charlie Angus and Britt Griffin; Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden; The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson; Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese; and The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg. The climate-change WesternThe Wintermen by local author Britt Griffin also selling well ahead of the holidays.

Once you’ve stocked up at the store, miles of waterfront await anyone looking for a spot to settle down and enjoy their purchase.

Dark Horse Comics

596 Fraser St., North Bay

This 30-year old business has outlasted four other indie comic bookstores in the area. Run by owner Randy Reid since 1988, Dark Horse Comics is a popular stop for university and college students, as well as loyal residents (some who buy books via mail order even after they’ve moved away). “We’re a small shop that is stuffed full of comics and graphic novels with a very loyal group of regulars,” explains employee Charles Pedskalny. “Our customer loyalty is quite strong and one of the real strengths of the store.” In fact, Charles is a testament to this.

As many of the comics they carry are published monthly, their model is largely subscription based. Once a customer subscribes to a series, the store sets it aside in their personal box to pick up at their leisure. A long-time customer since the eighties, Charles went overseas for a year and Randy set aside his books every month, which Charles collected on his return. “Frankly, to hold stock like that with no real guarantee of payment is pretty amazing,” Charles notes. “That said I owed him about a grand when I returned…but I paid it off.” This personal touch is something customers appreciate. “You’ve got an emergency, no problem, we’ll hold your stuff for you,” he says.

Dark Horse Comics focuses primarily on comics but they also carry science fiction and fantasy titles and recently expanded their selection of graphic novels. Visitors looking for big-name books can be sure to find them here. Popular titles at the moment include Dark Knight III: The Master Race, the third volume in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series, as well as the Walking Dead series, and the Saga series. “Comics right now are more diverse than they’ve been since probably the 1950s with different genres and media tie ins like Adventure Time, Avatar the Last Airbender, and Rick and Morty,” says Charles. While the industry is still dominated by superheroes, he assures potential visitors there’s something for everyone. “There’s always an endless slew of comics coming out.”

With purchases in hand, visitors can stroll over to the Opera Bakery Cafe to enjoy them—a bakery about a block away.

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