In April 2017, Liz Burns and I opened our bookstore, Queen Books, in Toronto. We’d met three years earlier working at another independent store, where we became fast friends and almost immediately made plans to open our own bookstore. Having both recently moved to the East End neighborhood of Leslieville, we thought it would be an ideal place to open our future store: an up-and-coming neighborhood with a varied income level and a diverse mix of young families, creatives, and longtime residents.
It felt slightly audacious to be opening a new bookstore when for years the outlook had been so dire, but Liz and I were confident that our approach to bookselling would serve us well. We envisioned QB to be a welcoming, happy space for all readers. It was to be a snobbery-free zone where all our customers, regardless of their reading tastes, could feel enthused by their choices. Simply, we wanted to connect people with books they’d love. We aimed to hire staff members who would share those values (and those we did bring on have exceeded our hopes) to create a refuge from the world.
We wanted to balance that approach with a highly curated selection of titles. We’d stock all of our favorite books, naturally, but we also used social media to ask customers for recommendations of what they wanted us to stock. This proved to be an invaluable resource, and we had hundreds of responses. These helped guide us in the right direction when it came to planning sections and the allotment of space—and helped build community before we were even open.
We’ve now been open for more than a year, and we’ve learned so much. We learned that our customers have an insatiable desire for all things Canada, the more local the better. There is a huge hunger for books by and about Canadians, whether that takes the form of the setting, the author’s residence, or the publisher. It’s not even just the major authors: no book is too niche, no publisher too small. One of our bestselling titles is Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom, a phantasmagoric fairy tale about a flinty young trans woman’s coming-of-age, published by the small Montreal-based Metonymy Press.
Something we have been very pleasantly surprised by is the enthusiasm for poetry and short stories, sections dear to our hearts, both of which we had to expand. This is helped in no small way by our staff-picks section, one of our most popular areas. There was some trial and error: we had to do away with plays—having sold just four in the first six months.
And we’re thrilled that diversity has been welcomed and celebrated by our customers. One of our original mandates was to be an inclusive space and ensure that everyone who comes into our shop feels represented on our shelves.
The most interesting thing that we’ve learned is that the large corporate megastores are not competition. Indie bookstores offer a completely different experience, a handpicked selection of vetted titles, enthusiastic and highly skilled staff, and a space deeply in tune with the unique needs of its community.
Above all, we have found that through our willingness to genuinely engage with our community and the greater Canadian literary scene we have been welcomed and supported. We hope that Queen Books will continue to be a little bit of happiness in people’s lives for years to come.
Alex Snider is the co-owner of Queen Books in Toronto.