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Fond Memories of a Small Prairie Bookshop

posted on 21 Nov 2017

Fond Memories of a Small Prairie Bookshop By Beverley Brenna

(This article first appeared in the Letterpress Project publication, Bookshop Memories Revisited)

When my three sons were young, family excursions into stores were almost always overwhelming expeditions that ended in tears: sometimes theirs (“Why can’t I have that candy bar?”), and sometimes mine (“Why won’t they stop touching things and fighting!”). While public scrutiny caused me at times to doubt my capacity for motherhood, especially during moments of embarrassment such as a supermarket trip when I discovered with horror that my youngest, although safely ensconced in the shopping cart, was wearing around his neck multiple pairs of his brothers’ underpants, I was nevertheless on a journey both exciting and daunting. Thankfully, a number of havens presented themselves along this parenting trek, and for these I have been most grateful. One such haven was our local Saskatoon bookshop, Bookworm’s Den.

This bookstore was only a five-minute drive from our house, fortunately close enough that trips to and from could be made on a minimum of gasoline, an expense we were trying to limit, and without snacks or games, which could then be saved for more trying expeditions. It was a distance equal to the few nursery rhymes I knew by heart, rhymes that could be belted out so that the youngest of our group would fill in the ending lines, thereby distracting him from poking the brother seated close by. The store’s proximity was even such that children’s shoes, left accidentally on the roof of the car, would usually be there still when the vehicle reached its destination.

Under the haze of newly minted motherhood, I commonly demonstrated many of the faults Orwell complains about in his essay Bookshop Memories (Orwell, 1936). I nostalgically looked for the books of my own childhood; I recalled book jacket patterns in hopes that the bookseller might connect me to a title or author; I probably did smell of old breadcrusts—or bread pudding, an economical family dessert of the day—and I occasionally forgot my wallet and needed to leave books on hold for later payment. Sometimes I even forgot my credit card in the store, oblivious until the ensuing phone call. Orwell’s term of choice “vague-minded” most certainly applied. However I guarantee that the generous booksellers at my chosen establishment did not consider me a pest—or if they did, they were far too kind to let on.

What I discovered when inside the establishment was a sunny and inviting refuge, where particular corners enticed older children into building and craft activities, and where the owners themselves—Wayne and Carry Dueck— were at my service in terms of babyminding and literary consultation. As soon as I entered the store, Wayne would dart over to promenade the baby while I browsed or asked Carry questions about titles and authors. The Dueck’s knowledge and dedication to current children’s literature and children was meritorious, and these qualities were combined with one other essential skill in terms of their ability to broaden our reading repertoire—including the wisdom to recommend titles on the basis of knowing the person for whom these titles were intended. In addition to a supportive environment in which to locate superb children’s literature of all genres and forms, I enjoyed my conversations with the Duecks, parent to parent. In return for sharing with them my sons’ interests and achievements, I learned about their adult boys, and could envision my own troop growing up.

 It seemed as if one day my eldest loved Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar best of all, and the next day he was desperate for Lloyd Alexander’s high fantasy, but I know there were many, many good titles in between. The Dueck household had also undergone similar rapidseeming change, and both expressed time-travel experiences, encouraging me to savour the moments of childhood because, truly, it would not last. It was in The Bookworm’s Den where I discovered the tremendous diversity in counting and alphabet books and the range of Mother Goose from Charles Perrault’s artistry onward. I perused new material by international as well as Canadian and Saskatchewan authors and noted prairie themes embedded in both narrative and illustration. And I observed other patrons, some of them young teens, and craftily noted preferences in series books and stories that combined high seriousness and humour for when my own children might someday travel those heights. Even though on many days we simply browsed without tangible purchase, my children and I learned much at the capable hands of the Duecks.

I found my interest greatly ignited in children’s literature as an art form and encountered many more authors, especially prairie counterparts, than I would have discovered on my own, important experiences that helped inspire and develop my own writing career. My children enjoyed the stimulation of the shop, the books purchased immediately or inscribed on wish lists, and, just as valuable, the children enjoyed conversations initiated by this wonderful pair of shopkeepers who treated them like the respected customers they rose to become. There was no fighting in this shop, and as for touching things—the books and related toys were meant to be touched, as long as the children treated them carefully, which they quickly learned to do. The Bookworm’s Den was a kind of childcentred training ground for behaviour in all public places; in baby-steps my offspring learned what invoked adult respect and praise, as well as a lifelong reminder to my three sons that books are important. Preparing for birthdays, Valentine’s, and Easter always involved a trip to The Bookworm’s Den where one special book was selected for each child. These purchases were made in hopes that rereading would provide hours of comfortable literary fun.

Off to College, my eldest boys have packed particular books away, items they anticipate connecting to again in the future, just as I continue to save the dearest books in my possession for engaging again with characters whom I have found inspirational. The Bookworm’s Den is, alas, no more. It closed its doors, after twenty years of service, due to competition from big box stores. Yet it, and the happy memories we shared there, rise in contrast to the internal workings of the bookshop depicted by Orwell. His literary picture, while certainly humorous, leaves readers with an image of the bookseller as someone who likes titles better than people, highbrow reading over individual choice, the seller’s own personal preference dominating. This is the very opposite of what readers may discover through the world of reading—that reading itself is a social activity, that the world of books has room for everyone, and that no single reader can speak for the rest of us. I am heartily glad that Orwell chose not to be a “bookseller de métier.” In comparison to the Duecks, he was not at all well suited to the task.