Creaky Floors & Community at an Ontario Indie Book Shop

“It was like Christmas in February. The store was packed and books were flying off the shelves.”

I once hosted a fantastically embarrassing poetry event at a bar in Uxbridge, Ontario. Even though—by the providence of being in the same MFA cohort—I’d secured an incredible poet to read, no one came except my mother. It was a Sunday afternoon and the venue didn’t even have patrons at the time. A woman wandered in off the street and in a promising show of support after surveying the sad scene, vowed to return with more people. I can’t remember if she ever did. I was so anxious that parts of the afternoon are a blur.

What I do remember is that my poet friend took the poor turnout in good stride and read beautifully anyway, and that, sometime near the end of the reading, Shelley Macbeth, owner of Blue Heron Books, stopped by. I’d met her during my visits to the store to pick up course books and her store was close to the bar. She’d even let me hang up a poster advertising the event in the Blue Heron’s window. I think that was likely the extent of my advertising efforts. I’d counted on the people who said they were going to show up actually showing up. 

I relayed this to Macbeth who smiled sympathetically and informed me that if I wanted to host a poetry event in the future, I could ask her for help. 

I never did host another reading, but I did remember Macbeth’s offer. In the years to come, Macbeth’s ability to bring people together would earn Blue Heron Books many distinctions. Among them, #1 Independent Bookstore in Canada and one of the Top 10 Bookstores in North America.

Unlike other bookstores with incredible architecture, like Munro’s Books in Victoria, B.C, Blue Heron doesn’t have the momentous curb appeal.  “We have creaky floors and high ceilings,” Macbeth tells me in a recent interview. “And our building is over 200 years old, but it’s not the same. The architecture is not why people come here.”

And people come from all over the province, country, and continent to visit this friendly bookstore with comfy chairs, warm light spilling in the big windows, and the soothing smell of coffee and baked goods drifting through the open door that joins Blue Heron Books to The ‘Bridge Cafe next door. 

What makes Blue Heron amazing is what they do, not what they look like. From the Blue Heron Book Club to classes and programs for seniors and children, to the wildly popular Book Drunkard Literary Festival – which this year includes Can Lit icons like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier – Blue Heron Books is a community hub of artistic enrichment.

In fact, it was at a children’s reading time that Shelley first met the former owner of Blue Heron Books, Barbara Pratt. “I brought my kids and I’d constantly ask Barb if she had a job for me. I was a banker back then and it wasn’t my ideal job.”

Eventually, Barb said she did have an opening: a bookkeeper. “I jumped on it,” Macbeth said. While the ownership would pass to former teacher-librarian Marilyn Maher before Macbeth, Macbeth is glad of her time spent buried in the accounting ledgers of the business. “I entered into ownership of the store with no illusions. I knew exactly what I was getting into.”

So there was little room for romanticizing the business, but Macbeth had plenty of ambition to bring her dreams to life. With an event planner’s natural flair for organizing and understanding the whims and desires of an audience, Macbeth expanded the business, launched the creative space, The Blue Heron Studio, and helped the store survive massive online and storefront competition. 

This knack for business, it seems, comes naturally. 

Where Shelley struggled was surviving a horrific personal accident. In 2014, returning from a book event in Whitby, Ontario, Shelley’s vehicle hit black ice during a whiteout and was hit by another car. Shelley remembers nothing, “Which is probably why I can tell the story so easily. It wasn’t easy on everyone else though.”

Shelley was in a coma and, with no idea what to do, her staff at Blue Heron decided to try to keep on going. They split up the shifts. They called out for support on social media, asking the community to buy a book to support Shelley. Incredible things started to happen. 

“It was like Christmas in February,” Macbeth laughs. “The store was packed and books were flying off the shelves.”

The business was doing well, but personally, Macbeth was understandably shaken. “I had a PSW or someone with me all day every day for the next two years. For the first little bit in the hospital, I’d lie there and think ‘Why me?’ over and over again. I was so angry.  Eventually, though, I began to think, ‘Why me’—as in, why was I spared.”

A little inflection can change so much.

To this day, Macbeth still requires occasional surgeries. Her left-hand remains paralyzed and her left leg doesn’t work properly. Though her injury included a brain injury and was designated catastrophic—which less than 3% of injuries are—and though Macbeth says her multi-tasking skills aren’t as good as they used to be, you wouldn’t know it by looking at all she’s accomplished and continues to accomplish every day. 

With The Book Drunkard Fest wrapping up, I ask what Macbeth has in store for the Blue Heron community now. Unsurprisingly, a lot. The next big event involves a partnership with Eden Grinshpan of Top Chef Canada who’s recently released a new cookbook. In January 2021, Blue Heron will be hosting a virtual reading event. Attendees can purchase the book along with a meal from the cookbook, made and delivered by popular local restaurant, The Urban Pantry–wine pairing included. 

Then, in February, Blue Heron Books is hosting the 2021 Winter Reading Pass, kicking off with a virtual reading by author Kate Hilton, followed by Souvankham Thammavongsa and Frances Itani later in the month. 

While Macbeth may still wonder why she was spared, if you asked anyone who’s been touched by the joy and passion she’s infused into every creaky square-inch of Blue Heron Books, there’s little wonder.

At this time, the store is still open seven days a week and you can visit in-person while wearing a mask. You can also order books online from the store’s website.

Planning a trip to Uxbridge, Ontario? Roadtripping Ontario? Read more articles by Hollay Ghadery about local activities in and around the town. Immerse yourself in Canadian literary history at Lucy Maud Montgomery’s historic Leaskdale manse or see the special architecture at the Thomas Foster Memorial. Hike the Uxbridge Trail Systems and find the abandoned basement at the Timber Tract. While you’re at it, opt to see some bison at a nearby local bison farm or practice falconry with a bird of prey pro.

Hollay Ghadery is a writer and mother of four young children, living in small-town Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. Look for her upcoming book of non-fiction, Fuse, coming out with Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in Spring 2021. Follow Hollay on Instagram: @hollayghadery or Facebook @hollayghaderywriter.

All photo credits: Hollay Ghadery