For indie bookstore owners, Joanne Saul and Samara Walbohm, connecting readers with great books is a dream job. Hanging with author Michael Ondaatje isn’t bad either
Type Books, an independent bookstore with two Toronto locations, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, defying the odds stacked against indie stores in a big-box retail world. Co-owners Joanne Saul (PhD 2000) and Samara Walbohm (MA 1995, PhD 2004) dreamed up the idea for the store while they were doctoral students of Canadian literature at U of T. These days, instead of researching and writing about icons such as Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 Victoria) and Michael Ondaatje (BA 1965 UC), they mingle with them at Type Books’ many community events.
How did the idea of owning a bookstore come about?
Joanne: As English PhD students, Samara and I spent a lot of hours in our carrels in the Robarts Library stacks, imagining alternatives to an academic career path. It was at a time when many neighbourhood bookstores were closing, and we were feeling that loss quite deeply. It was more of a fantasy – what would our perfect bookstore be? Where would it be? What would it look like? We talked a lot about community, because that’s what we felt was being lost, and how the bookstore could be a community hub where people would hang out, buy books and share stories.
What gave you the courage to open a bookstore when the big-box chains were on the rise?
Joanne: People called us totally crazy. We went on our instincts and our guts, and on a lot of conversations with friends and family. I grew up in a household that treasured the physical book and the idea of the bookstore, and we were surrounded by people in our academic work at U of T who held the same priorities. We felt like we couldn’t be the only ones who would celebrate that renewal.
Samara: There was a huge hole in the landscape. People – we hoped – were craving an intimate, unique and personal bookshop experience that was growing harder and harder to find in the city.
What has been the most surprising thing about being a bookstore owner?
Joanne: Samara and I often laugh about the fact that when we were PhD students, we knew a lot about a little, and being a bookstore owner you need to know a little about a lot. Suddenly we were wearing so many hats – we were cleaning the bathroom, ordering books, doing payroll, hiring and firing. I wish owning a bookstore was about sitting around and reading books, but it’s just not. It sounds naive, but that was one of the biggest surprises. I thought, “Oh my god, I have to put my high school math skills to use.”
Why do you think Type Books has been so successful?
Joanne: The success of the store – right now, right here – has to do with the people who work here. Our staff is a brilliant mix of minds. They bring such incredible skills to their jobs – we have published poets and novelists, one person owns a record label, another is an artist and designer. We all work together when it comes to buying, merchandising and advising our customers.
How has your U of T education shaped the kind of bookstore owner you are?
Joanne: For both Samara and me it was an exciting prospect to put years and years of study into practice, and think about building the cultural community in a living, vibrant way. The fact that we’ve contributed in our own little way, I hope, to the Canadian cultural framework was borne from our love of and immersion in Canadian culture and literature in our studies.
How would you describe Type Books to someone who’s never been to the store?
Samara: For Joanne and me, Type is the store that we wanted to shop in. Smart, a bit quirky, with a touch of design and femininity. Since we met in the stacks of Robarts, our shelving in the store is institutional shelving. Also, there’s our huge bay window that looks out onto Trinity Bellwoods Park. But the most unique quality of the store is our book selection. We want to surprise people with new titles and old favourites. One customer described Type as the “dream library,” filled with old friends and new ones you didn’t even know you needed.
Have you ever been star-struck by an author who’s come to your store?
Joanne: I had a chapter on Michael Ondaatje in my thesis, and he came to our 10th birthday and spoke and read and hung out with us. I’d met him before and interviewed him for my thesis, but I still get tongue-tied and say the wrong thing. On a completely different note, we’ve had a number of actors film in our store – Julia Roberts, and Michelle Williams, who was doing a film with Sarah Polley – Sarah is one of our very best customers. Oh, and Jonathan Safran Foer came in and said, ‘When are you going to open one of these in New York City?’
Samara: When Michael Ondaatje is in the store, we still kind of shiver.
The Giller Prize winner will be announced next week. Do you have any favourites or predictions?
Joanne: We’ve gone every year since we’ve been in business, and we’ve never once picked the winner. One of our staff members says it’s going to be Zoe Whittall, because we held the book launches for the last two Giller Winners, and we launched Zoe’s book. I have a special plug for Madeleine Thien. I just love her work. Whoever wins, the Giller is such an amazing boost for CanLit in general.
What do you look forward to most each day when you go to work?
Joanne: When I’m stuck in the basement paying bills, I often itch to be on the floor selling books. Making connections, talking about books, putting books in people’s hands – that’s the best part of the job for me, for sure.
Samara: Seeing Joanne. Every day I am struck by how lucky we are to be such good friends and business partners. We couldn’t do it without each other. But I also do love seeing people with our books in their hands. Often I am in the park or at a social function or on an airplane and I see people reading books that they bought at Type – our bookmark is always the telltale.