Bookstores deal with the digital age

Owl's Nest's famous Pepper the cat (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)
Owl’s Nest’s famous Pepper the cat (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)

There’s a sense of adventure in the slightly chilly air.

Adventure is something you’ll need when you step into Owl’s Nest in downtown Fredericton. The two-storey bookworm’s paradise stretches back the length of the alleyway between Queen Street buildings and offers an estimated 300,000 secondhand books that spill over the shelves onto the floor.

It’s no secret many bookstores are becoming victims of the digital age. American book retailer Barnes & Noble is expected to shut the doors to a third of their stores in the next decade. Our reading habits are changing and bookstores are threatening to become an object of nostalgia.

Yet, even with box stores fearing the future, the secondhand bookstores are surprisingly resilient. The books have to go somewhere, and it seems places like the Owl’s Nest have become a home for forgotten bestsellers.

Owl’s Nest started over 20 years ago in a shop half the size, offering the personal collection of its owner.

Debbie Croft has been working at Owl’s Nest for 13 years.

“It’s a lovely, stress-free atmosphere with great customers,” she said.

And some customers aren’t afraid to correct the occasionally misspelled word on the handwritten notes that hang around the store.

Chapters (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)
Chapters (Kerstin Schlote/AQ)

These notes contain riddles or interesting facts. One of those notes is a mood scale for Pepper T. Chat, the cat that wanders between the stacks of books. During my visit, she lies on the backrest of a beige couch listening to CBC Radio.

Her mood scale ranges from “suspiciously friendly” to “grumpy-status normal.” During my visit, the arrow points at

“claws out, teeth bashing.”

Unfortunately, I discover the sign after my encounter with Pepper.

Croft said she’s never asked the owner about the bookstore’s name, but her daughter Katee offers an explanation.

“I think it has something to do with cats. Owl’s are somehow like cats.”

“Owl’s also stand for wisdom which is also associated with books,” added Croft.

While we speak, a couple comes in carrying four heavy boxes. These will soon join the maze of bookshelves.

***

Walking through the aisles of Chapters with a hot coffee in my hand, I look at the shiny covers of the newest bestsellers.

Chapters also receives revenue from items like elegant candle-holders and leather-bound journals. Starbucks is also a fixture in the bookstore. Discount signs are everywhere and the scent of coffee and upbeat music wafts between neatly organized shelves.

Glossy magazine covers and untouched books are lined up next to each other.

“It’s really organized and I know where everything is,” said St. Thomas University student Rebecca Howland.
The English and communications major said she gets many of her school books here.

“I really like the prices in Chapters. I bought textbooks there, books I need for my English classes. They are cheap compared to Amazon [.com] or anything like that.”

***

Still, back Downtown at the Owl’s Nest, adventure still counts more than utility. Debbie Croft tells me readers have become so engrossed by the books, it’s not out of the question to be forgotten.

“Many years ago, it happened twice that the owner accidentally locked customers in who were quietly reading in a corner,” said Croft. “The customers let themselves out though and went to the nearby police station to tell that they were locked in and that the door is open.”

This is less likely to happen in Chapters at Fredericton’s Regent Mall. The bookstore belongs to Indigo, a national chain store.

And none of this is likely to surprise Pepper the cat, who lies on the beige couch, guarding bestsellers from yesterday.

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