Literary Tourism: Stratford, Ontario
[image description: a person holding a fold out paper map on the dashboard of a car while the sun shines blindingly through the windshield.]
One of the few things I enjoy as much as a good book is a good road trip. So of course Mr. Off the Beaten Shelf and I hit up the bookstores every time we’re out traversing the continent.
This year’s road trip took us through Ontario, Canada, which was my first visit to our friendly neighbor to the north!
I knew right away I’d feel at home in Stratford. Not only is it the most adorable little town, the AirBnB we stayed in had custom built bookshelves in the entryway.
Anybody who loves books enough to have bookshelves custom built to fit a particular space is my kind of person. They had a mix of old and new, everything from Nancy Drew to Game of Thrones. Like me, these folks clearly read a little bit of everything. Although we never met our AirBnB hosts, I know we’d have got along swimmingly.
Stratford is a pretty small town, so we weren’t expecting to find a bookstore there. So imagine our delight when we found out that there was one right across the street from our morning yoga class!
I can’t resist a bookstore anyway, but that feeling was intensified when I saw they were having a sale.
Book Stage is in the cutest little yellow brick cottage. It’s the kind of bookshop aesthetic that I imagine when I dream of owning a bookstore one day. Cozy, many roomed, low lighting, but big enough that I could live in the back.
Inside, the place is packed from floor to ceiling and the little bit of wall space that isn’t covered by shelves is covered in art. The chandelier, picture window, stained glass, and mantle straining under the weight of so many books adds to the dreamy effect.
Stratford is a theater town, known for its annual Shakespeare festival, so Book Stage caters to the theater-goers by specializing in theater literature. The owner is also German, so their other specialty is German lit and German books in translation.
Though I’m not super into rare and out-of-print books myself, as I much prefer reads that have been published in the past 30 years, I know bookstores like this are invaluable for researchers, collectors, scholars, and folks who need something they can’t find in any old bookstore.
Besides the fun of the road trip and seeing a play in this adorable theater town, another reason we stopped in Stratford is because my friend Julia lives there. She’s an ethereal earth goddess who taught the yoga class Mr. Off the Beaten Shelf and I went to and showed us her marvelous town.
I ended up picking up the book Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson. It’s a modern retelling of The Merchant of Venice, which is my favorite Shakespeare play. Stratford being a theater town, Book Stage also stocks modern renditions of Shakespeare retellings, so they had some Margaret Atwood on the shelf too. That was about it in the way of new books.
And of course after you get a new book, you want a relaxing place to read it. Stratford has a river that runs through it and the river is known for being home to many swans. If you’ve never seen a swan in person, they are BIG BIRDS. Seriously, they are large, which only adds to their majesty.
There are benches all along the river, so you can comfortably curl up with a book and bask in nature’s beauty.
Occasionally the swans will even get close to you. This one got super close to the edge of the river where we were sitting.
Stratford is idyllic, though I got some bad news at the bookstore… The aging owner said Book Stage was closing at the end of the summer. Much of Stratford’s business is seasonal given the weather and the theater season, and he said there just wasn’t enough business to justify keeping the bookstore open. He also went on to say that he didn’t feel the store could compete with Amazon and internet book buying and how all people wanted to read nowadays is modern work.
While I have sympathy for any bookstore owner that has to close their shop, I don’t have a ton of sympathy for the argument that the reason they’re having to close is people only liking modern work and wanting to shop online. I think it’s unreasonable to expect the tide of progress to come to a halt. Writers aren’t going to stop writing. Bookstores, including those online, aren’t going to stop selling. I believe there’s room enough for everyone if you’re willing to do what it takes to make it easy for the people who need what you have to buy from you.
The owner has a unique niche––theater books and German lit––and I guarantee there’s a market for that. The market just may not be in Stratford. It’s unfortunate to me that he wouldn’t want to sell online and connect with his people around the world.
I asked him what he was going to do with his unsold stock and his answer proved what I suspected. He said he was going to sell his stock to other booksellers. That tells me the problem isn’t a lack of hungry buyers––it’s a problem of accessibility in selling. A brick-and-mortar shop makes your customers your local community. Selling online makes your customers the world. Do both wisely and you’ve got staying power.
I don’t want to be insensitive and I still hate that Book Stage is closing. I just wish the owner didn’t seem to see its closing as an inevitability.