From gritLIT to bookcrawl, Hamilton is a city of writers and readers. Supporting this effort are numerous publishers and independent bookstores, all of which call our city home. Like the contents found within, each bookstore has its own story, and regardless of which one you pop into, you’re bound to find something unique.
Join Paige Petrovksy as she explores each of Hamilton’s independent bookstores to learn what makes it special in this Q&A series.
This month, Paige virtually spoke to Monique Doepel of James Street Bookseller, which has been open for almost 20 years. When the shop first opened in 2006 it was known as the James Street Book Cellar. When locations changed, from the basement of 158 James St. South to 134 James St. S., so did the name.
Now, the James Street Bookseller & Gallery is home to desk accessories, fountain pens, local artwork and, of course, books!
Paige: What inspired you to open the shop?
Monique: I was looking at real estate advertisements in the newspaper and a lovely storefront with a stone facade caught my eye. I was thinking about opening a small cafe, but when I read the listing, it was a second-hand bookshop selling the business and looking to rent their space. When I called the agent, I found out the owner had received an offer on the building and decided to sell instead. The agent told me that someone in the neighbourhood had already purchased all the books. Out of curiosity I decided to take a walk down James Street to see if there was anything else available and I just happened to notice a basement window with a ‘For Rent’ sign that was tipped over and piled up boxes and stacks of books everywhere. I took down the name of the business above and called the next day.
It turned out the owners had purchased the stock with hopes of hiring someone to run a bookstore downstairs below their art gallery. I made an appointment to speak with them in person, convinced them to sell me the books and rent the space to me instead, and half an hour later I walked out with a signed lease and the beginnings of the James Street Book Cellar.
Paige: There’s a lot that makes James Street Bookseller & Gallery unique. What stands out to you the most?
Monique: The old books. Hands down. There is something completely magical and awe inspiring about books that have been treasured and passed on for generations and generations and somehow manage to grow more beautiful with age.
Paige: What is the rarest or most unique book you’ve sold?
Monique: Hmm, that’s a tough question, but I think maybe a pirated, and later suppressed Fortune Press edition of Selected Poems by Wallace Stevens. Reportedly only review copies were issued before the entire remaining print run was recalled and destroyed.
Paige: Can you speak a little bit on the fountain pens & stationary items you sell? How do you decide what to stock?
Monique: So many of my customers are writers or artists or students and share a love of fine writing materials so the fountain pens and journals seemed like a perfect addition to the shop. I try to choose pens of quality in affordable price ranges so someone can treat themselves or buy a gift without breaking the bank. For the most part I look for pens with a vintage feel to them and same goes for the stationery. And the idea for the desk accessories just kind of fell into place with the [COVID] shutdowns and so many of us scrambling to find a room of our own, or at least a quiet corner in the house to work from home.
My favourite item is a refillable brass desk pad that’s made in Paris in a workshop built by Gustave Eiffel and is practically identical to the original FAF pad first manufactured in the 1920s.
Paige: What is your favourite part of running the store?
Monique: Hunting for old books! Finding vintage treasures from typewriters to bookends to old desk accessories. And of course, sharing stories with customers who do the same.
Paige: There are several quotes on your website. How did you pick which ones to showcase?
Monique: The quotes have all been chosen to reflect why we love old books (Virginia Woolf), why we write (Anaïs Nin), why we collect the things we collect (Alberto Manguel), and why we do what we do (Alice Munro).
The quote by Alberto Manguel makes me think of my father who was my best book hunting partner. Both my parents were avid readers and lovers of poetry, but Harry and I shared a love of antiques and old books.
“The stories that unfold in the space of a writer’s study, the objects chosen to watch over a desk, the books selected to sit on the shelves, all weave a web of echoes and reflections of meanings and affections, that lend a visitor the illusion that something of the owner of this space lives on between these walls, even if the owner is no more,”ALBERTO MANGUEL, THE LIBRARY AT NIGHT.
Currently, James Street Bookseller is open by appointment or by chance.
However, paying this Hamilton gem a visit in person isn’t the only way to see it. James Street Bookseller has recently made some big screen appearances – in The Swearing Jar, Simulant, and Apple TV+’s Ghostwriter series!